Building TEDxBelfast 2012: A Titantic undertaking

This June, Belfast TEDx’ers took over the newly-opened Titantic Belfast, a museum-cum-Titanic-reproduction in the heart of Northern Ireland, where the famed ship herself was built and set sail.

The TEDx event, appropriately titled “Titanic Ideas,” was pulled together by Davy Sims, self-described as “notoriously difficult to please.” These are his notes on the TEDx experience:

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“Two weeks until TEDxBelfast, I’m really psyched!” I can’t remember who posted this on Twitter, but it shook me. On 26 January,  I announced on Facebook, “UPDATE: Good news, a few minutes ago we received an email from TED in New York renewing the Belfast license for TEDx. We are beginning to discuss use of a very impressive venue. More details as they emerge.”

The conversations began – mainly on our Facebook page. But to my astonishment the anticipation and excitement grew. When are the tickets available? Can I speak? I know someone who will speak. Will there be food? Then the “Who’s going to TEDxBelfast?” began. Yes – people were excited. 

We Northern Irish can be a skeptical bunch – we are not easy to impress. And we don’t dole out unearned compliments. So to get this warm wave of support was fantastic.

Who was there? Students, seasoned entrepreneurs, start-uppers, designers, engineers, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queens University, geeks, senior staff from University of Ulster, board member of Invest Northern Ireland, two politicians, two church pastors – and that’s just the people I recognised. The youngest was about 16, at school studying moving image; the oldest had at least 60 years on him. Blogger Alan Mebin caught the moment when he said to me, “There are a lot of ‘Fix Belfast’ people here.” Belfast has been a broken place and there is a movement to fix it – TEDxBelfast is seen as part of the re-invention of the city.

The atmosphere. Seriously, the atmosphere! Titanic Belfast opened in April. Almost none of the attendees had been in this room. The staircase is a replica of the staircase in the Grand Ballroom of the ship. It is impressive. So the atmosphere built from the moment people came into the room. Can big be intimate? Surprisingly, yes. There were 100 seats in a room that could easily hold five times that. But there was room to walk around, talk to others, meet the speakers. And the backdrop was incomparable.

Highlights – there were so many. I’ll pick out three. Two of them were silences. The silence of the audience as Fransuer Mukula described his life as a slum boy in Nigeria. Then the silence as Chris Blake spoke about working with a boy living with autism who had no communication skills; the boy played a note on a piano and Chris described how he and the boy listened as the note faded to nothing. There was no piano in our room. Chris just described it as we all imagined the sound fade to silence. The third was Colin Williams. Colin produces children’s TV programmes including Pajanimals for Jim Henson Productions. He has a global audience of more than 250 million for a programme made in Belfast. His cri de coeur “Our City needs New Fathers, Trusted Rulers, People of Integrity, Not People of Fear.” His description of growing up in a city of fear and how Creative Industries can lead us to a better future was inspiring, moving, almost revolutionary. “So from a quick glance at Twitter it seems the Colin Williams dude is killing TEDxBelfast” – Oonagh Tweets.

(Side note – the old paint room of Belfast shipyard is next to Titanic Belfast. Now called Titanic Studios, it’s where Game of Thrones was made.)

There were conversations – long after I left there were conversations. I missed them, mostly because I was working. TEDxBelfast was talked about on BBC Radio the next morning (with reference to Colin’s talk) and at an MBA dinner the next evening.

The main conversations afterwards with me were about next year.

I am notoriously difficult to please. I’ve been a radio and web producer for 30 years, mainly in the BBC. I recognise fluff and pap and pretend. But of this labour, I can honestly say, I was pleased and I have heard of no one who wasn’t.

Yes, some things were just not quite right. I was annoyed when two speakers withdrew the day before, because they wanted to do it their way, not the TEDx way. But three speakers said ‘yes’ with less than 24 hours notice. And they made it even better.

In my day-time job one of the things we measure is social capital; the value and the number of the connections that people make. This was a social capital success. And it helps fix Belfast.

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    This June, Belfast TEDx’ers took over the newly-opened Titantic Belfast, a museum-cum-Titanic-reproduction in the heart...
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