On the power of imagery, addictive health behaviours and sustaining life: @designourtomorrow fun in Toronto

I spent last Saturday in the still-leafy, gloriously sun-lit campus of the University of Toronto. We crammed into Convocation Hall for the Design Our Tomorrow Conference.

Remarkably, the conference actually lived up to its billing as being basically like TED, but, well, free. Quite an extraordinary roster of speakers. Three best bits noted below.

#1 Edward Burtynsky (Photographer, TED Prize winner)

His goal is to make stuff more visible. The stuff we use all the time, but never really see. Man’s battle with nature. He’s redefining the sublime with photographs of quarries, of giant rubbish yards, of vast open cast mines, of road systems and, perhaps most amazingly of all, of oil. The picture below is of the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Recommend leafing (?) through his website – lots to look at. This video is from an exhibition of his Oil photos.

#2: Aza Raskin (Co-founder Massive Health and Fast Company ‘Master of Design’ 2011) 

Aza, formerly Creative Lead at Firefox, talked about his new project – making good health behaviours addictive. He talked about the standard behaviour change difficulties with healthy behaviours – most importantly, the lack of instant feedback for good behaviours (as opposed to the  glorious instant rewards of eating a doughnut, for example) – and his thoughts on how to create a feedback loop.

Their first experiment is The Eatery, a smartphone app which abandons all ideas of calorie counts and nutrition guides, insteady relying on peer feedback. With the app, you snap the food you’re eating and rate it on a scale of ‘Fat’ to ‘Fit’. Then everyone else in your network rates it too, providing instant feedback on the healthiness of that food. Call it Dieting 2.0, perhaps. 

#3: Eric Chivian (Nobel laureate and Founder, Center for Health and Global Environment)

Felt a little sorry for the lady from Foursquare who had to follow this guy: the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Harvard Prof who spoke movingly on his next challenge, having already helped avert nuclear war.

As founder of the Center for Health and Global Environment, he’s trying to get us to take biodiversity seriously, given that human life depends on it. He told stories of what science might learn from pregnant polar bears (who don’t get osteroperosis despite not moving for six months), cone snails (who produce toxins we could replicate as perfect painkillers) and gastric breeding frogs (whose stomachs somehow don’t digest their children..absurd). Except we won’t learn anything from the frogs, since they’re now extinct, probably due to climate change. Dammit.

He recited Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot at the end of his lecture, after which anything else seems a little futile. His book is available in handy summary form (pdf).

Mad props to the organisers. Not sure how they did it, but it was, as Canada’s #1 Adjective has it, awesome.

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