“Our Rearview Mirrors”: TEDxCambridge University 3rd Salon

Darren Wong 28 January 2020


“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily, one chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

TEDxCambridgeUniversity ushered in the new decade with its third salon, with the theme of “Our Rearview Mirrors”, on 27th January 2020. Salons are smaller, dinner-party style events that bring the community together to talk about new, significant and often little-heard ideas. “Our Rearview Mirrors” seeks to interrogate how the past has shaped the present, and reflect on how we can waltz into the new year with lessons and new ideas in mind. Each of our four speakers come from different backgrounds that have uniquely shaped their perspectives and life experiences, sharing about issues ranging from physics, sustainability, the media and discrimination.

“What is a 100% sustainable leather? What does it mean to be eco-friendly?” Our first speaker Olivia Ahn, the co-founder of Polipop – a femcare start-up with the market’s first flushable sanitary pads, probed the audience on their “past assumptions and thought biases surrounding sustainability”. While it might seem commonsensical that a biodegradable pad is more sustainable than a conventional plastic pad, Olivia debunked our preconceived notions, arguing that both eventually end up in landfills.

“It is ingrained in us to think act about sustainability. We only think about the production and not the disposal. And why focus on consumers and not corporations?”

Olivia highlights the difficulty having conversations about abstract concepts and that we need to render technical the “language of sustainability”. “How can we grow sustainability if we can’t define them?” She ended by asking the audience to ask three questions before purchasing something: 1) What does the item really mean? 2) Where did it come from and where will it go? 3) Do I really need it?

The youngest speaker but by far presenting the most intellectually stimulating speech, Calvin Hooper, a first-year undergraduate reading Physical Natural Sciences, spoke about his experiences researching and designing meta-materials with a specific focus on holography and optical computation. He flashed four complicated equations on the screen — “how can these four equations describe everything I can see? Just because we have had these for 150 years, it does not mean it will not change.”

Drawing parallels between complicated scientific concepts and common, relatable experiences like using the swimming pool and microwave oven, Calvin said that the divide between experience and equations made him see possibility. “Equations describe the world in a really nice way; the only trouble is that you need to ask the right questions to get anything useful out of them.” He reiterated the importance of past experience — in order to move forward and have a discovery, scrutinise what is already known with further detail.

Next, we had Abigail Joseph, a student pursuing her MPhil in Sociology and conducting research on council housing design in the Lancaster West Estate. Starting with a thought experiment, Abigail sought to recreate the sense of frustration and powerlessness that the victims of the Grenfell fire experienced when their homes were destroyed. Looking at the integral role of space in influencing subjective wellbeing, Abigail maintained that “council housing design only considers the voices of architects and councillors, denying residents a voice on what kinds of home they want to live in”.

“council housing design only considers the voices of architects and councillors, denying residents a voice on what kinds of home they want to live in”

Contrasting the Grenfell Tower with two successful inclusive models of council housing in New York City and Brussels, Abigail points out how it is very possible, financial-wise even, to construct homes “worth living in”. These homes prioritise the wellbeing of residents over basic, bare functionality, containing communal facilities, such as a museum, library, kindergarten centre and playground. “The money is there, but it is about what we think is important. The choice was made to spend on refurbishing the exterior of the Grenfell Tower, but there was an expensive public inquiry later footed by taxpayers. The government might as well make better homes through a consultative process”, engendering greater ownership and pride within residents for their homes.

“I’ve already failed at my New Year’s resolution.” But while Zoë Slattery, a student of Engineering for Sustainable Development, is comfortable sharing about it, she lamented that the international development “is a sector excellent at avoiding talking about failure”. This can be ascribed to several reasons, such as negative media coverage, the loss of funding and the disappointment of aid recipients. Although the World Bank has invested $5 billion in Africa, the failure rate of its projects is more than 50%.

“It’s not that we shouldn’t invest in new ideas. The real failure is not talking about what is going on.” She cited an innovative playground-water pump hybrid system built in Africa that failed but the stigma surrounding failure led to the continued rollout of the system in other areas. On the other hand, TOMS, a well-known shoe company, which offers the “Buy 1 Give 1” model, where a pair of shoes is donated to the poor in a developing country with every pair of shoes bought by a consumer, regularly reflected on its impact and made changes as it proceeded with the initiative. For instance, all shoes donated now are made by local business, empowering the locals.

To address this, Zoë suggested fostering a more nurturing environment as media consumers to get rid of the stigma. There has been a very tentative and nervous shift towards accepting failure, and hopefully, we can come to embrace it in the near future. “We know that failure happens, so let’s talk about it.”

Before the end of the Salon, I spoke to our speakers about their experiences. In the last two Salons I covered, I asked about the speakers’ experiences when communicating new perspectives and the need for looking into the periphery respectively. This Salon, I delved into the need to break down resistance to achieve the change that the speakers all sought. Resistance is unsurprisingly pervasive but while the speakers harboured varying levels of optimism, each speaker insisted that there remains a multitude of ways that we can capitalise on past lessons to effect constructive change in different areas.

With respect to the innovative spirit Calvin hints at when he emphasises generating interesting questions from what is already known, Calvin felt people already possess it. Cautioning against fitting into the mould of school education, he said, “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a change in the way people think. I think people already know it, but don’t realise it.”

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a change in the way people think. I think people already know it, but don’t realise it.”

“Smaller development agencies need to work a lot harder for funding because they need to come up with a way to [present their failure].” Zoë talked about overcoming resistance in two ways – “us being understanding and accepting of failure, and [development agencies] showing what they’ve learn even though the projects didn’t go as planned”. When I related this question to her experiences working in international development in India, she laughed and reminisced about several instances of “big” failures — “things will definitely not go to plan, you just got to deal with new situations.”

On the other hand, both Olivia and Abigail referred to the trappings of capitalism that institutionalise resistance to change in sustainability and housing respectively. Olivia called for change at the institution-level, passing more effective legislation to ensure that corporations with unsustainable practices are fined or punished. She rattled a list of billion-dollar, multinational institutions like Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Kimberly-Clark — “they are not going to be able to do what I’m asking individuals to do. At a smaller level, you see independent shops and start-ups tackling this problem, but not these institutions because money trumps.”

So how was Olivia’s experiences pitching her company to investors? “If we flip that idea around, we are not funding the right people or the right ideas.” Investors are usually “white, older men”, Olivia cheekily pointed out, “who have no clue about what I’m talking about.” At the beginning, Olivia had to rely on external validation, such as the grants she received and support from the London Mayor. “As long as it makes money, investors just want to see the returns. So getting the right people in the right places is the first step.”

Similarly, Abigail raised the shift in Britain towards conservative political ideologies, arguing that Boris Johnson’s election as UK Prime Minister in itself is an obstacle. There is not enough political will to reform the housing situation and Abigail reminded that “lots of MPs are landlords who would have to pay more money to improve housing”. Change is not in the interest of most people — “too many people are benefitting from the way things are. If we had more capital, we could do things more quickly, but it is inaccessible now.” I joked, “So money corrupts?” “Not absolutely, but sufficiently!” Abigail laughed.