Ideas Worth Spreading? Making Sense of Talks at TedxRio+20

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This post is in reflection of the first day of TEDx Rio+20.

My experience with Ted Talks so far is, admittedly, quite limited. In fact, it is limited to viewing videos of classic talks by the likes of Hans Rosling and Esther Duflo. Viewing these videos online of course allows you to pick the ones you are most interested in. On the other hand, you might miss out on great performances by lesser known presenters. So what to expect from a full day of Ted talks in Rio, while Copacabana casts its spell with the occasional glimpse outside the conference room?

Four themes, 20 presenters and one band performance later, I am sitting by the pool at the Student Reporter Hub in Ipanema, trying to make sense of this flurry of information. A group of Brazilians at the bar enjoy their after-work drinks, while my thoughts circle around Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, the two rowing champion twins of Brazil, and a football with an energy generating gyroscope and water bottle footprints.

Obviously, the day was not packed with twenty Hans Roslings. Neither did Esther Duflo make an appearance. But a few ideas did really struck me as worth spreading.

The theme of sustainable consumption was a recurrent one. I have always been skeptical of the belief that  individual consumption behavior can have a significant impact on firm behavior. As an economist, you study the consumer as infinitely small in a continuum of consumers or as a representative consumer that somehow represents the average of this continuum of consumers, often with identical tastes. How could individual consumption behavior have any durable impact in such a world, without giving a convincing explanation of how individual consumption adjustment can spread to the rest of the infinitely sized fellow consumers? I have heard many people rambling about how unsustainable our current consumption pattern is and yet, these same critics usually fail at giving a convincing explanation of how this collective change of consumption attitude is to be brought about.

Martina Hauser of traces offered an interesting account of how consumers’ decisions and firm behavior are intertwined. She told the story of her business, initially calculating the carbon footprint for a company’s bottled water. When the company offered the same product, albeit in two different bottles with two different embodied CO2 equivalent content, it was able to increase its sales in the lesser emission product by 78%. Since then, her business gotten numerous offers by companies from various other sectors to have their carbon content calculated, spurring competition among firms to reduce their impact on the environment. This development could entirely be ascribed to consumers attitudes, who chose to buy the product with the lower carbon footprint, in the absence of any government regulation.

Speaking of bottles, the works of Illac Diaz with A Liter of Light certainly deserve attention. He introduced the ‘solar bottle’ first in the Philippines and currently expands throughout the developing world, installing used plastic bottles in roofs to allow for natural light to get through. Watch this two-minute video to get a grasp of this amazingly simple idea.

A bit more technologically involved is Jessica Matthews’ Soccket, the “eco-friendly, portable, power-generating device”, in other words: a football. Departing from the premise that “sustainability can be fun” and “play is universal”, co-inventor Jessica Matthews fascinated the mainly Brazilian and generally rather soccer-friendly audience with her quest of providing access to electricity for 1.6 billion people through playing soccer. With a lifespan of 3 years and the capacity to provide lighting for three hours after 30 minutes playing, Jessica might have done a great job promoting the adoption of the Soccket as the official ball for the 2014 World Cup here in Brazil!

Let’s see what the second day brings!

One thought on “Ideas Worth Spreading? Making Sense of Talks at TedxRio+20

  1. These technological developments are so interesting in their simplicity… I think they’re definitely ideas worth spreading! It seems that a lot of the world’s problems have simple technological solutions. Disease burdens resulting from two billion people being without sanitation would be dramatically lowered by a simple latrine. Of course, behavioral change is perhaps more complex than the technology!

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