What happens at TEDxSydney (and why you should book your ticket for next year)

If you were in the vicinity of Sydney’s ICC on Friday 15th June you may have noticed an abundance of white canvas tote bags marked with red Xs and Os. No, it wasn’t a giant game of noughts and crosses (although that would have been super fun) – the people toting said totes were taking part in the annual TEDxSydney event. Emily Saint-Smith went along to infiltrate this cult-like phenomenon and find out exactly what goes on beyond the closed doors (and just what was in those tote bags)…

Chances are you’ve heard of TED talks. You know, those viral videos where a polished presenter brings a big idea to life in a few short minutes. TEDx events are an extension of that, planned and coordinated independently across the globe, under a free license granted by TED. TEDxSydney 2018 was the ninth iteration of the event, welcoming 5,000 eager knowledge seekers to a full day of talks and experiences.

My first thought upon hearing I would get to attend this year’s event was, who on earth goes to these things? Shortly followed by, what on earth do I wear?! I needn’t have worried. Everyone is welcome at TEDx and you don’t need a Todd Sampson-esque collection of witty t-shirts to fit in. The one thing you do need is curiosity. And a certain amount of patience, because with 5,000 people being shunted between two large spaces at opposite ends of the ICC you will regularly find yourself in a queue!

The first of the day’s queues formed along the level 1 concourse, where cheerful volunteers waiving airport-like signs marked with an X directed me to take my place behind a pair of ladies in their late 60s, who were wondering if there would be time to get a cup of tea before the talks started. I shuffled into the line (which was thankfully moving quite fast) where I was soon joined by a 20-something who looked like she just stepped out of an online fashion commercial. An overheard conversation between two TEDx veterans and their volunteer friend a few people ahead of me revealed that the queues appeared to be caused by the venue, not the event organisers. The event registration process was one of the most well-organised and streamlined efforts I’ve ever seen, perfect for handling 5,000 patrons at once. The problem was the ICC was not quite so prepared, funnelling the tributary queues into almost single file down one escalator to get to the waiting registerers.

TEDxSydney 2018 attendees journey between the Hub and the Theatre

Once I made it into the Hub, there was just enough time to admire my swipe-card and lanyard and collect my tote before I was swept up in the crowd being directed back out of the expo area and along the concourse back to the Theatre. Best just to go with the flow, I figured, following three men dressed in matching corporate-logo-ed shirts who were talking to the office on their mobiles rather than to each other. In my hand I clutched a set of stickers which I now realised were for me to affix to my lanyard to identify my personal ‘tribes’ or interests. (For the record, I chose Storytellers and Creative & Curious.) As we would hear shortly, this custom identification tag would help us connect with like-minded attendees during the breaks; connection and engagement being a key pillar of TED events.

At last, the theatre doors opened and revealed the inner sanctum of ideas. A ludicrously small, circular stage sat at the base of the amphitheatre, lit for the time being with the points of a compass. Behind it, rising imposingly above some oversized honeycomb structures, were five video screens, on three of which the various speakers’ likenesses would soon be projected, alternated with their presentation graphics. An impressive backdrop, setting the scene for a very professionally run conference.

Proceedings were opened with a beautiful live performance of Watch Me Read You from singer-songwriter Odette, before Head of Curation, Fenella Kernebone, told us what to expect from the day: 18 speakers, 7 performers, 9 short films and 12 tribes. The next 9 hours flew past in a blur of concepts, creativity, culture and cleverness. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Maths teacher Eddie Woo reclassified mathematics as a sense that lets us perceive patterns and logical connections.
  • In less than 5 minutes, 13 year-old slam poet Solli Raphael made me feel incredibly guilty about my 39 years’ of environmental impact on this planet and made me believe I really could do more, be more.
  • Artist Ian Strange had us questioning why a child who grows up in an apartment still draws their home as a square with a triangle on top.
  • Chyloe Kurdas, the catalyst behind the AFLW competition, spoke passionately about being a woman in a country whose psyche is based on war and sport – events that have historically excluded women.
  • Using a metaphorical lake and invisible fish, neurologist Thomas Oxley carefully explained how stent technology could connect the brain with the body, before prompting an audible gasp from the audience (and mass applause) when he pulled the digital spinal cord from his back pocket.
  • Didirri brought us to tears with his beautiful song Formaldehyde, dedicated to powerful women everywhere.
  • Fact-checker Lucinda Beaman told us bluntly that we are not as open minded as we think we are.
  • BMF’s short film, Meet Sara, introduced us to the real genius behind Siri.
  • Miles Merrill used poetry to show us racism through a child’s eyes.
  • We snacked on a sustainable lunch from compostable plant-based packaging, while sipping water from our reusable cups and pondering bug humus.
  • We voted for crowd-voting on climate change (over cookie mules) as our favourite Fast Idea.
  • Teena the Daschund melted hearts as David Capra schooled us on how being more dog-like would make us better humans.
  • Father Rod Bower taught us about the domination system in which we live and urged us to have the social courage to display compassion.
  • Beat boxer Thom Thum tried to beat his own record of the most watched TEDx video of all time by showing us what his talent looks like from the inside.
  • And last, but certainly not least, Magda Szubanski used her own story to highlight that courage is not a state of being, it is in the art of doing.

Phew! As I stumbled out of the theatre with my new-found friends, a mother and son who’d travelled from Perth to “experience something new, together”, I found myself buzzing with something very close to a caffeine high. So many ideas, so many personal challenges to undertake, so much talent in one room! It is difficult to express the sensation that being exposed to all this incredible humanity gives; at times I felt sceptical, at others truly terrified (seriously, robots are going to take over the world) but, most frequently, I felt inspired.

So how best to sum up my TEDxSydney 2018 experience? Well, I may have drunk the kool-aid (or kombucha) but I’ll definitely be back.

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Note: We never managed to get Emily to tell us what was in the tote bag!  But you can watch a selection of past TEDxSydney presentations here.

Photo credit Poem PR and Emily Saint-Smith