The ‘Simplexity’ of overcoming physical boundaries and democracy explored at TEDxVienna

What appears to be complex may in truth be quite simple, while what we perceive as simple can be mind-bogglingly complex – if we look a little deeper. The interplay between the simple and the complex in all aspects of life was explored by the opening talk delivered by Jeffrey Kluger, the former Time magazine editor – and the author of the 2007 book Simplexity – at this year’s TEDxVienna.

Indeed, Simplexity was the overarching topic of this year’s event, and Kluger set the scene perfectly by challenging the audience’s perceptions on what constitutes as simple or complex. Low-tier workers such as factory employees, taxi drivers and call centre staff have to navigate immensely complex tasks on a day-to-day basis, but are traditionally viewed as simpler members of society, particularly when compared to chief executives and presidents.

To illustrate his point, Kluger compared a star – a vast, “practically eternal” life form – to a guppy fish. Most people, Kluger suggested, believed stars to be the more complex object. However, he pointed to the guppy’s elegance – “it’s muscular, neural, reproductive, skeletor” form – as evidence of its intrinsic complexity.

The complexity of the animal anatomy was explored further by Elias Knubben, who demonstrated his company, Festo’s, impressive attempts to create soft-material robots by taking inspiration from the animal kingdom. His Talk, which explained how complex problems could be solved by simple means, offered one of the stand-out moments of the 2018 TEDxVienna, when he unleashed Festo’s “flying fox” robot to circulate above the heads of astonished attendees, before landing safely in his hands.

Those in attendance also had to take a second look when neuroplasticity designer Dani Clode took to the Volkstheater stage with a second ‘thumb’ on one of her hands. “I design extra thumbs,” she told the crowd, before demonstrating how the prosthetic body part was operated with the use of her toes.

Clode said she wanted to change the perception of prosthetics, explaining that words like “missing, false, fixed and replacement” should be substituted with “potential, designed, extension”, and discussed in a more positive, progressive light. Her TEDxTalk was one of many designated to show the audience how humans can overcome physical boundaries.

Overcoming physical boundaries

Deaf poet and storyteller Douglas Ridloff, for example, demonstrated how the arts were crucial to the medium of sign language. While the number of deaf people in the world surpasses the 300 million mark, only 17 million are able to communicate via sign language, and Ridloff encouraged the audience to reach out to deaf communities and make the world a safe space for them to sign.

Delegates were also taken on the touching journey of Freddie Feldman, who transformed his throat microphone invention (originally intended for professional beatboxers) into a means of communication for people with incurable neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and MS.

The ovation of the day was reserved for Tony Giles, who told his story of breathtaking courage, travelling to 132 countries over a 22 year period, being both blind and largely deaf.

“Why would a blind person want to go out and see the world?” he asked the audience. “The answer: why not?”

He explained that he simplified the complexity of “travelling solo with two disabilities” by having a “positive attitude and self-belief”, which allowed him to absorb the atmosphere in all seven continents. His call to action: if he can do it, anyone can. And that everyone in the audience should “make their dream destination a reality”.

One of the best-received Talks of last year’s TEDxVienna conference was Peter Emersons ‘So, what is democracy anyway?’, which prompted the organisers to incorporate more content related to the political landscape and democratic systems for 2018.


Motivated to increase female representation in politics, Dutch social activist Devika Partiman established her Vote for a Woman campaign in the Netherlands – where only 35% of elected politicians are women – encouraging voters to contribute to increasing gender equality in parliament by voting for their female representatives during the 2017 Dutch elections.

She fired the audience up, urging them to make their own changes by voting for underrepresented voices during the European Parliament elections next May after her domestic campaign resulted in three more women being elected in the national election, and dozens more in local elections.

“We showed people that if they vote smartly they can actually affect change,” said Partiman.

The breaking down of gender norms was not restricted to talks, as the event opened up with an exhilarating cheerleading performance by Fearleaders Vienna – a male-only cheerleading squad – who treated the audience to somersaults, pyramids and flawless choreography.

Sticking with the democracy thread, Yale professor Dan Kahan posed the question – are smart people – male or female – ruining democracy? Smart people, he argued, were prone use their cognitive skills to dismiss conflicting data in order to justify their ideological beliefs – hence the lack of political consensus around policies for climate change and gun control in the US, for example. The good news: scientifically curious people, however, read data more effectively and were less prone to show partisan bias because they liked to study data that contradicted the beliefs they had. Kahan called for more of these people to be involved in policy making.

Philippe Narval too that one step further, illustrating a world where we could reinvent democracy by making laws via crowd intelligence. He offered Ireland as a demonstration, which has recently altered policy on abortion (a topic the largely Catholic country has been grappling with for years), climate change and sustainability as a result of consulting civilians in public assembly forums.

Eco-friendly TEDx

Sustainability and sustainable development were key parts of TEDxVienna 2018, with many of the exhibitors positioned in this space. Social impact networking organisation Impact Hub Vienna asked attendees to develop business plans around the sustainable development goal they thought was crucial to achieve (see below).

Every audience member was given a reusable bottle made from plants and lactic acid (made by partner Naku) to limit single-usage of plastics, while all disposable cutlery and plates were collected for recycling. Separate waste bins for different materials were located around the Volkstheater – making TEDxVienna 2018 the most sustainable edition in its history.

On the subject of sustainability, speaker Dan Phillips showed what was possible when you use recycled material to build new things. His house in Texas – built in the shape of a cowboy boot – was created solely from materials that had been used for another purpose already. His key message was for people to ignore the marketing messages they’re bombarded with on a daily basis and avoid buying new stuff that will inevitably end up in landfill.

One of the things delegates learnt was that (like new products) they don’t necessarily need a high-flying career to be happy. Tal Shmueli told his story of how he gave up a high-powered (but unfulfilling) role at LinkedIn to join a start-up after his friends critiqued his life and told him to find a new job. During his subsequent workshop, he explained how attendees could do the same thing, and encouraged them to live the life they wanted and to get their own friends to call them out on their fears.

Perhaps this time next year, at what will be the 10th edition of TEDxVienna, one of those workshop attendees might be telling their own unique story about transforming the complexities of their life with simplifying philosophies learnt from Tal and the other speakers of TEDxVienna 2018 – SIMPLEXITY.


Matthew Campelli
Monika Abramczuk

Photo credit:
Natalia Sander
Daniel Willinger Photographie
Samuel Erik Colombo
Matthew Campelli


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