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TEDx and the European Parliament

The European Parliament building complex in Brussels

As one Belgian – the first European to do so – handed over the command of the ISS back to the Americans, and will be returning to earth shortly after a six month stint in space; another Belgian was handing in his government back to the king, so he can prepare to become the first president of Europe in January.

And I would, for the first time, be visiting the European Parliament in Brussels. As this event pales in comparison to what my fellow countrymen have lately achieved, don’t expect to find my little excursion mentioned in any history book; not even as a small obscure footnote on page 527 or other. But I was there for a reason though. The TEDx Brussels event, also a first, was being held there, an independent spin-off the TED events that have brought world inspiration since… well, since its inception. While the official TED event is by invitation only, they do post videos online of some of their most inspirational speakers and their ideas about the world. Definitely worth a visit if you haven’t heard of it yet.

The European Parliament

The Paul-Henri Spaak Building as seen from the Leopold ParkThe first Parliament building I have ever visited was in Dhaka Bangladesh as child. It was during a school trip shortly after it was completed. It’s an amazing building that probably got me interested in modern architecture. But the European Parliament (EP) doesn’t fail to impress either. As we walked through the Leopold park towards it, a huge complex of post-modern glass and steel emerged from behind the trees. Once inside, it was understandable why our ministers are always so enthusiastic about being seated in the EP. The place has an open, transparent and organic feel to it with rich details and enhancements everywhere. Nothing seems to have been left to chance here and is almost a city in itself. As we were guided thru its labyrinth from one building to the other, I couldn’t help but think: I wouldn’t mind chatting in one of the many open spaces with colleagues about trading tariffs with East Tuvalu if I could work here. Maybe explains why the British tabloids are so green with envy when it comes to the EU. :-)

Due to heavy traffic interfering our journey as we headed to Brussels, we missed the speakers and weren’t allowed in until after the first break. The conference itself was held in one of the smaller hemicycles, but still able to fit in more than 400 guests. The room was surrounded by almost 30 translation booths, seating two interpreters each. It’s an impressive amount just to manage all the different official languages spoken in Europe. Within the half circles center of attention, a simple stage was erected where speakers would advocate their points.

Many guests were apparently TED addicts who seem to live on a regular diet of the inspirational talks you can view on their site. So expectations were high. Many were expecting to be blown out of their minds, or as one of the visitors put it: he wanted to be kept awake at night.

TEDx Brussels

The first session I saw focused mainly on the problems of Africa. While I had the impression that for most, this was a far-from-my-bed-show*, I found the first speaker, Dambisa Moyo, quite interesting. She went on to explain something I had long suspected. That aid to Africa was in fact not helping it, but actually making things worse. The way I see it, anything that is advocated from the top down has no long term benefit. Those at the bottom will eventually become disenfranchised. I believe this is true in politics, urban planning, business and also aid. A bottom up approach has better chance of success. And from my experience when I was last in Malawi, it was from the individuals who were starting to take responsibility for their own future that gave me hope that things will and can get better. But the road is long and the problems faced still plenty.

One good thing about the TED sessions is that they are kept short. Each speaker has twenty minutes to get their point across. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to put together a coherent message and pretty much left their audience behind more puzzled then inspired.

So some of the more memorable talks were from Conrad Wolfram – creator of the Wolfram Alpha search engine – about his vision on how mathematics should be taught. Catherine Verfaillie gave us a down to earth explanation on the state of stem-cell research, the difficulties still faced, and how it will and will not help us in the future once we are able to regenerate cells of our own choosing.
The sessions I found most inspirational was that of time travel by Serguei Krasnikov, which now has gotten me pondering on how to build my very own time machine and how to test it, if it is ever completed.

The second session was by Marc Millis and his search for habitable worlds. That one was a real eye opener. The time, distances, resources and energy needed to reach other planets outside our own solar system is staggering. If you look what we’ve already accomplished with the ISS, we’re still in our baby-shoes*. So simply packing up our bags, and starting a new life on another planet – after we’ve completely messed things up over here – is not really an option right now. And hopping over to the next closest solar system in a timely fashion would require so much energy, we would have to sacrifice our own sun just to have enough fuel. In a way, it is hard to say if this talk was inspirational or more of a disillusion popped by a reality check. I therefore regret to inform you that it looks like we are going to be stuck on this rock a little longer than planned. In the mean time, be patient, make yourself comfortable and just try to make the best of it all.

*I’m finding that translating common Dutch phrases into English has a strange yet lovely appeal to it.

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