At TEDxJohannesburg, “Ideas”, “Technology” and “Innovation” are not Four-Letter Words

The theme of TEDxJohannesburg 2016 was “Abundance”, and the speakers on day one (24 November) demonstrated that our world is indeed overflowing with ideas and opportunity.

As guests settled into the auditorium at the Riversands Incubation Hub (Fourways), it felt like we were about to bear witness to something great. I was excited to be getting a behind-the-scenes look at how the inspirational YouTube videos we watch are made.

Illustration by Roy Blumenthal

Akiva Beebe, a leadership guru who specialises in new approaches to “human potential” in business, immediately set the tone for the morning with a presentation on the importance of facing the unknown, and preparing oneself to make the best of an ever-changing society. Specifically, Beebe referred to the need to embrace the fast-paced technological advancements that characterise our modern world. Globalisation, the internet and, by extension, all personal smart devices are changing the way we communicate and interact with one another. This, according to Beebe, is nothing to be afraid of. Technology should be seen as a way of improving and enhancing our lifestyles, and not as a threat to stability and safety.

Building on this idea of technology as a welcome addition to our lifestyles, veteran tech journalist Arthur Goldstuck spoke about ideas and innovation as the cornerstone of all development in society. Juxtaposing innovations from 1916 (such as the standardised hamburger bun and the first self-service supermarket) with those that have emerged since the invention of the internet (such as wearable technology and virtual reality devices), Goldstuck showed that ideas really do make the world go around.

Later, when Lionel Bisschoff made a case for the Joy Economy 2030 project in South Africa, I realised that there is truly no such thing as an idea that is “too big”. The key to turning ideas into tangible products is vision, hard work and, most importantly, commitment. That being said, the idea of “sovereign money” still feels too abstract for me. Read about Bisschoff’s “new economy” initiative on, and decide for yourself.

The theme of technological innovation as a pathway to personal and professional success continued in the presentations by Siphumelele Zondi and Yasaman Hadjibashi.

Zondi, whose work on television and radio focuses on technology and social media innovations on the African continent, spoke about remarkable ways in which Africans are using technology to address their communities’ problems, and to create a new narrative about African life. Citing examples such as M-PESA, mPedigree, mom connect and Rethaka Repurpose Schoolbags, Zondi showed that Africans are using the resources at their disposal to create applications and products that meet the needs of the people. This spirit of innovation is in contradiction with the common perception that all technology is “from the West” or that it is reserved for white people, and is therefore difficult to understand or use. Zondi encouraged us to challenge that perception, and to recognise the worth of the game changing innovations coming out of our continent.

In the same way that technology has been used to improve the quality of people’s lives, it has also been used to spread new truths about the experience of life as an African. The internet has given content creators who are passionate about promoting their countries and the continent as a whole the platforms they need to express themselves. Notable examples are Ramscomics and An African City. These series showcase the talent of African producers, while simultaneously giving a voice to Africans who have previously felt left out of story of their continent.

In her work with children from schools in disadvantaged areas, Barclays Group Chief Data Officer Yasaman Hadjibashi has noticed that children need consistent, genuine support and mentorship if they are to achieve their dreams. This is not a new observation, but Hadjibashi’s approach to meeting children’s needs is definitely innovative. Hadjibashi believes that artificial intelligence and big data can be harnessed to create an educational support system that will enhance education and greatly improve the chances of success. This is where the future of education lies, according to Hadjibashi.

Conversations about the improvement of the education system are broad and complex, but insights from Hadjibashi and Bailey Thomson of SPARK Schools – who spoke about the place of resourcefulness and deliberately prioritising social and emotional development in the curriculum – point to the abundance of options and opportunities in the education space.

Before the event, the conversation about technological innovations in society was not one that I believed I could be part of. Aside from my social media accounts and my habit of binge-watching videos on YouTube, I don’t engage with technology on a deeper level. It has always felt too “science-y” for me. Innovation was for other people who are smarter, more inclined to come up with Big Ideas than I am. After yesterday, I’m beginning to think differently about my own capacity to create something that will make a lasting impact on the world.

Thank you to Kelo Kubu, organiser of TEDxJohannesburg, for making it possible for me to attend the event.