Capacity and charity re-thought at TEDx Wellington

My favourite presentations and important messages from a my first TED experience since Play School

I’ve watched a few TED Talks over the last couple of years but I’m far from being a connoisseur as I tend to find a new one by accident rather than by plan. However, after watching this one by Stefan Sagmeister and copying his idea (literally) by taking a sabbatical in Bali, I guess I could be considered a fan of TED.

On Sunday I went along to TEDx Wellington and today asked myself which of the great ideas communicated at Shed 6, were worth spreading. That is, after all, the point of TED or Big Ted as it was described by Sarb Johal, our host.

Below I set out the two ideas that resonated with me the most as well as some other important messages. I hope this post encourages others to do that same.

The raison d’être of TED

As someone that has worked within the confines of a corporation for 95% of my professional life, broken only by some dabbling in sports radio and the self-organising MBA experience, I get a proper kick out of events like TEDx Wellington. In a corporate, you simply do not get themes as ambitious (and simple) as Connecting, Hearts and Minds.

Early on, a TED Talk by Seth Godin was played to the audience and the point of it was clear. In an early statement he said: “we try to make big, permanent, important change”. In my professional life, I’ve never been asked to get involved with anything like that.

Seth went on to talk about an SPCA staff member in San Francisco called Nathan who fought again the national policy of killing stray cats and dogs. His success came from an unconventional method:

Nathan went directly to the community, he connected with people who cared, not professionals, people with passion”. (I’m unsure which words to emphasise here, they’re all vital!)

I’m not saying professionals don’t care or have passion — the point is Nathan won and the so-called experts lost. To me, TED’s reason for being is all about exactly that: showing categorically what is possible, for people ambitious enough to try.

The suitcase-shaped card board pop-up desk

By far the most polished talk of the day was that by Fraser Callaway and Oliver Ward. They also happened to be solving a real problem that affects loads of organisations: the dreaded ‘lack of capacity’.

I have heard these three pathetic words so often over the years it’s surprising I have not come to accept them. In my experience, a lack of capacity typically means one of:

(a) I haven’t got time to think about it properly, call me next week (read: I’m lazy)

(b) We have other priorities (read: I don’t know what my priorities are)

(c) We are overloaded (read: we don’t know how to organise ourselves properly)

What I hadn’t anticipated was the ‘capacity’ problem that Fraser and Oliver came across as they sought out an internship with a Wellington design agency. After about the sixth snub a pattern was not just emerging, but giving them a big slap: “we don’t have enough space capacity”.

Like the lads, I was super surprised to hear this. How much space is needed to get a couple of talented designers through the door? And if there is none at all, couldn’t someone work offsite for a day or two — from home or a café or a co-working space? Maybe share it around? Maybe share desks?

This problem has now been solved and it has also given Fraser and Oliver their design project for Uni. On stage, they constructed a recyclable cardboard standing desk that is totally bespoke to the individual. Take that!

It’s taken a few revisions to get the right component fit and strength but now they’re flying and there are many possibilities. For a start, there’s a lovely match with another TEDx Wellington presenter, Sophie Jerram on her Generous Cities project.

On a larger scale, does the workplace of the future really need physical desks? If PCs are on the way out with Microsoft’s decision to put Office on the iPad, then desks can’t be far behind.

The lads have also been smart in seizing on a health and productivity trend: standing at work. I have personally benefited from this after my old boss shelled out £600 for a raised desk that was shipped from Denmark after my back operation in 2009.

As Nilofer Merchant said in her TED Talk on the power of the walking meeting, sitting is the new smoking. I believe in both points.

Fraser spoke of his belief in ‘a new way of working’, which just happens to be a topic that I am so passionate about, I’ve just made a video about it. It might look a bit odd seeing a bloke or lady standing at a cardboard desk, but I’m certain it’ll be mightily effective and bloody cheap.

Why charity is not about giving

The big highlight of the day was Cassandra Treadwell’s talk on re-thinking what charitable activity is about. I had the advantage of being prepared for this talk, having met one of her volunteers (by complete chance) the previous week.

It made no difference though, she shot the lights out, opening our hearts and making our eyes water as she talked about her experience with So They Can.

I don’t know how a mother of four from Wellington can establish a progressive enterprise in a country as far away as Kenya, yet that is exactly what Cassandra has done. Best of all, she has learnt from it and has a message worth spreading: that of ‘reciprocal nourishment’.

Cassandra is clearly a woman of action – the establishment of a sustainable community, for example where previously unskilled and deprived women now sew school uniforms for the children that previous did not have a school, within a few years proves this. However, her message was not one of charity.

She told us the story of her young daughter’s first trip to Kenya and her decision to take her to what Cassandra describes as the ‘rubbish tip’. These words are important, as the folks of Nukuru share this space with the animals are the area, both seeking out an existence.

It proved too much for Cassandra’s daughter, as it would have been for many children, and those of us a good deal elder. But that is not the point, rather it is this: the Kenyan people looking on were visibly shaken by the reaction of Cassandra’s daughter.

Vulnerability exists amongst us all, no matter where we are from. We are all human and in that moment, there are was the most authentic of connections.

So, why did Cassandra’s message matter to me?

It’s because I felt exactly that same during my experience volunteering for The Change Foundation in London in February this year, working in schools and prisons. I took so much from that exposure, testing myself in a totally different context, meeting people that challenged me and seeing coaches so impressive that one of them (Michael Henderson) appeared BBC Breakfast television. It doesn’t get more authentic.

I guess what matters more is that I ‘got it’ at the time and I’m lucky that Cassandra reminded me, and everyone at TEDx Wellington, of why charity is only ambitious where it creates reciprocity. How she did not shed a tear on stage, with her story, still amazes me!