TEDxNUST 2011

It was held this week on the 24th in an outdoor setting in SEECS, NUST H-12. It was the first NUST related event I had attended, since it was in the evening, and by chance I had taken the day off for some research related work at the university. My expectations for the event (prior to attending it) had shifted constantly from really grand to mediocre and then to moderately grand. But whatever it was, it didn’t disappoint, and it was a fun evening too, out in the open in the SEECS fountain area, as they call it, with a spotlight lit ambience, rose petals, umbrella outdoor heaters, and lots of charged up youngsters, who really made me feel like an old timer, BTW.

I may point out some things that I felt were a bit wrong, but it does not mean in any way that the event was not good. The event was brilliant. So my criticisms, if any, are to be taken in good spirit.

As with all student managed NUST events this one was well done too. Pretty little X’s on the path outside SEECS led me to the venue, where a group of students wearing cool black TEDx t-shirts were busy getting stuff in order. Last moment arrivals of necessary hardware like the mushroom heaters caused a bit of a disturbance prior to the starting of the show as the providers had to make their way through the corridors with their gas cylinders and other accessories… I feel that should have been done a bit earlier. But you can’t blame the event organizers entirely for that. They on their part were doing a really good job with the registrations and the other management stuff.

Apologies for the absolute lack of pictures. Maybe someone else on our blogger panel can put some up.

The Setting

So as I made myself comfortable on the left of the sitting area, a little higher than the stage itself. Since it wasn’t a proper auditorium, the lack of “levels” caused visual problems for the ones sitting at the back, since they were not able to see what was going on down on the stage, especially when the amazing sitar player and his tabla player had to sit down on the stage floor for his performance. The floral arrangements were very artistic, and we were later told that they were designed by one of the speakers themselves. However, the TEDxNUST poster on which some of these lovely floral arrangements were made was a little too reflective itself, which caused messy bumps and waves on the poster to be visible under the bright spotlights, creating a mildly unpleasant stage background. It would have been better if it were smoothed out in some way, pasted to a flat panel, or a clear white background were used.

The projection screens were placed on either side of the main stage, for the attendees to see from the left and the right of the sitting area. That was thoughtful, however the excess lighting on the stage caused the screen projections to dim out a bit, thus making it hard to make out the pictures that were being displayed. Usually a larger TV type screen works in these settings, but of course that could not have been possible too easily. A little clever lighting arrangement would have had made it fantastic.

There was a distinctly feminine touch to the entire setting; rose petals scattered near the central fountain area, little candles being lit up prior to starting the show, the stage sets like the matkas that were quickly arranged during the sitar players’ performance, the floral arrangements, etc. That’s probably why the environment looked appealing!

The seating was cleverly arranged to make use of all the space available, since the area wasn’t too large (the fountain is to blame). The rear gallery type view was taken up by the blogger class, who were actively involved in sending out live updates of the event to the website/twitter. It’s worth pointing that out at this point because the involvement of these tech-savvy youngsters in sending out live information over the internet made the event all the more dynamic and sort of digitally expansive, allowing thousands of viewers around the world to view and follow the proceedings live, online. Technology works wonders, BTW. That may sound like an old man’s statement, but visionaries like yours truly can’t help but imagining a time when digital holographs are beamed across the miles of this planet to be displayed in exactly the same three dimensional arrangement somewhere else in the world.

However, the NUST organizers did not have hologram technology, or Scotty’s beam-me-up tools, so they made most of whatever tech gadgets they had to make the event a success.

The People

I could see some externals and internals in the crowd, very eager to see what was about to transpire on stage. Most of them could be seen tapping away on their devices, probably tweeting about the event, or maybe even texting each other! It wasn’t an unruly crowd, kind of like the ones who spend their time giggling in the back seats, however it did need a little 101 on event ethics, as my cynical self noticed the excess disturbance when the show had started.

What bothers me most is people walking around the venue during the show, finding their seats, and hundreds of photographs crawling around with their cameras, taking pictures of whatever things of interest they could spot (glory to the days when camera films were expensive). Not only here, but photographers tend to be quite a nuisance at every event, where every second person in the audience has a camera, and they quickly move to front to get a first-hand view of the couple getting married (if it’s a marriage event), or for any stage performance, thus merrily blocking the view for all the unfortunates sitting on their chairs. That’s probably one of the first things I would make sure would not happen if I were an event manager at any event.

The crowd was mostly the young, other than some distinguished oldies. The event probably would not have been a success if it had been dominated by the internet ignorant generation, who frequently pesters their children to teach them how to e-mail. Moreover, most of the talks were targeted more towards engaging and motivating the youth, though the ideas can be built upon by the older generation (given that they have any mental flexibility left for drastic changes and new challenges).

The Speakers

I hope you haven’t skipped all the above to read this part, though I realize I should have written a bit about the speakers earlier. You can get their profiles on the TEDxNUST website, so I won’t bother going through their achievements.

I felt that the event had a theme to it, and the theme was Pakistan. I am not sure if that was the actual intent, but every speaker had a very Pakistan focus on their talks, unlike most of the TED talks one gets to see on the internet. Maybe it’s like that for independently organized events like these, or maybe it’s because it’s the first ever TEDxNUST event and it was necessary to give it a more focused and digestible beginning. It was good in a way; helps to assimilate all the ideas presented as a compendium, and then it can be implemented in a synergistic fashion to achieve all the speakers objectives.

The first speaker, YBQ, came on stage in a traditional dhoti-shalwar dress, and naturally everyone in the audience were anticipating a fantastic opening talk from someone who belongs to the distinguished artists class of our country. And that’s what he did. His dress was a striking green and white, the first indication of a very Pakistani event. He tried to kindle the kind of challenge-accepting spirit in everyone’s hearts by asserting that we should learn to believe in ourselves and do what we love doing the most. Apparently, he loves what he does, and he pointed out that most people come to Pakistan to die, but he came back from America to live. Now that’s original! The general theme of his talk was to look inwards into your soul, to accept who you are. Not too easy as said (for a large majority!), but motivating nonetheless, and a great start to the event.

I don’t exactly remember the sequence of the speakers, and I may mix up the points from their talks since I happen to have the memory of a cyborg goldfish, but I’ll try to bring it out from the heart, if you know what I mean.

Azhar Rizvi delivered a very crisp and professional talk on entrepreneurship, on engaging universities and institutions on the initiative that he was involved in, and startled everyone with the large numbers and facts that he presented. His talk built up into a final crescendo; the beginning felt like I was in an MBA lecture, frankly speaking. But through the interesting case that he built up and presented during his talk, he was able to send across one important point that I totally loved and is still stuck in my mind. He wants everyone to:

Engage in small groups and develop ideas for improvement in any aspect of the society, and then propel these ideas to platforms where they could be heard and transformed into a reality. When there are tens of thousands of these idea cultivation groups and cells across the country, it would not only connect like minded people who are passionate about innovation and development, but also connect their hearts which would help in improving the overall development of the country.

Those are not exactly his words, but that’s what I was able to extract from his interesting talk. It’s a sort of extension to the look-into-your-soul concept stated by YBQ earlier, only here you are extending your soul to other souls, creating links to let the passion flow like a river through the entire society, and engage people in developing new initiatives and startups which they alone could not have achieved.

Farhana Azim’s talk was a bit of a hassle for her as she struggled to keep herself in sync with the flipping slides on her PowerPoint presentation. She probably wasn’t comfortable with controlling the slides herself, so obviously it had to get a bit messy when someone else was doing it for her. However, what she presented was thrilling. She’s a floral artist, and the pictures that she showed were of outstanding works of art made from all-organic materials, especially flowers. She had ended her talk with a passionate description about the beauty of flowers in Pakistan, and her experiences being around them. Not as motivating as the other talks I should say, but an interesting foray into the art of floral arrangements, and a realization that passion is what can help you make wonders.

Now Shah Sharabeel came up with probably the most interesting ideas in all the talks. He was supposed to talk about how changes can take place with performing art. I was expecting something on the lines of all the theatre stuff and talk about art, but it was a bit more creative than that. The story that he told to send across his idea definitely portrayed him as a strict man who sticks to his principles, and that he’s the kind of guy who is serious about bringing a change in his society. His tone, however, got a bit harsh at various points in the talk, which showed his distaste for the prevailing ills in the society… but I guess that is what makes the talk all the more interesting, and gives more weight to the speakers statements.

He told how he always wants everything to start on time, and that his events are never a minute late. His staff had to bear a lot of manhandling, torn shirts and bruises because of angry late comers outside the theatre gates, but he would not let them in. So gradually, in the later shows that followed, all of the attendees came on time, and now his shows have 100% attendance. He also told how he was notified of a very senior government person, that he would be coming around 15 minutes late because of some family matters he had to attend to. Sharabeel thought out a plan, and that was to ask everyone in the audience to stand up from their seats and shout at the latecomer to get out, when he would enter the auditorium. The audience at his show loved the idea and were ready to that. Too bad the government guy was notified of this when he was on en route to the theatre in his entourage on the Mall road, and turned back home.

So HIS idea was based on a theme of Unity; that no one in our country would help us end corruption (he asked to mark his words on that), and that it would only be possible if everyone united, and openly declared war against all the corrupt people in the country. Now the idea may seem oft stated when you look at it on the surface, but there are certain societal dynamics, if I may call them as such, which need to be considered, as they play an important part in enabling this unity. Sharabeel introduced the idea before his performance had started, on stage, and obviously the audience were there for a purpose, and that was to watch HIS show. So naturally, the entire group of people at the event had a common thinking, a common objective there, and since the concept of a corrupt society is already understood and abhorred by every sane mind in the society, his idea motivated all the like minded people to instantly connect together to support his objective. So in my opinion, no matter what you do, you cannot unite people unless you have a uniting concept first, which should be independent of the objective you want to achieve. This would help automatically develop a kind of atmosphere of subconscious unity among the people, without them realizing that they are trying to unite themselves together. Simply stated, telling people to unite themselves in not the way to go, uniting them with something that secondary that they are all interested in doing will link their minds together.

The above concept can be used to explain the rationale behind Masoora Ali’s talk as well, in which she pointed out the importance of Active Citizenship. She raised a general idea, but I think it can be linked with Sharabeel’s idea for a synergistic effect. Thus, active citizenship can be one common uniting concept that can bring people together for a common cause, and when they come together for a common cause (which has to be a good one of course), they are linked, and when they are linked, their actions can be extended for creative revolutionizing concepts like the one introduced by Sharabeel; to put up slogans and posters at your shops, institutions, hospitals, etc., that no corrupt person of any standard would be entertained in these institutions.

Swaying away from these topics are the interesting talks by Badar Khushnood and Adnan Shahid, which revolved around more IT technology related stuff. Badar focused on effective utilization of the internet and active involvement of the Pakistani netizens in creating a better online Pakistan. He showed interesting facts about Pakistan’s internet behavior, which Google can very easily analyze. A bit scary when it comes to privacy issues, but I guess we can all trust a Pakistani working in Google (can we?). He talked about how there has been an increased use in mobile phones in Pakistan, something which I personally did not feel was a great “achievement” as owning a mobile phone does not signify progress on a smaller scale. It may show the adoption of technology by the country, but if the technology is not playing any role in the betterment of the country other than bringing it on top of the statistics lists, it need not be mentioned at all.

Adnan Shahid delivered a well organized, crisp and chilling talk about e-waste in Pakistan, how the west dumps their discarded electronic waste in the third world like ours, how the poor people here are making a living out of selling, burning, disposing, transforming these highly toxic materials without considering the health hazards involved, and how our society is completely ignorant about these ills. It did spark a bit of resentment for the developed world, how they used less developed countries as a means to dispose off their old electronic waste. His initiative, Green Pakistan, revolves around the recycling concept, and also that we should always carefully check our electronic gadgets before buying them (whether they are “green” products or not). He said that we should tell the developed countries responsible for the waste to take back their waste and give us back the precious metals they used in making them. Now that’s an awesome statement, and practicable too if thought out well. It would be encouraging to see people following his initiative to dispose off our electronic materials in a well planned way, and not letting it fall in the hands of poor children who risk their lives by trying to make a living out of these toxic materials.

Puruesh Chaudhary came up on stage with her very MBA-ish talk about… ummm… well frankly speaking, most of her high level terminology went over my head, but her initiative, Agahi, struck has an essential media revolution of our times. She showed a very cleverly complied short video documentary about how the media had shifted in its reports over time, and what is being displayed on TV nowadays. My thoughts exactly; as I watched the video, I felt like going back home, picking up the TV and throwing out of the house… something which I had been thinking of doing for a very long time (something which Adnan Shahid would not like, BTW). I do not understand why there is no regulatory body on media ethics in Pakistan. In the name of free speech, our TV channels constantly bombard us with hate, hate and more hate. They don’t even spare us on happy events like Eid, when they continue complaining about how the prices have risen during Eid, and other nonsensical material. Does a person really need to waste his day learning about elevated price items during Eid, when all he wants is just a pleasant time with his family and friends? Media needs a serious revamp, and we need to support people like Puruesh to bring this ethical revolution to the forefront.

The final speaker of the event, a photographer, delivered a highly patriotic talk about his unique travels throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan, the pictures that he had taken, and his experience with various places that a very large majority may not be aware of. Danial Shah presented a slideshow of his photographs which showed all the exocita in our country, stuff that I would personally like to see on my 2012 calendar. I’m not a big fan of nature and all-the-beauty-of-Pakistan, but I was engaged by the enthusiasm and determination of this young man to bring a good name to his country. People may constantly criticize these people who are simply doing what they love to do, and who strongly believe that what they do will eventually bring about a big change. But one should realize the criticisms will only make these people more stronger, and more unique. I thought that whatever he is doing is fantastic, and he should continue exploring deeper aspects of our urban, sub-urban, and rural societies, creating a link between the amazing natural beauty of the country, and the beauty that lies in the society that thrives and continues to mature in this part of the world.

Rakae Jamil is being discussed at the end here, though he performed midway during the event. And that is because his performance was outstanding, and I didn’t want it to be overshadowed by all the discourse that I would have written later on. It’s funny that he played Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Greenday on his sitar, probably to captivate the younger audience. But his performance that followed appealed to everyone; his control over his instrument, and the accompanying tabla, both gave the impression that there was an orchestra of around 12 instruments playing. There were a thousand sounds with each of them having their own pulse… it was mesmerizing… if only the people walking around and leaving had realized that. I am glad there was no underground rock band or something like that at the event, and Rakae Jamil decorated the event with his auditory delights in a fascinating way.

Conclusion

I skipped the dinner at the end, but that was supposed to be a networking session. However, what the overall impression that the event left on me, and of course on everyone else, was a very positive one, and it would definitely be a pleasure to attend more NUST organized events like these in the future. The event was well managed by the students, and I don’t think any other event management body would have done it as well as the students did it themselves (whoa!). You can check out the TEDxNUST website for more details. They might even upload the videos of the event for your viewing pleasure.

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