By Rob McLaren
After delivering a roaring success at last year’s showpiece, this year’s TEDxUniversityOfStrathclyde conference promises to be more expansive and far-reaching than ever before, with speakers travelling from seven countries across three continents to speak at Strathclyde. Created and organised entirely by Strathclyde students, this Saturday’s event offers students the opportunity to engage with challenging ideas and hear from some of the world’s most intuitive innovators.
And the best part of it all? It’s happening right here on our doorstep.
In preparation for TEDx 2020, we sat down with Project Lead Sheik Malik to discuss his hopes for the conference, the rationale behind this year’s theme of ‘Everything Connected’, and what we can expect from the talented list of speakers coming to Strathclyde to present their ‘ideas worth sharing’.
You’re already incredibly active across campus, having already founded two societies in your maiden year at Strathclyde. What made you want to take on this project?
“I attended last year’s conference and thought the theme of ‘Orchestrated Emotion’ was very successful,” says Sheik. “But this year’s conference was thrown into doubt because last year’s organisers had left uni, the teaching staff who had become involved were all very busy with other commitments, and so the society was effectively dissolved after no other student took on the role.
“I thought, ‘we have to revive this society because it would be terrible to have this break in something which has been running for five or six years now. I was very attracted to the idea as TED has personally inspired me in a number of ways. I knew either I took on the role or TEDxStrathclyde would die.”
So you’re saying this year’s event very nearly didn’t happen at all? How difficult was it to put together a conference in such a short space of time?
“Yes, when I took it on I had no team whatsoever, it was just myself. I didn’t know how I was going to make it work but I knew I had to do something. In order to reaffiliate the society with the Union, we had to have at least two active members, so I reached out to a friend who was actually in France at the time and said, ‘look, I’m in a tricky situation, I need your help!’ and thankfully she agreed. Her name is Margot and she’s now our treasurer.
“So, the next step after we got our accounts back was to build a team. Last year’s conference was in February so we knew we only had two months maximum to make this happen because otherwise students would be too busy with exams or heading home for the summer and wouldn’t want to come. Our target audience is students, so we didn’t want to lose our main demographic.
“We circulated e-mails around every department inviting people to apply, and then we had to interview the candidates, it was all very time consuming. But because Strathclyde has such an amazing group of students it wasn’t difficult to find a passionate team to become our new executive.”
How much are TED involved in organising the conference, and how much of it is done by students?
“TED are supportive in helping us along the way – they kind of hold your hand in terms of telling you what to do, what not to do, who to avoid. They make everything crystal clear, such as trying to avoid controversial topics like religion and politics where possible. Ultimately TED’s philosophy is about inspiring people, it’s about ideas worth sharing, so that’s what personally makes me so passionate about it.
“Apart from that, everything is organised entirely by us. It’s not just about getting the speakers, it’s not just finding a venue, it’s not just having a team on board. All of these things have to work in tandem to make this happen.
“I spent the whole of Christmas planning the conference. But this is what keeps me going, I want to take on projects which have never been done before or seem too grand to comprehend. If people say it’s impossible to achieve, that’s when I get to work.”
Tell us about this year’s theme, “Everything Connected”.
“I felt the theme was so powerful because, in the world we live in today, especially with the coronavirus affecting everything from travel to financial markets to the riches of the wealthiest people in the world, we wanted to explore how things from across the world can affect everybody in this region.
“Our world is already very connected, but we wanted to look further into how it’s going to progress with things such as AI coming in. We’re constantly reaching beyond our world, beyond our planet, and these are things which really force us to think beyond our human bounds.”
It’s interesting that you should mention the coronavirus. You’ve got speakers coming in from all over the world – do you worry that travel restrictions aimed at controlling the virus could impact your conference?
“It’s a very real possibility. I’m not having a lot of peaceful sleeps these days due to all the anxiety and stress. I do have a ‘plan B’ in mind, because we did have a lot of interest and applicants whom we could go back to and ask if they are still interested. But I’m hoping I never need to think about that because I’ve focussed so much energy on Plan A already.
“I’ve asked all our speakers to arrive a few days earlier just to put my mind at ease. None of the speakers are being paid as TED doesn’t allow you to pay your speakers, and they’re having to arrange their own travel as we’ve had no time to raise funds to cover their expenses. I think that’s credit to the enormous impact of the TED brand – people value the benefit that it gives to them and their company, and also the opportunity to interact with curious students.”
Last year’s conference was hugely successful, earning praise from the Principal and attracting thousands of views on video sharing platforms. How are you going to build on the previous conference’s work?
“I wanted to think of how we could go a step further from last year’s event, because last year had an excellent set of speakers. Whereas last year’s speakers were predominantly students, this year I decided to try a different approach. We reached out to experts and leading professionals from different industries and invited them to come to our campus to give an insight of their working life.
“We wanted to give students a preview of the kind of start-ups and industries they can work in once they graduate, and also offer them the chance to network across the day. We wanted to investigate the burning questions which will affect our civilisation across the coming decades.”
Tell us a bit about your speakers – who are you most excited to hear? What can students in attendance expect?
“One of our speakers is the President of a company which is focussing on urban air mobility – let’s just say they’re making flying cars a reality! His name is Dr. Andrei T Evulet and he’s a fascinating guy, he’s flying in from Seattle just for this talk.
“We also have a student flying in from Budapest to speak. She’s a high school student, she’s the youngest of our speakers – in fact she’s only just turned eighteen. We do have one Strathclyde lecturer, Dr. Selda Oterkus, who is going to tell us about how she set up the world’s first Peridynamics research centre, so that’s fascinating as well.
“And I’m so excited that we have a speaker from England, John Vickers, whose company is focussing on training future astronauts. Interestingly enough, Brexit has reignited the passion for UK space exploration and I cannot wait to hear from him.
Asked whether famed British astronaut Tim Peake would be attending the talk, Malik laughs, “I’ve tried to persuade him to come along but he hasn’t got back to us yet! But we will have a real diving suit on display and hopefully a space suit as well.”
With speakers still to be announced and talent jetting in from across the globe, this year’s TEDxUniversityofStrathclyde promises to be the most explosive conference to date. In such a short space of time, Sheik and his team have resurrected a dormant society from its ashes and brought TED’s global presence to campus.
“The people who buy our tickets are in for a real treat,” adds Sheik. “I sincerely hope we live up to the hype.”
TEDxUniversityofStrathclyde is taking place from 9am-5pm this Saturday, March 14, at the Technology and Innovation Centre on George Street. Tickets are priced at £25 for TEDX members, £30 for students and £40 for the general public, and can be purchased from this link.