5 Unexpected Collaborations from the TED Fellows Program

What happens when a geneticist and an artist start chatting about strawberry DNA extraction? How about when a British artist and a Bulgarian human rights activist spend a week together dreaming up how to turn a good idea into action? Or when a South African explorer meets the Russian-born inventor of a lightweight, affordable tethered flying camera?

TED Fellows — innovators and iconoclasts working at the forefront of their disciplines — are selected via open application to join the TED community, give their own TED talks and share ideas. But the jewel in the program’s crown is the global network it comprises: 378 Fellows (so far!) representing 86 countries. Fellows are scientists, makers, activists, artists, technologists and more. No surprise, then, that when you put them together in one space, some ambitious and unexpected collaborations begin to happen.

Here, we’ve highlighted some of the most spectacular cross-disciplinary collaborations to date. This is the stuff the TED Fellows program is made of.

1. A vending machine that dispenses DNA

DNA Vending Machine. Photo: Gabe Barcia-Colombo

Vending machines aren’t just for Cracker Jacks and Snickers bars any more. In an effort to raise awareness about increasing access to biotechnology and legal issues over DNA ownership, artist Gabe Barcia-Colombo has created the DNA Vending Machine, which dispenses human DNA samples in handmade collectible boxes — adorned with portraits of the human specimens they came from. Barcia-Colombo’s inspiration for the art project was a somewhat unlikely source: synthetic biologist Oliver Medvedik, who runs the first-ever community biotechnology laboratory Genspace in Brooklyn, New York. “The idea came to me while watching Oliver do a strawberry DNA extraction over at Genspace,” Barcia-Colombo says. “The process struck me as really fascinating, and afterwards, we talked about applying the same concept to people.”

2. An arts organization to advance human rights

Human rights activist Yana Buhrer Tavanier is an award-winning journalist and the founder of TimeHeroes, the first online volunteering platform in Bulgaria. British artist Julie Freeman explores the relationship between mankind, nature and big data with visual, audio and digital art forms. At TED2014, they had many long conversations about the intersection of their work — specifically how art might be used to inspire action on human rights issues.

Together with another collaborator in Bulgaria, they launched Fine Acts, an organization that connects artists with activists. One of the initiative’s very first commissioned projects was Postcards from Ferguson, by Fellow and photographer Jon Lowenstein. The haunting photo postcards, which document the police treatment of Ferguson protestors, help render headline news about remote events more tangible by delivering it straight into mailboxes. Right now, more than 20 TED Fellows — both activists and artists — are collaborating with Fine Acts.

Jon Lowenstein’s Postcards from Ferguson, a Fine Acts commission produced for TED2015.

3. A sculpture that captures the state of world peace

What does the future hold for humankind? Are we looking forward to more war and conflict? Or is our global trajectory peace? And how does one define peace? A collaboration between artist Alicia Eggert and designer Safwat Saleem — another Fine Acts commission — explores these questions. Their sculpture The Future is composed of 206 individual light bulbs — each bulb representing a sovereign state — that collectively spell out the word “FUTURE.” If the state is in peace, the bulb is on. If the state is in conflict, the bulb is off.

“Right now, the future is rather grim and dark: only 33 of the 206 bulbs are currently lit,” Eggert says. “But we hope that illuminating the overall state of peace around the world in this way will spark debate and awareness.”

The Future as it was installed at TED2015 in Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash

4. Drone photography to explore Africa’s last wetland wilderness

South African explorer Steve Boyes is dedicated to preserving Botswana’s Okavango Delta — Africa’s last remaining wetland wilderness. During his recent 1,000-kilometer expedition there, he shared his adventures in real time at Into the Okavango. One of the tools Boyes has used to record his work is the Fotokite, a small, affordable, lightweight tethered flying camera created by Russian-born entrepreneur Sergei Lupashin.

“We’re sending Fotokites out with Steve Boyes to the Okavango Delta in South Africa to help him document the expedition,” Lupashin says. “This delta is one of the richest wildlife areas on the planet, and Boyes is currently out with a team of scientists, artists and engineers, collecting data in the area and, essentially taking its pulse.”

Watch Sergei Lupashin’s demo of the Fotokite at the TED Salon in Berlin, 2014.

5. A network mapping startup

Perhaps the ultimate collaboration to come out of the TED Fellows program is mappr, a network mapping startup based in San Francisco that creates technology to, well, map collaborations. Founded in 2013 by ecologist Eric Berlow, designer David Gurman and computer scientist Kaustuv DiBiswas, mappr is a cloud-based tool used to visualize connections — from the network structure of collaborations as with the TED Fellows, to identifying patterns of funding among donors and grant recipients, to unraveling the complexity of conflict.

“I first started collaborating with David in 2011 after the first ‘Think Weird Go Big’ TED Fellows Workshop at the Swall Institute,” Berlow says. “We began doing boutique data science and data art projects, then joined up with Kaustuv through the TED Fellows network in 2013. We decided to bring our skills in science, technology and design together to create mappr.”

MusicCanvas, a recent project from mappr in collaboration with Fellow Jon Gosier, maps chart-topping songs from the last 40 years, linking songs by chart performance in similar time periods. The mapp used data from PredPop.

Discover connections between the last 40 years’ worth of chart-topping hits with mappr’s MusicCanvas.

Interested in becoming a TED Fellow? Applications are now open! We are seeking 20 extraordinary individuals at work on world-changing ideas to join our global network. Learn more about the Fellows program and apply online.

The TED Fellows program hand-picks young innovators from around the world to raise international awareness of their work and maximize their impact.

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