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Shining a light on the future

While the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for many to imagine a life without masks and social distancing, some students at Dalhousie University have tried to brighten the recently darkened future.  

Knowledge that Transforms: Open Your Mind to the Future was the theme of this year’s TEDxDalhousieU speaking series, which was held virtually on Feb. 6, 2021. 

According to Mahmoud Agha, a second-year environmental engineering student and the event’s lead organizer, the aim of the event was to inspire and motivate students about the world they’ll soon be in charge of.   

“I think when we start to think: ‘This is my life, and this is how it’s always going to be,’ that can be a tough hole to dig yourself out of,” said Binta Goodridge, a third-year environmental engineering student and the head of speakers and programming for TEDxDalhousieU.  

“With a theme like open your mind to the future, and being in such uncertain times, I think it was really important to give people something more to look forward to. After this pandemic, after this is all over, what’s next?” Goodridge said. 

Why focus on the future now 

Once the pandemic hit, organizers of this annual speaker series embraced the opportunity to give students something to look forward to. (Photo provided by TEDxDalhousieU)

Agha began planning the event in August 2019 with the hopes it would take place in April 2020. At that time, the theme focused on different ways people rise above challenges, Agha said. 

“But as soon as the pandemic hit, we decided it’s the perfect opportunity for us to go with [a theme] related to the future,” he said.  

After deciding to focus on the broad idea of the future, Agha and his team developed three sub-themes for the event.  

The first, women in male-dominated fields, examined the way women combat sexism in fields such as science, technology, math and engineering (STEM). 

The second, sustainability and culture, looked at the ways humans can adjust their collective lifestyles to help combat climate change, as well as different cultures that have already existed in a sustainable manner. For this theme, Goodridge said the event was lucky to secure Chief Andrea Paul of Pictou Landing First Nation. 

Paul spoke about her work advocating for the closure of the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County, as well as other environmental challenges she has fought in her lifetime, Goodridge said.  

“Growing up in Canada, you learn about Indigenous culture in school, but it’s so frequently, like, the Indigenous culture of 200 years ago,” Goodridge said. “But not how it is now, or how [Indigenous] culture has evolved and changed with the rest of the world.” 

Goodridge said it was important to have Paul speak because she represents “a culture that has from the get-go preached about sustainability and understood that our actions have impacts.”  

“I think there’s so much to be learned from [Indigenous cultures] for us as a society, especially as such a wasteful society,” Goodridge said. 

The third theme, Future of Literature, examined the new forms of writing in an increasingly technological society. Here the speakers attempted to make people reconsider what literature can be: Dal grad student Hunter Stevens  spoke about how scientists can use social media to share research and advance their writings. 

“I just never had really considered [social media] from an academic perspective, or even just as a tool for science,” said Goodridge. “I thought that was a really fresh and interesting idea.” 

How it came together during a pandemic  

TEDx is a grassroots program facilitated by TED Conferences LLC, an American media organization that shares speeches online. TEDx allows communities to hold their own TED conferences, which  are not controlled by TED, but must adhere to certain guidelines and formatting to be licensed as TEDx events.  

This was Dal’s first TEDx event since 2018. In 2019, the TEDx event at Dal was cancelled due to licensing issues, according to the event’s Facebook page.  

Though it already took place, this year’s event is still waiting for its license to be approved, which will happen after TED reviews the videos of the speeches, according to Agha. 

Agha said he expects TED to approve the event and publish the videos of its speeches by the end of February.  

Agha has experience within the TED system: TEDxDalhousieU was the 11th TED event he worked on,  the prior 10 being before he came to Dal. But they were never online. 

“I had to do a lot of research and see a lot of different examples of events that previously happened virtually, just so I can learn,” Agha said. “So it was a new experience for me, definitely.”  

Having no experience with the TED system was somewhat frustrating for Goodridge. She said it was difficult to already have so many protocols set in stone.  

“To not even have, like, a person to have a discussion with about why it should be done a different way, that part was certainly very interesting. But trust in the process, it all worked out great,” she said.  

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