Food for thought: TEDxNijmegen, accelerating from age 0 – 110

A couple of weeks ago I attended TEDxNijmegen, which was a very inspirational day. I learned something from each and every one of the speakers, but here’s what struck me most:

The power of numbers
The talk of Amy Robinson (A game to map the brain) was about citizen science, which for me opened up vistas of research power because citizens help scientists with tasks that would otherwise be too expensive or time consuming. She talked about EyeWire, in whichBrain gamers are asked to help map the brain. People around the world spend about 3 billion hours gaming a week – why not let them game and help science? Citizen science is not only used to solve biomedical mysteries, but also to keep an eye on the stars and to monitor birds and butterflies. I wonder – could we (or do we) use citizen science in the social sciences as well?

Look beyond your own field
A talk that clearly emphasised the value of looking beyond the boundaries of your own field was Peter van Maanen’s talk From Car to Care. He talked about how they used McLaren’s technology to monitor Formula 1 race cars to detect changes in vital functions in children. With this technology they were able to predict events such as cardiac arrest that were previously unpredictable. This made me wonder which other existing technologies could be used to improve healthcare. We do not always need to re-invent the wheel!

Incremental change is innovation’s worst enemy
Someone who really thought outside of the box is Jack Andraka, who developed a cheap and effective method to detect pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. In his talk Bring on the medical revolution, he talked about the need for completely new ways of diagnosing disease and proposed a switch from a symptoms-based diagnostics system to a much more accurate molecular diagnostics system. One of the things that struck a chord with me is that – although important – we should not limit ourselves to incremental change of existing technologies, because ‘incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy’ (Nicholas Negroponte).

From A to B to C
But how should we go about innovation? Michael From A to B to CMuller showed in his talk Grow through uncertainty that we should not stay in A, which is what we know very well and feels very comfortable, but that we should make the leap to B, even if we are not 100% sure that it is going to work. But at least from B we will be able to spot C and move there. He also talked about teaching entrepreneurship at primary schools, and I was struck by his story of the role a supervising parent played in holding back innovative ideas the children had because the ideas were thought too complicated or had never been done before.

FAIL = First Attempt In Learning
And we should not be afraid to FAIL. As Henk Smid, director ZonMw, learned in this session on the sofa of Bas Bloem we should not be afraid to FAIL because it is a First Attempt In Learning. The importance is to share what we learned from a failed project so that other projects can be improved – even though this is not easy especially in academia with its focus on publishable results. Failures canInstitute of Brilliant Failures actually be quite inspiring, as the website of the Institute for Brilliant Failures shows. One example is the accidental discovery of America by Columbus, on his way to find a faster trade route to the Far East. So who knows what a failure can lead to!

Select your communities and do not always choose e-mail
I also found the talks of Bertalan Meskò and Kim Spinder thought provoking. They both, in different ways, focused on the use of communication technologies. Meskò talked about how he filters his medical knowledge online through carefully selecting his communities. Spinder highlighted how e-mail does not have to be the best way to work together in teams, and that there are many other online platforms you can better use instead.

The world of healthcare
Of course I should not forget to mention a series of very powerful talks which really shows the reality of working in healthcare or living with a disease:

  • Replacement smokers, by Wanda de Kanter and Pauline Dekker (about blaming the right person for lung cancer – not the patient, but the industry)
  • At Peace, by Jeroen Verwiel (about a difficult decision he took together with the family of the patient)
  • The medical imprisonment, by Lowie van Gorp (the story of how Lowie van Gorp lost his daughter to cancer)
  • One live, life it!, by Tom Heerschop (about living with a brain tumor)
  • Happy ageing, by Marcel Olde Rikkert (‘You don’t stop playing because you grow old, but you grow old when you stop playing’– George Bernard Shaw)

It was an inspirational day with lots of food for thought – hence this long blog post! I hope I have given you some too – after all, TED is all about ideas worth spreading. What did you take away?

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