TEDx Brussels: Imagination in Control

Article published on Dec. 4, 2014
Article published on Dec. 4, 2014

Defending against tsunamis, building a spacesuit or just nanomaterial like a graphene in your living room, it's possible. These are the "ideas worth spreading" at the sixth TEDx Brussels, whose main theme this year was "The Territory and the Map". 

"A marathon of ideas and projects"

A few years ago, they would have said no, it was impossible to recreate a tsunami, with all its long and unpredictable waves, to scale in the laboratory. Tiziana Rossetto, professor of Seismic Engineering, and founder and director of the Earthquake and People Interaction Centre at the UCL (University College of London), didn't believe them and responded with the question: “Why not?”. Those two words got her past the first obstacle. Imagination, tenacity, and a UCL research team did the rest. And so came about the “New Tsunami Generator,” the only instrument in the world that can realistically reproduce a tidal wave's irregular waves and understand its effects on coastlines and buildings. But Tiziana Rossetto did not stop there. At the 2014 TEDx Brussels, she presented her new project, "Urban Waves," to the public.

But this was not the usual conference at TEDx. Yes, it's the same stage and public, a paying one at that. There was a full house last year in Brussels, with more than 1,500 participants. But it was hard to find an empty seat in the elegant Bozar Theatre at this year's sixth edition as well. The title was "Technology Entertainment Design". On the menu, a conference with many speakers. In reality: a marathon of ideas and projects worth talking about (“ideas worth spreading” is the idea behind it), because they imagine, design and anticipate the future. Fifteen minutes getting set up before an audience full of wonder and maybe other emotions, where the only thing missing was boredom. The TED format has now become TEDx for sessions organized independently from, though still in the same spirit as, those from "headquarters." In Brussels, the sixth round took place under the banner "The Territory and the Map". In other words, put aside the predetermined maps hindering our conception of reality and let us be tempted by new points of view.

Tiziana Rossetto and her tsunami generator

And there were no amateur approaches. On the programme at the Brussels edition 2014 with Tiziana Rossetto were five other researchers with grants and projects subsidised by the European Research Council (ERC). On stage, Professor Rossetto spoke about her obsession with tsunamis after witnessing the devastation in Sri Lanka after the tidal wave in 2004. The "Urban Waves" project continues the work started with a 70 metres long and 4 metres deep wave simulator, now actively in operation in England. With Urban Waves, Tiziana Rossetto and her team want to go further and study the impact of tsunamis on buildings, especially to invent a way to protect coastal zones most at risk and sensitive facilities like hospitals and nuclear power stations. But about tsunamis, says the professor, very little is yet known: "Hardly any country is prepared, not even those in most danger. But there is still risk, even in Europe, from the fjords of Norway to the Mediterranean. Even in Italy, in front of Messina," she warns. A pioneering work: "We're amongst the first engineers to work on the effects of these phenomena." Urban Waves has received 1.9 million euros in financing from the ERC over a period of five years. The hope with seismic engineering is to "save lives and thereby create a safer world for our children.” Living for 22 years in England, she calls her research department "a very special place, where I have a lot of freedom and if I want to build a tsunami generator, they don't call me crazy but say: how can we help you?".

Hence, Why not? To draw new maps. But the main theme of this TEDx could also be "imagination in control".

Cameron Smith: contributing to the future of humanity

Like the imagination of Cameron Smith, American archeologist and professor at Portland State University but above all "independent astronaut." He couldn't get into NASA because of a visual impairment, but nothing has stopped him from making a spacesuit by himself in his home. Five years from idea to reality, more than 100 hours of testing, travelling through the stratosphere in a hot air balloon at more than 15 thousand metres in order to test a prototype he says cost him, "only 2 thousand dollars as opposed to the 10 thousand that governments pay for spacesuits," made from materials "that can be found in any department store." The question remains: Why? Easy: "The official equipment is too costly. I thought I could make is simpler and cheaper for everyone to go into space. This suit performs all the basic funcions."

Again, why? "Well, to make my contribution to the future of humanity, firstly, and then to develop space colonisation. And if there is some disaster on earth that impels us to go to other planets. So mine is an investment, an insurance policy." The next step? "Cut the cost to a thousand dollars and lighten the suit. I'd like to make it like a jogging outfit." 

Ordinary things presented by non-ordinary people

On the same stage with Tiziana Rossetto and Cameron Smith,  researcher Jonathan Coleman was saying that basically a nanomaterial such as a graphene could be made at home, blending the pencil graphite with a little water and some dishwashing soap. A few minutes later, Lina Colucci, dancer and researcher at MIT, entered the stage en pointe in a pair of ballerina slippers to invite everyone to the Health Hackaton.

Where there is a will there's a way, and the most important thing is to try. Seemingly ordinary things, but presented by non-ordinary people. At TEDx.