With a fresh batch of ideas brewed at its new Runway East HQ on Victoria Street, TEDxBristol is back this November. We spoke to creative director and curator Mel Rodrigues to find out more

This year’s TEDxBristol is all about how we can unpick things that don’t work, evolve our thinking and create positive change in a world of constant flux. It’s characteristically inspiring stuff that’s come from months of brainstorming with folk from across the city and talk about the extraordinary, sometimes discombobulating times we are living in.

TBM: Mel, tell us more about the 2019 theme: ‘reflect, rethink, reboot’

Mel Rodrigues: Despite living in this hyper-connected era – when more people have access to quality information and ways to engage with each other than ever before – we are experiencing isolation, loneliness and record levels of anxiety. We seem to be faced with so much information, challenge and change that it is hard to process, let alone to know how to move forward or what to actually focus on. The people who took part in our brainstorms wanted to acknowledge and expose this dichotomy, but rather than wallowing in the enormity, complexity and sheer brokenness of some aspects of modern life, we wanted to front up to it, analysing it and chipping away at it. Our talks will reset the dial on all manner of topics so we can share ways to achieve our best work despite the climate of political, social, and environmental upheaval.

Can Bristolians get involved with TEDx as speakers?

We’ve completed our search for this year but we’re already looking for interesting speakers and stories for 2020 and beyond. This year we designed the application process so that we could reach out to as many South Westerners as possible and showcase our region’s best ideas on the world stage.

In 2017 we launched our ‘Fresh Talent’ scheme – the goal being to work with emerging stars off and on stage to nurture storytelling and production skills and diversify the city’s creative talent pipeline. We deliberately commission talks from Bristolians who don’t have much public speaking experience and are from under-represented backgrounds. When we commissioned Nura Aabe, a mother and health campaigner from Bristol’s Somali community, to talk about her son’s autism, she had very little speaking experience and English was her second language. Our brilliant pro-bono speaker coaches at Hodos Consultancy and a group of volunteers worked with her to help with her presentation and storytelling. Her talk was one of the highlights at Colston Hall in 2017 and 18 months on she’d become a global ambassador at conferences around the world. She regularly gets approached by national media outlets to talk about autism and marginalised communities, and is in the process of creating the first learning centre for autism in Somalia to be opened in 2022.

Who’ll be the next TEDx success; the next Nura? (@JonCraig_Photos)

We are always looking for the next Nura – the people so busy doing the brilliant thing they are doing that they may not even have considered being a speaker. Each applicant just needs to send in 100 words via the speaker portal and those with that spark of potential are invited to development sessions.

…Bristol is full of ‘quiet heroes’ – people doing amazing things for their community or the wider world but not really shouting loud about it….

Which Bristol talks have made the biggest impressions on you?

Natalie Fee’s 2017 talk about the plastic we flush down the loo is a total game-changer as well as a bit of a tear-jerker when you see the image of the baby albatross! Before I met Nat I am ashamed to say that I didn’t think about the plastic that gets chucked in the toilet – despite being good at minimising waste from my kitchen. In 2015 Lynne Elvins’ talk was a runaway success – a very funny but also deeply moving story about her experiences as a gay parent. Lynne and her partner Emma were the first same-sex couple to be approved by Bristol Council to adopt a child. Lynne’s talk has had over 318,000 views and is being used all over the world as an educational tool by adoption agencies. I love the fact that Bristol is leading thinking and knowledge exchange on LGBTQ+ issues. It fills me with Pride!

What are the hot topics at TED HQ at the moment?

The climate crisis we are facing isn’t going to go away. Platforms like TED have an opportunity to spearhead international connection and I’ve seen a spike in the talks which offer breakthrough thinking on this topic. Greta Thunberg’s talk was a watershed moment (excuse the pun). Now she’s looking out over Bristol on the side of the Tobacco Factory, reminding us that the future of the world is in our hands. In this moment of indecision and sometimes wilful ignorance from world leaders, isn’t it fascinating that normal people are taking the boldest steps? Linked in a way is the spike in talks that speak to the heart of the global democratic crises. TED is apolitical but not shy of holding leaders or big companies to account. Take a talk like Carole Cadwalladr’s brilliant and frank appraisal of Facebook’s role in Brexit and erosion of democracy. She calls out the “gods of Silicon Valley” for being on the wrong side of history and asks if free and fair elections are a thing of the past.

In a sea of noise online about Brexit and big political shifts, I’m hugely grateful that TEDx talks can wade through a lot of the confusion and inertia and pick up important threads to be examined and shared. Unfortunately the general public seems increasingly disenfranchised with mainstream journalism and at the same moment consumes vast amounts of ‘news’ and current affairs from social feeds. In this era of fake or dodgy news, platforms like TEDx can help people get access to quality journalism and content with integrity. The YouTube channel alone has 19 million subscribers. We have a huge potential to reach people who may never have heard of Bristol by curating reliable, timely stories that speak to their concerns and interests.

Finally, AI is our future and one of the joys of being in Bristol is being able to engage with the amazing tech companies working here. From healthcare to education, there’s not an area of our lives that won’t be affected by ‘Industry 5.0’ and we’ve recently recorded a podcast which looks at some of the incredible work local people are doing. With the T in TED standing for tech, I think machine learning/automation will become one of the most discussed and watched on the platform as new technologies emerge.

…Greta Thunberg’s talk was a watershed moment. Now she’s looking out over Bristol on the Tobacco Factory, reminding us that the future of the world is in our hands…

How’s the new HQ?

It’s a friendly, dynamic space that’s changed the game for start-ups in Bristol. I feel like the square mile in which Runway East sits is fast becoming the city’s creative and tech power-hub. The last 18 months have been transformational. With the help of local partners offering pro-bono legal advice and sponsorship we were able to launch officially as a not-for-profit company and create a few part-time jobs. As a result we are functioning more like a start-up and have the capacity to try new things and focus on our community initiatives.

Why is Bristol such a good place for TEDx?

I think Bristol is the best place in the world for a TEDx event, because of the sheer volume and breadth of exciting things and inspirational people. I am constantly surprised and wowed by the stories I come across. Bristol is full of ‘quiet heroes’ – people doing amazing things for their community or the wider world but not really shouting about it. There’s an energy and upbeat spirit to the city that you just can’t ignore. We try to bottle that and share it.

TEDx volunteers (@JonCraig_Photos)

What sort of activities are you adding into the programme?

One bit of feedback has been the need for ‘reflection’ and moments of quiet and pause. Hearing inspirational talks back to back is exciting but can be mindblowing and a bit overwhelming. People need time to work ideas through and connect with people off the back of shared interests. So we’ve carved the day up into three main blocks: we’ll be reflecting on where we are at in the morning, rethinking things that need changing in the afternoon, and rebooting with stories and ideas that help us move forward in the evening.

There’ll be big breaks in between so that people can mingle, doodle or just take time out. They can attend as many or as few talks as they like as there will be plenty of other experiences to sooth and captivate curious souls. Bristol Old Vic is such a brilliant space for this; I could just stare at the old wall for hours and feel inspired.

…The discord is helping us see where the cracks are and has stimulated a raft of positive action that may not have happened if we were just coasting along feeling like things are okay…

What positives can we take from this moment of ‘global uncertainty’?

I think the disruption and discord we’ve been experiencing, however uncomfortable, is helping us see where the big cracks are, what’s broken and what needs fixing. It has stimulated a raft of positive action that may not have happened if we were just coasting along feeling like things are okay. A great example is society waking up to the crisis in men’s mental health and urgent need to tackle the high rates of suicide among young men. This was completely taboo 10 years ago. Acknowledging that things are broken is encouraging all kinds of people to engage in dialogue to help get to the root of the problem.

We recently recorded a podcast with former TEDxBristol speaker Daniel Edmund about a project he is running for young men at Knowle West Media Centre to explore masculinity and creativity. It’s one of countless examples of change due to being able to identify and work with the ‘uncomfortableness’. The UK is truly leading on mental health research and good practice and other countries are following. I think change is now more possible than ever because it is so much easier to share knowledge and solutions. Look at how quickly Extinction Rebellion or the #MeToo movement captured people’s consciousness. We’re waking up to deep problems and there are some brilliant people across the planet, motivated to find solutions. Rather than feel all doom and gloom, we can get involved in whatever issue means the most to us and connect with people driving progress. The biggest lesson I have learnt is that you can’t fix everything but you can choose your corner and do what you can, when you can. You’ll find your tribe in doing so!

Which change-makers really inspire you in Bristol?

Jasper Thompson and his team at Help Bristol’s Homeless have totally changed the game when it comes to practical, innovative solutions to the immediate problem that homeless people face. The bed bus and the container units turned into micro-flats are not only safe havens, they make people feel cared for and part of a community. No wonder it’s an idea that is now being replicated all over the world.

Poku Osei is also one of Bristol’s most inspiring trailblazers. A lot of people talk about diversity and equality of opportunity but Poku is creating real, tangible change with Babassa Youth, connecting young people from less advantaged parts of Bristol with thriving business leaders, helping both parties see their potential. As a business owner who’s attended a couple of their speed-mingles, I have to say it was the passion and confidence of the young people I met that bowled me over the most. Some of them are now working with TEDxBristol.

What have been the biggest TEDxBristol success stories?

Commissioning Mena Fombo’s talk about unwanted hair-touching experienced predominantly by black women was a pivotal moment for us. We knew it was a challenging topic and people may not get it, or like what they heard. But Mena’s talk was crafted so beautifully, combining moments of humour, candour and calls to action, that it defined for me the power that our talks and films can potentially have. Her campaign has now gone global – she has been contacted by thousands of people sharing their experiences of micro-aggressions associated with the hair and bodies of black, Asian and mixed-race people. She’s also founded Black Girl Convention and I am so proud TEDxBristol was able to help kick-start this movement.

Via the community partnership we were able to give away over 260 free places to school and community groups to attend TEDxBristol last time. The feedback we’ve had is that while free tickets are great, actually what these groups want is more involvement in the ideas process. So we’ve been developing ways to involve Bristol’s emerging stars through brainstorms and mini ideas events.

For over 18s we’ve developed a process for up-skilling the next generation of creative and digital talent via professional training and mentoring. Volunteers come to TEDxBristol with little or no experience in digital and creative practice but leave with a substantial credit on their CV, new skills and industry contacts. Experienced members of the team mentor newer members in production management, editorial and script-writing, social media and marketing, website development, filming/camera operation and lighting and editing. We were Bath Spa University’s biggest media industry partner in 2017, offering placements to over 30 students, and will expand that this year. For me this is one of our biggest achievements, grown organically through grass-roots partnerships and listening to the needs of the city.

Tell us a little more about the podcast, and what you’re up to ahead of the main event

We’re the first TEDx event to launch a podcast; we had so many fantastic stories coming in but not enough time to feature them all at the main event. Each episode is a 25-minute delve into the worlds of Bristol’s most exciting change-makers rebooting a particular area of life or work. Episode one examined masculinity and work being done to promote men’s mental health, creativity and connection via The Male Room. Episode two is about the Bristol’s tech scene leading the way in AI and socially responsible innovation; episode three is on the future of food. Now it’s all hands to the pump to create the most exciting, environmentally smart and user-friendly event possible. I suspect I’ll then reflect, rethink and reboot over Christmas as we begin another year of championing Bristol’s best ideas!

TEDxBristol takes place at Bristol Old Vic on 17 November. Lead image: curator Mel Rodrigues