Thinking -- and performing -- outside the box

TEDxStanford promotes 'ideas worth spreading' in technology, entertainment, design

This weekend, artists, writers, musicians, designers and dancers will intermingle with scientists, historians, surgeons and even race-car drivers -- all with the same goal in mind: to inspire.

"TEDxStanford: Above and Beyond" arrives at the university on Saturday, May 10. The event features a wide range of speakers and performers, who, in various ways, will advocate for pushing limits, thinking outside of the box and believing that more is always possible.

Melinda Sacks, director of media initiatives in the Stanford University Office of Public Affairs, is the producer and curator of TEDxStanford. In the week running up to the event, she has been working feverishly to bring every last detail together.

"The goal of TEDxStanford," Sacks wrote in an email to the Weekly, "is to open the doors of the university to the global community, and to share the exploration and discovery that happens here" -- that is, at Stanford.

Sacks said the event gives the university the opportunity to showcase all the great work being done at Stanford: "Remarkable arts and untold stories from laboratories, dance studios, engineering classrooms, and all seven of our schools" will be told over the course of the day, she said. "Whether your interest lies in marine biology, climate change, car racing or hip hop and classical music, you'll find something that intrigues you at TEDxStanford 2014."

The event is sold out, but a free webcast of the conference will be available online.

It is third time in as many years that Stanford has hosted a TEDx -- the franchise version of the popular TED lecture and performance series, which promotes "ideas worth spreading" in the realms of technology, entertainment and design.

One of the TEDx speakers, Ge Wang, will discuss the intersection of technology and music. Wang is a musician, electronic instrument creator and assistant professor at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, or CCRMA (pronounced "karma").

In a conversation with the Weekly Wang said he plans to discuss "the story of using computers to make music in a different way."

According to Wang, humanity is in a "special moment" -- a time when music is easier to access, share and create than it has ever been. And Wang wants to make it even easier to compose and share music.

"I'm kind of a believer that there is a musician in each of us, and it just might take the right nudge to get people to make music," Wang said. Technology has the potential to be that nudge, he continued, pointing, by way of example, to a smartphone app he created, called "Ocarina," which allows users to learn, make and share their own music with others.

The way Wang sees it, there are absolutely no downsides to spreading music -- and the more musicians making tunes, the better. "I think it's something that makes people happier," he said. "I think it makes life richer. ... I think it gets people to consider things a little bit differently. Music has this ability to both put you in a different place and to invite you to think about things in a different way."

And so, in his talk, Wang will explore how to get more people creating and connecting through music.

One way to do that is through good design -- by creating an interface that people find intuitive and fun to use, so that they'll continue to use a given musical tool.

Michael Sturtz, a sculptor, product designer and director of the ReDesigning Theater project at the Institute of Design at Stanford, is a firm believer in the importance of "intuitive design."

Strong design -- especially in technology -- is rooted in an empathy for the end user, Sturtz said, noting that good tech design should be aesthetically pleasing as well as highly functional and easy to understand.

In addition to his work in academia, Sturtz is also the founder of The Crucible, an Oakland-based community art school. Since The Crucible opened in 1999, Sturtz has taught art and the principles of design to people from all walks of life.

If Sturtz has learned anything from his time at The Crucible, he said it's that people are often afraid to take chances. That's why, during his TEDx talk this weekend, he plans to advocate for people to push their own boundaries and challenge themselves to find and exercise their own creative voices.

"I just think there is still a need for people to get permission to express their creativity," he said.

Sturtz views his advocacy for more creativity as a fight to make the world a better place. The more creative people out there, he said, the more creative solutions to problems will be offered and the more solutions will be discovered.

All this loops back to Wang's advocacy for elegant design in musical technology -- and in technology in general. The tech world needs creative, artistic people in order to progress, Sturtz said.

"I think it is safe to say that creativity is at the heart of almost everything that happens at Stanford," Sacks wrote -- "whether it is in a laboratory, or an artist's studio, or a classroom, and whether it is basic science or solution-based research. People talk about the 'secret sauce' that is Stanford, or that is Silicon Valley. Creativity is one if not the biggest ingredient!"

According to Ben Henretig, creativity isn't the only thing the world needs. Though Western countries have built strong economies, high standards of living and great technological infrastructure, the United States and other European countries are lacking when it comes to what he calls "gross national happiness."

Henretig, a Stanford grad and filmmaker, will be speaking at the TEDx conference, sharing what he learned from the documentary, "The Happiest Place," which he made while traveling through the South Asian country of Bhutan -- a country that actually measures how happy its people are and uses the metric of "gross national happiness" as a yardstick for progress.

It got Henretig thinking. "What is the true meaning of progress and success?" he asked. It's a question he will put to the audience at TEDxStanford this weekend, where he intends to "raise questions around how to promote health and well-being in our communities."

One easy way Henretig believes health and well-being can be promoted is for everyone to simply take a deep breath. "It's OK to slow down," he said. "In fact, it's necessary in the fast-paced lives we're all living."

He said he wants people to think about what truly makes them happy, noting that the answer to that question "might be more simple than we make it out to be."

While the media and advertisers are working hard to convince us that happiness can be bought or achieved by reaching out and grabbing something, Henretig said he believes people are often happiest when they can just spend time with family, friends and loved ones.

Henretig is no Luddite, and he isn't calling for people to throw away their phones or mobile devices. In fact, it was through a social media campaign that he gathered some of the evidence for his hypothesis that happiness can be very simple. During the making of "The Happiest Place," Henretig asked his social media followers to post pictures of themselves doing something that made them happy, along with the hashtag #thisishappiness.

"That was awesome," he said, recalling the campaign. What Henretig found was that most people posted pictures of themselves with someone else -- friends, family, girlfriends, husbands. "A lot of people shared a lot of the same things that we also saw in Bhutan," he said. "The images were people with their partners, loved ones, families, children, and in the natural world, appreciating natural beauty."

Sacks is hopeful that people will leave TEDxStanford with a head full of ideas and an inspired heart, and that, ultimately, that may result in real, meaningful action.

"In developing and producing TEDxStanford I have tried to take the best of what TED has to offer, and merge it with the best of Stanford," she wrote. "There is such a rich pool at Stanford of groundbreaking research and people doing work that is making a clear and measurable difference in the world that just sharing this content can lead to positive change."

TedxStanford 2014: 'Above and Beyond'

Webcast: new.livestream.com/tedx/Stanford2014

More Info: tedx.stanford.edu/

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