By Mariam Kerfai
Over recent years, especially these last two, communities all around the world have been witnessing unprecedented times. An unprecedented digital age. An unprecedented pandemic. An unprecedented rate of climate change. Unprecedented shifts in geopolitics. The list goes on. Within this context, on March 26th, 2022, the TEDxIHEID team harnessed the unprecedented nature of our times, along with an eclectic and passionate group of guest speakers from various professional backgrounds and walks of life, to deliver an inspiring and thought-provoking conference about hope. Together, they showcased their music, dance, and ideas on how to approach science and technology, sustainability, the arts, as well as health in this new era. As one speaker, Martin Müller, stated: “we cannot predict the future but we need to anticipate it.” The day-long event also featured a student corner in order for current IHEID students to shine and share their thoughts and personal stories. In the next paragraphs, I would like to highlight a few talks that resonated the most with me.
DIGITAL AGE DILEMMA
Talk: Who is Messing with Your Digital Twin – Body, Mind and Soul for Sale?
Dirk Helbing, professor of computational science at ETH Zürich, introduces us to our digital twins that exist in another realm. They are composed of clicks, likes, posts, search histories… pure data. “AI”, Helbing says, “knows you better than yourself.” This technology could be used to expand democracy but instead is mostly used by Big Tech, ad companies, and the military for other purposes. Only a handful of tech companies are controlling our minds by using methods, dating back to the era of public relations and Edward Bernays, that have been perfected to terrifying degrees. Companies exploit our most intimate data and get a better picture of us, how our minds work, our strengths and our weaknesses. Our digital twins are also monitored in security surveillance efforts. However, the fact is, “the law is not ready to protect us.” Digital twins need ethics and rights. We need to be in control of our data in order to free our virtual twins from virtual captivity and abuse. “We cannot be free if our digital twins are not.”
APPROACHING THE ARTS IN THIS NEW ERA
Talk: Social Change Through the Lens of a Story
Mei Fa Tan, a freelance film director and producer based in Switzerland, helps the artists she works with articulate their stories and to share them with the world. “Humans are the only species to create stories from scratch,” she says. As humans, we are the only ones to do something irrational or crazy because of stories. Tan recounts the process, and tussle, of putting a particular story of a Kenyan artist to screen. She aims to bring power and confidence to those she works with but struggles can arise in the process. These same struggles “are also the best part”, as they challenge her to confront her Western biases and make an effort to be critical and do her best to represent diversity in film. “We create stories but they create us just as much.” We need to be critical and represent diversity.
DIPLOMACY IN THIS NEW ERA
Talk: From the Lab Bench to the United Nations
Microbiologist turned science diplomat, Marga Gual Soler, aims to bridge the world through science. Science and technology have no borders. No country or sector alone can tackle their issues. What makes science a good tool for diplomacy and peacebuilding is that the laws of the natural world are the same for everyone. The emergence of science diplomacy – represented through organizations like CERN, or treaties such as the Antarctic Treaty, and instances such as the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 – shows that science is the basis for global governance. Soler urges us to bring more scientists to the diplomatic table. “Together scientists and diplomats can lead the future world.”
BETTER HEALTH FOR A BETTER FUTURE
Talk: We Crave Daylight – But Not Just To See
Marilyne Andersen, professor at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and head of Laboratory of Integrated Performance in Design (LIPID), sheds light on the importance of light hygiene for mental health. While the 1930s was about being in full control of our environment, today natural light is viewed through the lens of an alternative to electricity. However, daylight is more than just a source of energy, Andersen says, “daylight is an experience.” Discovered two decades ago, the photoreceptor, melanopsin, has been established to be more sensitive to blue light. It allows us to synchronize our circadian rhythms which are aligned to a 24-hour cycle (24.3 hours, to be exact). I myself find that I spend most of the day inside a building or on the train and not getting enough exposure to daylight. As a graduate student, it seems near impossible to follow my circadian rhythm, waking up and going to bed with the sun. This can be exacerbated during the winter. Still, from now on, I will be more conscientious about soaking up daylight when the weather permits. Daylight is crucial for our mental well-being.
A STUDENT SPEAKS UP FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Talk: Harnessing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s Future
Shefali Nandhra, Master in Development Studies candidate, illustrates the crucial role youth play in a sustainable future. Hear, listen, and harness (channel and accelerate action) are the three essential steps. She calls attention to the fact that youth and children represent 40% of the world’s population and the critical decision-makers represent the other 60%; political leaders have an average age of 72 years and Big Tech executives have an average age of 70 years. Decision-making that is setting the stage for sustainable development and for the future of the 40% is currently in the hands of the 60%. With only 8 years to go until 2030 means that we only have 8 years to implement a strategy to cap carbon emissions if we stick to our goal. By applying a deadline to our communal future, the 60% have shown that they have heard, that they have listened, and that they can potentially reach the third step (harness). Critical decision-making and leadership are needed to move forward but this cannot happen if youth are left behind. There is a need for youth to do more. Our ticket to a sustainable future is youth. “We must harness today’s youth for tomorrow’s future.”
Unfortunately, I could not mention in detail the many other wonderful ideas (and musical and dance performances) of other TED participants. Fortunately, there will be recordings published in the coming weeks. There is a lot to unpack. Issues are complex, interconnected, and growing. Accordingly, there is a call to action for youth, for individuals and businesses, for scientists and diplomats, for the community, and for you, through common languages of science and art, to advocate for our planet, our food, our minds, and our virtual twins. As a community that strives to get outside of our comfort zone, let’s write our ticket to a sustainable future. This is our story. “We need all hands on deck!”
Last but not least, I would like to relay that the TEDxIHEID team thanks their sponsors, Biovision Foundation and SIG, the Global Health Centre, the IHEID Communications and Alumni Departments, the IHEID Events Department, the IHEID Administration and every member of the audience who joined in on this first event of its kind at the Graduate Institute. I hope this is the beginning of a long tradition of ideas worth spreading at IHEID!