Catching the Spark of TEDxColumbus

TEDxColumbus 2019 was bustling with energy and big ideas about social change, technological innovation and ways to improve the world. But there was one thing we didn’t expect.

When you hear TED Talks mentioned, what comes to mind? I think about innovation, creativity and viral videos from some of the world’s brightest minds. TED started 35 years ago with a one-off conference, and since then has become a global phenomenon with events happening all over the world to promote its mission to spread ideas.

I was lucky enough to attend the 2019 TEDxColumbus event, an afternoon bustling with energy and big ideas under the theme of Spark. I had expected to hear talks about social change, technological innovation and ideas to improve the world. And I did hear all of that, but what surprised me — in the best way possible — was the through-line I noticed weaving through so many of the talks: empathy.

A genomic scientist spoke about gene therapy and how far science has come in our ability to map the human genome. The first attempt took 15 years, but now there are algorithms to analyze a genome in under two hours — which is crucial when diagnosing rare diseases caused by genome abnormalities that impact 1 in 10 people.

A virtual reality developer gave a talk about using immersive technology not just as entertainment, but as tools of understanding and empowerment. Inspired by a loved one with Autism, his company created VR programs to help others see the world as those with autism or epilepsy might. They found that virtual reality can help with pain relief, PTSD and cognitive retention and empower users with the help of immersive tech.

A professor in the nursing field spoke about OSU’s Innovation Studio and the concept of democratizing innovation in a way that involves giving permission, validation and micro-funding opportunities to those on the front lines of the field who are personally familiar with the challenges and are exploring smart solutions.

An award-winning architect shared how his company found a way to combine their talents with a need they saw in their community — and then built an affordable, sustainable, livable home for a local family.

An entrepreneurial young woman told the story of how she saw immigrant families like her own excluded from the local news conversation because it wasn’t available in their first language. So she built a newsletter that translates important local news stories into a variety of languages to reach the foreign-born residents of the city.

The stories told at TEDxColumbus weren’t about becoming the next big commercial disruptor or innovating for innovation’s sake. From big genome mapping projects to grassroots newsletters, what was sparking change in each talk was the ability to empathize with those around us and to make the world a better place for our fellow humans. I was inspired to see that what drives the great innovations coming out of our city isn’t money, status or even awards, but the opportunity to help those around us.

This model of the Midwestern spirit was summed up best by hometown hero Andrew Levitt, a.k.a. Nina West, who gave this final word of advice during his interview:

“You can change the world by being nice.”