Canberra grabs a big day of optimistic ideas

“PEOPLE don’t come to our conferences to be part of an audience – that would be boring,” says Stephen Collins. “They’re a community, which means they interact, rather than just turn up and go home.”

That’s the idea behind TEDx Canberra, an annual non-profit “ideas” conference Collins originated in 2010, based on the model of the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) mothership in the US, which started in California in 1990.

There are now more than 4000 TEDx events in the world, with each conference an independently-organised gathering. According to Collins, “there are new ones popping up every week”.

The conferences include a diverse range of speakers who are asked to present “ideas worth spreading”.

“The ideas could be about anything, we’re that broad,” Collins said.

“This year, the speakers at TEDx Canberra range from a shark ecologist, to a dance crew, to a memory athlete.

“We look for a range as diverse as possible so that we can reach pretty much everybody. But the speakers have to have one thing in common: be interesting.”

Collins was inspired to create TEDx Canberra after attending his first TED conference in the US in 2009.

“Afterwards, I sent out an email to a diverse range of people saying ‘hey we should do this’,” he said.

“I ended up with all these people in my lounge room who wanted to be involved from backgrounds like the creative arts, science, web to government innovation.”

Since then the event has gone from strength to strength, selling out in 30 minutes last year at the National Library and within 26 hours for the September 8 day-long event at the bigger Playhouse this year.

“I think people are desperate to hear really interesting, well-articulated, well-considered ideas. Particularly ones they can act upon,” Collins said.
And Collins says the audience is as diverse as the presenters – “people can age anywhere between 10 to 80”.

The TEDx Canberra team – including speakers – are all volunteers, with every dollar made going towards running the event. Collins says he donates about 30 hours a week on TEDx outside of his communications job in the private sector.

This year’s conference theme is “an optimistic challenge”.

“We want our presenters to look at the challenges in whatever it is they do and tell us what the optimistic outcome is and why it is they’re seeking to do that,” Collins said.

One of the 19 speakers, the exec­u­tive direc­tor at UN Women Aus­tralia, Julie McKay, says her talk will have a positive spin on issues surrounding women’s lead­er­ship, pay equity, polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion and vio­lence against women.

“When you look at the statistics around things like violence against women, it’s very easy to think negatively,” she said.

“Instead it should be about, ‘what are the different things we can do to drive change?’”

The details on her talk are “top secret” until the event – but Julie expects a bit of controversy.

“I know there’ll be a lot of people who don’t agree with my ideas, but if there’s one person who does want to do something about it, that’s what I’m after,” she said.

TEDx has strict rules for its presenters: talks are only as short as three minutes and as long as 18 minutes, and speakers aren’t allowed notes.

“We have presenters like Julie, who has done many public talks, to an 18-year-old who has never presented in her life,” Collins says. “And as far as we’re concerned, both their ideas are equal – they’re just different.

“We actually get in touch with people who attend our events after they’re over and say ‘hey, what are you doing, were you inspired to do anything?’ And usually, they are.

“This is about being irritated enough in a positive way to go and do something, whether that’s saying ‘you know what, I really like dogs, I’m going to go down to the RSPCA and volunteer’ – it doesn’t matter what. The challenge is to do something that makes the bit of the world that you affect, a better place.”

TEDx Canberra, Saturday, September 8, The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre is sold out. However, anyone interested is invited to register on the waiting list at

Photo by Silas Brown

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