TEDx: How it went and how it could have gone

Andrew Bolster

Data Scientist at Sensum Co., Founder/Director at Farset Labs

So I did a TEDx Belfast, and had loads of fun (as you can probably see).

Check out the rest of the playlist here, and I highly recommend fellow Dalriad, Leon McCarron’s talk on adventuring, Tony Gallagher’s discussion of the benefits and future of shared education, and definitely check out two talks that must have been spying on my preparations; Lisa McElherron talking about dissidents, and Charo Lanao-Madden on the power of changing perspectives.

Thanks go to Davy and everyone else involved in running this great event!

However, it wasn’t all rosy…

My talk didn’t quite go as planned, since someone neglected to tell me that I’d been moved from the middle of the second block to near the end of the first block, and the lovely Anne McReynolds had to (unknowingly) break it to me as she was sitting up to kick off my introduction! Queue some frantic mic-ing up (Evidently, I can’t work Britney Spears mics), and I pretty much went off script from there.

In the interests of stimulating discussion, and critiquing myself, here’s what I had ‘planned’ to say.


It’s said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I would extend that and say that any sufficiently complex system is indistinguishable from magic.

You know the individual components of the trick, you see the top hat, you see the ‘sleight of hand’ flicks, but you’ve got no tangible idea how the rabbit goes from under the floor to the hat,

or how bacterium almost perfectly model the japanese transport system,

or how traffic jams happen on open roads,

or how the American economy sheds almost a trillion dollars in 6 minutes. These are some examples of the the emergent behaviours I’ll be touching on tonight.

My work with Queen’s University and the Defence Science and Technology Lab, and subsequently with the University of Liverpool, has shown me that small, simple rules cause complex problems and unique opportunities.

When I said to a few people that Davy had roped me into TEDx, a very good friend of mine told me to stick to one message, and use that as a guiding light through the ten minutes I had. I doubt I’ll stick to the ten minutes but I might stick to one message, and that is to Accept Emergence.

Accepting emergence is in my view the only way to produce real change. Not promote, not foster, not encourage, but to simply accept emergence as being a fact of life, rolling with it’s punches and humbly accepting it’s gifts.

My day job has me analysing the behaviours of not-invented-yet smart submarines. Collaborating on goals, their position, targeting, and their timing in real or near real time across thousands of cubic kilometres of open or coastal water. This involves lots of simulations and lots of strange results when you give these virtual actors seemingly simple rules that produce some amazing behaviours that appear to be far more subtle, and nuanced than what went in. Most of my work is focused on detecting bad behaviours in these systems but tonight I’d like to talk about the opportunity we have for accepting emergence as part of our day to day business instead of being afraid of it or trying to constrain it.

But first off, what the hell is an emergent behaviour?

In my eyes, an emergent behaviour is the unintended consequence of a complex system. When academics and engineers talk about something being ‘complex’ it’s not QUITE the same as being ‘complicated’.

Complicated can be generally described as ‘difficult’ or ‘relying on many variables’.

Complexity on the other hand is an attribute of problems or tasks that have many interrelated components that both impact and are impacted by each other. Those individual components don’t have to be complicated for the system as a whole to be complex.

In short, Taxes are complicated,

Making a seating plan for a wedding reception is complex.

In my observations in defence research, academia, stem outreach, community development, and numerous other escapades, the thing that shines out to me most is that nature, and people, and indeed society, are capable of great things.

If you give them a chance. Equally nature, people, business, society,

and fate has a canny habit of kicking you in soft areas unexpectedly as a result of seemingly rational, individually appropriate, chains of events.

I had a first draft of this talk that went into grand detail about a range of emergent behaviours;

The Streisand Effect, where in 2003, Barbara Streisand’s efforts to censor this coastal erosion research picture of her house led to it being the most viewed image on the internet for a while,

Ants going into death spirals, killing entire colonies over simple rules producing ‘traps’ of logic as well as those same suicidal ants having the ability to self-arrange into rafts to cross rivers and streams.

In terms of naturally arranged structures, the most famous structure of our wee island was created because basalt is more flexible between layers and more brittle across layers, so as the ancient lava flow cooled,

it cracked vertically causing the distinctive geometric profile that’s still strong enough to support both the North Coast Economy and American tour groups,

And finally as I mentioned earlier, the 2010 Flash Crash that in 6 minutes nearly crippled the American financial exchange system because several high frequency trading systems caught themselves in a feedback loop due to one hedge fund dropping a few million of a particular commodity. Interestingly the positive side of emergence appeared in this case where after the initial crash, the same high frequency interactions brought the market back on course within record time.

But I realised that wasn’t what you good people really were here for. This, like many other events in Northern Ireland, and indeed beyond, is about creating culture of innovation, exploration, producing “Ideas worth spreading”. So here’s my idea.

Stop. Trying. To be. Innovative.

Seriously. Stop trying. Simply start Accepting. You’re probably not helping things by trying, in fact you’re more than likely to make things worse. And with a little bit of exposition I’ll tell you why

Davy didn’t ask me here because of my academic or professional background, but because of one accidental accomplishment. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and said I’d do something. | Farset Labs, which still stands as Northern Ireland’s only hackerspace, was a labour of accident. A certain group of people were gathered at just the right time to make something happen. I claim no magic.

But something magic did happen, and it brought together technologists and designers and marketers and artists and today stands as the unofficial clubhouse of technical exploration. Ran by geeks, for geeks, with no strings attached.

Although I do have to mention that we recently secured sponsorship from Intel to add to our roster of corporate members along side

Tibus(Connect), Weavers Court Business Park, and EvoRack.

And even though we’re not employing people directly yet, we have reams of good people through the door who have woken up to the fact that the ‘normal’ progression isn’t enough any more. Getting your degree or a diploma and settling for a entry level job isn’t good enough, so they talk.

My god do they talk. But it’s beautiful to watch ideas bouncing around these people from across the aisles making connections and sharing experiences. I’m not saying that Farset Labs is a model that should be copied.

Hell, I’m the last person who’d want to do it over again.

The saddest thing is that we can’t measure a damned thing because in my opinion the real impacts won’t be felt for at least 5 years. We feel that we’ve inadvertently set-up a culture of collaboration and communication among the next generation of thought leaders, establishing connections between networks and generations and backgrounds and industries that wouldn’t normally have happened.

Long after Farset Labs winds up, I believe this network will be a great foundation for the long term development of the Northern Irish technology sector, and was accomplished by literally doing nothing but leave a roof over the head and a fantastic network connection in the wall. But in my humble experience, today we do not live in an environment that ACCEPTS emergence.

Everything must be planned and strategized and accounted for and modelled and projected against and politically de-sensitised.

If the founding membership of Farset Labs had been in any way ‘planned’ it would have been stacked full of people with perfect grades, hungry for success and bringing specific experiences and all those entrepreneurial ideals, a bespoke dynamic team with a mission statement and a plan and a growth trajectory they knew they had to maintain, and it would have been as much fun as cold porridge and probably a disaster.

Today, I say to you that inaction is sometimes an action. Start Accepting.

The Dublin born political theorist and all round trouble maker Edmund Burke said something along the lines of “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. I would argue sometimes doing nothing is preferable than trying to force goodness, and that a better adage to subtitle this talk would be “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions”. We do not live in a fair or comprehensible world and often when acting towards the ‘right thing’, we still end up with a system replete with destruction, corruption and greed.

I’m not saying to cut investment into incubators, start up centres and alike. I’m saying there needs to be a step change in the culture of this province and it’s attitude to social and economic investment if we’re going to deliver on the promises of the NISP Connect Knowledge Economy Index report That report stated we should aim to have an additional 20 thousand STEM graduates by 2030, but we don’t have enough people going into the field, not enough political investment in province wide education, and in general, our report card on education reads something like “Needs to apply himself more and stop bitching about different coloured rags”.

I’m saying stop helping small groups and start accepting ideas and opinions from a much wider pool. Accept that entry level employee that says ‘I want to try something’ and accept that friend who says ‘do you have time to chat about this’ and that random fecker on the street who says ‘you’re the guy who looks after such and such, did you ever think about doing this?’. The Knowledge Economy report also highlighted that we don’t have enough people going into ‘STEM Career paths’. But since when did that matter? There’s a whole cluster of STEM and Creative Industries businesses started by artists and designers and authors and whatever else who started by leaping out of whatever area they were in because something caught their eye and decided to try it out.

I’m not asking that the walls be torn asunder and the rules be rewritten, I’m asking that instead of pushing so hard and throwing so much money behind ‘Social Investment Funds’ that don’t fund anything but consultants, ‘Entrepreneurship Outreach’ programmes that only seem to make it around to the ‘good’ schools, and generally trying to filter and cultivate the so called ‘talented’ from the crops of our next generation, to instead accept emergent behaviours and emergent ideas from every avenue of your life, and to spend less time covering our collective asses and to learn to accept more ideas and less ‘impact planning’. I can think of a great many things to do with 389,847 pounds, and for those keeping track that’s about £1.30 for every child under 16 in Northern Ireland, than pissing it away on consultants. Flip, even buying each and every primary school teacher a giant tub of makro sweets to use as prizes would make more of an impact in the most poverty deprived!

I like to think about the road to the post-industrial Innovation or Knowledge Economy as being similar to the Kubler Ross model of grief, in this case over the death of the Industrial Economy. The model says that in the face of death we go through five stages of coping mechanism; Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and, you guessed it, Acceptance.

Basically, between the collapse of the shipping based economy, the prolonged Troubles, Thatcherite privateering, and the near continuous suckling on the teats of UK and European grants, I think it’s time we got to the end game and let industrialism pass peacefully and accept what’s coming in the brave new connected economy.

My father had a brilliant phrase that I don’t hear often enough, and that was that rather than living a good life for yourself, you should live life with a generosity of spirit for your fellow man. It’s with that generosity of spirit that Farset Labs was built, and it’s with that generosity of spirit, patience, and confidence in each other I think that Northern Ireland can really create a new culture and a new world for us all. Thank you.

Published: December 19 2013

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