Ideas sparked by “What if?”: The talks of TED@UPS 2018

Juan Perez, UPS’s chief information and engineering officer, opens TED@UPS with a question: “What if?” (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

The greatest ideas of our time will be sparked by a simple question: “What if?”

What if we had truly inclusive workplaces? What if we removed the inefficiencies that stand in the way of eliminating world hunger? What if we could deliver quality health care in the home? What if we took back our privacy online? At this year’s TED@UPS — held on July 19, 2018, at SCADShow in Atlanta — TED and UPS partnered for the fourth year in a row to bring remarkable UPSers to the stage to explore these questions and more. In a time of uncertainty, global evolution and rapid innovation, their ideas on how to solve our most intractable problems have never been more important to hear.

After opening remarks from Juan Perez, UPS’s chief information and engineering officer, the talks in Session 1 …

“The lessons we learn about diversity at work actually transform the things we do, think and say outside of work​​,” says Janet Marie Stovall. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Getting single-minded about racially diverse workplaces. Inclusion crusader Janet Marie Stovall asks us to imagine a place where people​ ​of​ ​all colors and all races​ ​ar​e ​on​ ​and​ ​climbing every rung of the corporate ​​ladder — where they “feel safe and indeed expected to bring their unassimilated, authentic selves to work every day, because the difference that they bring is both recognized and respected.” How do we get there? According to Stovall, companies must​ ​create an action plan that has three key components. The first is “real problems.” By 2045, the US population is projected to be predominantly non-white, and businesses that don’t mirror that diversity in their workforce and customer base are set up to fail. The second: “real numbers.” Businesses need to set specific diversity goals and commit to them, Stovall says. And if they don’t reach those numbers, there must be “real consequence” — Stovall’s third attribute. We spend one-third of our lives at our jobs, and if we can do so in inclusive, diverse environments, these benefits will be felt society-wide. “The lessons we learn about diversity at work actually transform the things we do, think and say outside of work​​,” Stovall says.

What we can learn from Marines and machines. Before he entered the business world, Drew Humphreys was a platoon commander with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines in Afghanistan — in charge of 36 Marines fighting the Taliban and maintaining a vital supply route through Helmand Province. After commanding every convoy himself for months, Humphreys’ mission changed when the Marine Corps started pulling troops and equipment out of Afghanistan, forcing him to divide his platoon and give over some control to other commanders. The result: an unlocking of human potential. Humphreys defined success but allowed the Marines in his command to find their own solutions to the obstacles they encountered. But it’s not just the military moving toward this kind of decentralized leadership model — the same thing is happening in business, spurred on by innovations in machine learning. Humphreys outlines three lessons we can learn from this ongoing trend. First, emphasize purpose over process. “When you micromanage, you limit what’s possible,” Humphreys says. Next, encourage early and lifelong learning — the ultimate competitive advantage. And finally: have a bias for action. “Get comfortable with the decision that’s probably right instead of waiting for the elusive perfect answer,” Humphreys says.

New thoughts on gun safety. The slogan “Make America great again” reminds gun safety advocate David Farrell that gun violence wasn’t always rampant in the US. Forty years ago, mass shootings were a rarity in America. But in the 1970s, crime spiked, and the media went wild. By the ’80s, the NRA no longer touted guns solely as a tool for recreation — they were a means of countering fear. And when a gun becomes a tool to address our own fears, “it’s not hard to believe that somebody who’s troubled, angry or disenfranchised would then use a gun to solve their problems. And if you’re mentally disturbed, we’ve now made guns a rational decision,” Farrell says. He believes that fear should not be the reason people purchase guns. Responsible gun owners must insist that the NRA refocus on gun safety, and recognize that gun control does not equal infringing on gun rights. If we can stop being so afraid, we can “make America safe again,” Farrell says.

One of the oldest sounds in Chinese history. With a musical interlude, Yue Xiu Lim from UPS Singapore delights the audience with the riveting, delicate and harmonious sounds of the Chinese guzheng, a harp-like instrument that dates back to ancient times. She played two songs: “White,” a calming tune reminiscent of lullabies, and a twist on the pop song “Shape of You” made famous by Ed Sheeran.

Aparna Mehta reveals the unseen world of “free” online returns, which often end up landfills instead of back on the shelf. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Are free online returns really free? Every year, four billion pounds of returned clothing ends up in the landfill — the equivalent of every resident in the US doing a load of laundry and then throwing it straight in the trash. Why? Because sometimes it’s cheaper for a company to throw a returned item away than to make the effort of relabeling it and returning it to the shelf. Recovering shopaholic and retail consultant Aparna Mehta has the ideal vantage point to assess the scope of our online return addiction — and an ideal platform to do something about the waste it creates. Obviously, shoppers could take the extra time to decide what they truly need and purchase accordingly, but this is only a first step. Aparna has an idea to go a step further: “green-turns” instead of “returns.” “What if, when a person is trying to return something, it could go to the next shopper who wants it, and not the retailer?” Each unwanted item could be assessed electronically for condition, matched with someone who wants it and redirected accordingly. With the proper incentives built into the system to get shoppers to use it, “green-turns” could revolutionize the way we buy — and return — clothes online, Mehta says.

Simple, logistical steps we can take to eradicate world hunger. During a work trip to Uganda in 2016, food advocate Dan Canale was shocked to see how small inefficiencies caused serious delays to food shipments to refugee camps. For example, the lack of a forklift at one humanitarian organization’s warehouse meant it took three hours of manual labor to load a single truck. As a result of inefficiencies like these across food delivery systems, Canale estimates that nearly a third of the food produced globally ends up lost or wasted. That’s why he’s working to find solutions to shipping and delivery problems — offering action-based steps like diversifying the number of ports able to receive food and ensuring that food closest to expiration is shipped first. He encourages us to imagine: What if we used our most cutting-edge technology, like drones and military-grade aquatic vehicles, to deliver food to the hungry? By approaching these questions with innovation and zeal, Canale says, we can solve world hunger for good.

Global citizen Wanis Kabbaj shares some lessons for nationalists and globalists alike. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Moving beyond binary thinking. Why do we have to choose between nationalism and globalism, between loving our countries and caring for the world? Wanis Kabbaj has been grappling with this question for years — having lived in four continents, the debate between nationalism and globalism isn’t new to him. But the recent worldwide surge in nationalist fervor got him thinking: What if, instead of making a choice between the two, we took it on ourselves to challenge this binary thinking? He provides some interesting insights for nationalists and globalists. For those opposed to nationalism, he offers research showing how national satisfaction is more predictive of overall happiness than job satisfaction or household income. And for those who see globalism as evil, he provides compelling examples of how even national treasures like the Eiffel Tower, cricket or Italian home cooking are actually products of cross-cultural interaction.

Two poems on discovering and celebrating love. To close out session 1, poet Muslim Sahib performs two lyrical, humorous poems for the close-listening crowd. In his first piece, “The Coming Out Beauty,” Sahib weaves together religion, queerness, family and beauty, guiding the audience through his journey to self-love and encouraging them to recognize the beauty within themselves. In his second poem, “419 square feet,” he shares the bittersweet practice of finding love and building a home in what can be a restrictive world.

Musician and UPS package car driver John Bidden rocks the UPS stage with a performance of “Dry Bones.” (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

To open Session 2, singer-songwriter and UPS package car driver John Bidden returns to the TED@UPS stage for the second year in a row, performing an electrifying, reggae-tinged rendition of “Dry Bones.”

In an eye-opening talk, anti-trafficking champion Nikki Clifton outlines three ways businesses can fight sex trafficking. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Businesses can help end sex trafficking. ​Pe​ople may think there’s little overlap between the buttoned-up world of business and the criminal underworld of sex trafficking. But according to one ​survey​, ​most johns — people who purchase sex — are employed, and ​web-based sex-buying ​tends to ​spike around 2pm. “These johns are likely buying sex in the middle of the workday,” says anti-trafficking champion Nikki Clifton.​ Businesses have a huge opportunity to reach the johns in their workplaces​ and to mobilize their employees and resources to fight against trafficking​, Clifton suggests. She outlines a three-point plan​, starting with the idea that businesses should state in their official employee handbook that sex buying at work, on company travel or with company resources is prohibited (and, of course, enforce this​ policy). Second, all employees ​should be​ trained to spot the signs of sex trafficking. For example, Clifton says, UPS teamed up with a group called Truckers Against Trafficking to educate its drivers about what to look for and who they can call for help. Third, businesses ​can​ figure out how they can use their​ special​ capabilities to combat sex trafficking. Clifton points to Visa, MasterCard and American Express — they joined forces and refused to process transactions from Backpage.com, an online sex-trafficking hub, which helped shut it down. “There are thousands of things that businesses can do; they just have to decide what to do to join the fight,” Clifton says.

Small business success: it takes a village. Nearly half of all US small businesses fail within their first five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a figure that got small business strategist Ruchi Shah wondering: Is there a new model for entrepreneurial success? After shutting the doors of her own startup, Shah looked for answers from one group of consistently successful entrepreneurs: Guatemalan small business owners. Why? Because Guatemala and other developing countries use a microfinance approach called “village banking,” in which local entrepreneurs join together to get the loans and support they need to run their businesses. (The village banking concept was pioneered by social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the idea in 2006.) Shah traveled to South America to study why village banks work, discovering three primary reasons: they give entrepreneurs a built-in team of advisors upfront; they adjust to customer needs; and they have a relentless focus on managing cash flow. Shah believes the idea of entrepreneurs having a vested interest in each other’s success can help build a strong foundation for any business, helping them weather the tough times with a diverse network of support. “Ultimately, it’s going to take more than our country’s determined entrepreneurs to improve our startup failure rates,” Shah says. “From what I have learned, it takes a village.”

Healthcare delivered at home. It’s time to fix our broken and obsolete hospital system, says healthcare futurist Niels van Namen. Beyond their general unpleasantness, hospitals present many logistical challenges: patients often have to travel long distances to reach them, especially for people living in remote areas, and many people avoid hospitals due to the costs, causing them to miss out on proper treatment altogether. For those who do get treatment, hospitals often make them sicker thanks to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that flourish in hospitals. “We have the opportunity to revolutionize the system,” van Namen says. “It is time to create a system that revolves around health care at home.” With recent innovations in medical technology (such as the at-home blood test), “homecare” presents a cheaper and more accessible alternative to hospital stays. In this setup, patients would receive treatment from the comfort of their homes and in the proximity of their families, while hospitals would become small, agile and mobile care centers focused on acute care. Homecare could also be a boon to rural areas, enabling a kind of sharing economy that matches people in need of care with someone who can provide a nearby home for treatment. “I am passionate to make the change and help ensure that patients, and not their diseases, are in control of their lives,” van Namen says.

Robin Hooker asks: What new ideas could budding creatives bring to life if there was a makerspace in every town? (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

A makerspace in every town. While his friends were outside playing football, young Robin Hooker was in the garage with his dad, an Air Force mechanic, fusing iron with an oxyacetylene welder (and dodging the shoe-melting molten debris that would occasionally fly free). Hooker wasn’t just gaining a feel for design and learning his way around a workshop — he was learning that the world could be mashed-up, modded, repaired, reclaimed. Now he believes “we can transform the world by giving more people access to spaces like my dad’s garage” — what artisans now call “makerspaces.” Makerspaces are shared workshops that allow budding builders and designers to access the tools they need to create things — tools that otherwise would be prohibitively expensive. Perhaps more important, makerspaces offer inventors, hobbyists and tinkerers of diverse cultures, generations, genders and professions a chance to inspire each other to invent world-changing stuff. “What if entrepreneurs brought a makerspace to every town?” Hooker asks. “What new ideas could budding creatives bring to life?”

How to take back our online privacy. If someone broke into your house, chances are you’d take precautions to prevent it from happening again: new locks, a security alarm, increased insurance. Yet year after year, as massive data breaches sweep the internet, most of us have failed to safeguard our digital information. “We make the trade of online privacy for convenience,” says data privacy enthusiast Derek L. Banta. He’s working on a new way to protect people’s privacy called “anonymous commerce,” or “a-commerce.” Instead of giving your personal information to every website you visit, with a-commerce you’d give your information to a single, trusted third party. That third party would then secure your information and give you a personalized code to use when shopping online, serving as a kind of intermediary “avatar” between you and the brand. And what if the third party got hacked? The return on the hack would be less enticing, as hackers would only get access to one avatar at a time, instead of thousands of transactions. “In an a-commerce world, privacy is the business model,” Banta says. “We have an opportunity to hit the reset button on how we do business online. We can effectively disown the unintended consequences of being pioneers in the digital age.”

The dark side of disaster donations — and what you can do about it. In the aftermath of disaster, the world often responds with generosity and love, shipping thousands of boxes of resources to cities and countries healing from calamity. But what we’re not considering, says disaster relief expert Dale Herzog, is the logistical nightmare of receiving all of these donations. According to Herzog, the vast majority of disaster donations are destroyed — for example, a whopping 60 percent of donations sent to Haiti and Japan after natural disasters in 2010 and 2011 were thrown away. Herzog urges us to reconsider how we respond to disaster relief, suggesting that we replace that box of old clothes with a cash donation, and send an email or Tweet of support rather than mail a handwritten card. Instead of bogging relief organizations down with more stuff, we can donate in ways that help survivors recover and rebuild, Herzon says.

A silent national pandemic. In 2009, 11,341 untested rape kits — some dating back to the 1980s — were found in an abandoned warehouse where the Detroit police once stored evidence. When this scandal was uncovered, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy set a plan into action to get justice for the thousands of people affected, but she needed help to deal with the massive logistical challenges. In an eye-opening talk, Worthy explains how UPS supported her office and created a protocol to have these kits tracked and tested. As of June 2018, their partnership has led to more than 10,000 rape kits being tested, 2,600 identified suspects and historic state-wide laws being passed. But there is still a lot of work to be done — with more than 400,000 kits nationally that have yet to be tested and a rape culture that needs be fixed. The solution, says Worthy, will take inspired multi-industry collaboration.


What does TED look for in its Fellows?

Every year, TED opens applications for its new group of TED Fellows. We get thousands of applications from all corners of the world, representing every field under the sun — marine mammal conservation, biomechatronics, Khmer dance, space archeology. How do we select just 20 people to become TED Fellows?

It’s not an easy process. (Technically, our acceptance rate is lower than Harvard’s.) But we love reading your applications and hearing about your latest medical breakthroughs, ambitious art projects and incredible explorations in outer space and under the sea. We also love seeing the diversity of the people doing this groundbreaking work.

What exactly makes for a good application? Here are five traits that we look for in a TED Fellow.  

A track record of achievement. In order to be selected, you have to have done something in the world. What does that “something” look like? It depends. Maybe you’ve started a company or invented a new product. Maybe you’ve made a groundbreaking film or discovered a new galaxy. Whatever you’re doing, you should be deep in your craft, building something big.

Individuals on the cusp of a big break. Beyond a track record, we are looking for people who are ready to make a giant leap forward, and could benefit from support. Fellows are often in the early part of their careers, but we also know that big breaks can happen at any age. Fellows’ projects should have real potential for impact, and they should realistically be scalable in the next three to five years. What that scale looks like depends on the project, but we select Fellows whose ambitions are big and often global.

Originality and authenticity. An original “idea worth spreading” is the key to a successful Fellows applicant. Maybe you’re working to make a current system more efficient or equitable. Or maybe you’re working across fields, challenging the underlying assumptions of our current systems and creating brand-new ones. In fact, we’ve chosen Fellows whose work is just getting off the ground — but whose vision of the future is so imaginative and convincing that we know TED’s network can help them realize that future.   

Kind, collaborative character. The TED Fellows program now encompasses more than 450 Fellows in more than 90 countries. We’re looking for people who want to engage deeply in this amazing network — build companies together, start nonprofits, share research. Often, TED Fellows are engaging deeply with the communities around them, perhaps in the places where they were born or raised. In our experience, some of the best and most overlooked ideas for our contemporary global challenges come from those whose lives depend on the solutions.  

The truth is, we don’t always know what we’re looking for. Often, Fellows totally surprise and challenge us with brand-new ways of thinking about the world. There really is no secret formula to becoming a TED Fellow, but we know it when we see it. If you’re unsure about applying, do it anyway.

Does this sound like you or someone you know? Our application is now open. Dream bigger and apply by August 26, 2018.


Electric and empowered: Monica Araya on Costa Rica’s clean energy future


Monica Araya made a big prediction on the TED stage in 2016: Costa Rica, her home country, will be the first nation in the world to pursue 100% renewable energy. Fast forward to 2018, and they’re on their way. Costa Rica already generates over 99% of their electricity through renewable energy, and went 300 days on clean energy in 2017. And in May, in a visionary next step, new president Carlos Alvarado announced at his inauguration that Costa Rica would phase out the use of fossil fuels in transportation, calling it a “generational imperative.” We talked to Monica, the director of Costa Rica Limpia (Clean Costa Rica), about what lies ahead.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you tell us about the clean energy movement in Costa Rica? What are the core objectives and how is Costa Rica positioned to lead the way?

I went on the TED stage [to share] a vision of a small country thinking big. We should completely get rid of fossil fuels. Why not? The country already runs on renewable energy, which is not the case for the world — it’s not the case for Europe, the US, India or China. We’ve already broken free from fossil fuels for power and electricity generation. We’ve done the work with civil society from the ground up, but we needed it to become a vision for the country. Costa Rica is a young nation that’s going to turn 200 in 2021. 200 years ago, we broke free from Spain and we became a free nation — and that matches perfectly with this timing. We’re now ready to say, “We are going to free ourselves from fossil fuels.”

“This is the new Costa Rica, and in that new Costa Rica, we know that the future is renewable and electric.”

We have all the conditions — we have clean electricity, we have a young president who wants to do right, and we have technology on our side. Renewable energy has become a part of the country’s identity. People feel proud: they believe it’s a Costa Rican thing to go green. If you look at the citizen consultations we’ve done with Costa Rica Limpia, people disagree on many things but they agree on this. The president knows that he can set a precedent at a time when the world is trying to figure out how to transition to electric mobility. We have to show that it’s doable and beneficial, that it works technologically; I think that’s the value of a small country doing it first.

What are the challenges that Costa Rica will face in transitioning to 100% clean energy? I’m particularly interested in transportation, and moving from gasoline to electric energy — what are the challenges of that?

In practice, there are five things we have to do. We managed to pass the first electric zero-emissions law in Latin America. That came out of a coalition led by congresswoman Marcela Guerrero Campos. We created that coalition and it led to a law — Argentina and Columbia are going to try to do the same — and now, the law needs to be implemented. It calls for electrification of at least 10 percent of all the transportation owned by the state, and gives financial incentives for five years for electrification. This law is the first step — and it was hard — but we won it. It was a big day. I had some tears in my eyes when we passed it.

Second, on June 5th, on World Environment Day, we launched an initiative to electrify buses. That’s going to take some time because that’s a sector that is resistant to change — in Costa Rica, the buses belong to companies and they run for concessions every seven years. We have to make sure when they apply for concessions for the next seven-year cycle, the mandate for the buses are embedded in this requirement. In the meantime, we’re going to start testing three bus lines. Public transportation is very important in Latin America and in Costa Rica. Latin America has the highest number of people in the world using public transit. So the electrification of buses is a very important step.


Monica Araya: “By 2022, electric cars and conventional cars are expected to cost the same, and cities are already trying electric buses…if we want to get rid of oil-based transportation, we can, because we have options now that we didn’t have before.” Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

The next element that is very important is the First Lady’s Office. The first lady is amazing — she’s an architect, and she’s totally into decarbonization. Her office is focusing on urban issues, and public transit is a big part of that. Her priority is to lead the process towards the urban electric train. The train is very important to this administration — it’s a symbol of modernization. For Costa Ricans, the train is something that was wanted for a long time and was blocked by bus companies. The First Lady has taken this on; by the end of the four years, we should have started the first electric train.

I think there’s a new generation around the world — it doesn’t matter if it’s Costa Rica, or Columbia, or the Philippines  — that aspire to have bikes and safe bike paths. It’s about democratizing the street and making sure the streets don’t belong to private cars. The President of our Congress, Carolina Hidalgo Herrera, goes to work on a bike — she rode her bike to the inauguration in high heels. That’s another route to decarbonization; the bike path is a symbol of good planning, and that is where we have failed in the past. In emerging economies, it’s common to just let cars rule. The electric bus was used to transport all of the ministers to the transportation and it was important for the people to see a zero-emission bus arriving to the inauguration. There’s a lot of backcasting — looking to the ideal future and working backwards from there to see what we need to do. It’s about having a direction of travel.

The President and Minister put a draft law in Congress that makes it impossible for Costa Rica to do any drilling and any exploitation of fossil fuels. We already have a moratorium on oil exploration and exploitation from around 15 years ago that has been sustained by five different governments from three different parties; it cannot be removed. This new government wants to make sure it is the law. It’s a way of saying that they’re serious about fossil fuels not being the future for us. In the early 2000s, there was lobbying by a company in Texas who wanted to do oil exploration in Costa Rica, and there was a lot of pressure on us. The Minister of Energy and Environment at the time said, “No way, this is not going to happen,” — and I know this because I asked him — he said, “Look, I don’t know what will happen, but I can assure you that as long as I’m the minister, they will have to go over my dead body.” That was very reassuring for me to hear as a young advocate.

“There’s a long tradition of environmental protection in Costa Rica.”

Here’s what’s interesting: the Minister of Energy and Environment at that time, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, is the minister again. It’s reassuring to have a confident and experienced minister because it means we’re going to think big. We organized a free citizen encounter with him a few weeks after he was appointed — we brought him to a museum and sat him in front of citizens. The two of us were on the stage — two chairs, nothing fancy — and I asked him questions and he answered. We also used Facebook Live so people could listen from home. And he says he wants to do these kinds of citizen encounters every six months.

That’s great — connecting the citizens to what can be a more abstract concern is important. Environmental changes can be very macro so bringing it to the citizens in an accessible place of understanding and engagement is necessary.

It’s very important to have symbols. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to get rid of plastics or protect the ocean — you have to know what your symbols are. We came up with a logo of a contour of Costa Rica’s map that connects through a plug, meaning that there’s clean electricity that connects us as Costa Ricans, as a country.


Photo: Costa Rica Limpia

We created the Costa Rican Association for Electric Mobility as a separate entity that represents users of electric mobility — electric buses, motorbikes, cars, etcetera. It’s helped as we talk to young people, mothers, grandmothers — people who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the climate. It’s easy to feel small and scared, and feel like it all depends on what China or Trump does. That’s a dangerous framing of the problem because it’s so easy to do nothing and have a “why bother?” mentality. And when advocates and governments have that kind of framing, you lose the citizens, the people. So we had to think about the symbols of success. What is the symbol of success if we decarbonize? I’m obsessed with exhaust pipes and the fumes that come out of cars — they’re a symbol of the last century that we really need to get rid of.

“The day we are a country without exhaust pipes — the buses won’t have them, the cars won’t have them — then we have succeeded in our mission to decarbonize the country. Hopefully, the world will get there someday; Costa Rica will need to get there as soon as possible to show that it’s possible.“

The plug has become an important symbol for us. We show a very modern-looking plug and say — look, you have electricity at home to toast your bread, charge your phone, make your coffee. Everything you do is electric. Why on earth would you want an old technology that burns, that’s liquid, that’s not even Costa Rican? It costs a lot to bring it in, it causes climate change, and when you put it in your car, you have to burn it, then it comes out of an exhaust pipe and pollutes the air. People are really intrigued by the idea that everything they use is already electric other than their cars.

This technology will allow us to meet the Paris Agreement targets, and that’s important — we don’t walk around the Paris Agreement targets like other countries do. We won’t have a global impact on emissions or average temperature, because we’re too small. It’s easy to be cynical: people will say, “What’s the point? Whatever you’re reducing in Costa Rica won’t make a difference.” But we’re the ones who benefit the most. You have to win this on the basis of the benefits for the people and avoid the argument that you do it for the 2-degree temperature change — that framing won’t work for a family in Costa Rica.

It’s important to communicate that the situation is tough but it’s also important to pivot to resilience and to ideas of what is possible for us to protect ourselves. The TED Talk let us use a storytelling format — you can share it on Facebook, watch it on a phone. The TED Talk expanded the imagination of the people who listened to it. Even bigger countries like India have told me, “Maybe India can’t move forward the same way that Costa Rica can, but that doesn’t mean that a city in India the size of Costa Rica cannot think big and move faster to clean energy.” That was a very empowering idea. There’s something about smaller locations that’s great because we can move forward and just wait for the rest of the country to get there. In my country, if you want to get people excited, you have to say that this will make us a country that could inspire others.

We matter because of our ideas, not our size. Being small doesn’t mean thinking small.”

Can you tell us about your work with Costa Rica Limpia? How do you involve and center citizens in your approach? ​

Costa Rica Limpia (Clean Costa Rica) is centered on engaging citizens and consumers in the transition to a fossil free society. We educate, inspire and empower citizens by translating technical issues such as decarbonization, Paris targets and NDCs into layman’s language. We are very focused on zero emissions mobility because being carbon free in Costa Rica means using electricity instead of oil for transportation. We design education materials like infographics and videos that respond to common questions and myths. We also conduct citizen consultations on climate change and renewables, based on a Danish Board of Technology methodology. We pioneered the concept of Electric Mobility Citizen Festivals (we organized two in 2017 and 2018) because it is critical to get people to experience these new technologies.


Congresswoman Marcela Guerrero and Monica Araya attend an Electric Mobility Citizen Festival with their mothers. Photo: Monica Araya

In your talk, you mention that Costa Rica disbanded its army in 1948 and has been able to redirect those funds to programs that develop social progression and growth. In a world that, in a lot of respects, seems unwilling and unable to change, how has Costa Rica been able to cultivate a culture of forward-thinking innovation?

This would not be possible if we didn’t have a social contract that takes care of people’s needs by giving them free health care and free education. We do this work because it makes life better for people who are taking public transit. There’s something about the social guarantee in the ’40s before the abolition of the army that was important. It allowed people to have a safety net, and when you do that, you build a more resilient society. Social progress was able to develop in Costa Rica partially because we have the infrastructure for it. When you go to other places in Latin America, there is a very small group of people who have nearly everything, and you have a very large population that is very poor; we have been very fortunate in Costa Rica to be able to negotiate with those stakeholders.

If there’s something I’ve learned about Costa Rica, it’s that we’ve succeeded because we have a strong middle ground in politics. The new president, Carlos Alvarado, as a political scientist, is trying to practice this lesson from Costa Rica’s history. This is an environmental story, yes, but it’s also about balance. You have to do the environmental work but you can do it better when you have invested in the people’s social progress and have turned it into a good business opportunity. Costa Rica has a larger group of people making money off ecotourism now than in the ‘80s. This bet on natural capital has paid off — when you look at the materials and marketing of Costa Rica in the world, it emphasizes that we have a social safety net. It’s a balancing act between social, environment and economic concerns that we need to get right. It’s worked in the past, and if we want to make sure it works now with fossil-free Costa Rica, we will have to be able to bring on board the private sector but also be very socially oriented. We have to make sure that the people who have the least benefit the most.

What are some other ways Costa Rica is working to protect the environment?

There’s a big movement in Costa Rica to do more about the oceans and our plastic consumption as well. There is a protected area that was launched last year in the south of Costa Rica — it continues with our tradition to resist the exploitation of our natural capital for fossil fuels. The conservation agenda today is not just the land — it’s the oceans too. The relationship between the oceans and the fossil fuel agenda is extremely close because the drilling often happens offshore. If we keep protecting areas around the world, it’ll hopefully create an awareness that the gasoline you put in your car comes from somewhere. The same thing with plastics — there’s a cultural shift and awareness about our unsustainable plastic use. When you link it to oil, it’s really interesting: it comes from oil, from petroleum and natural gas. We continue to work in different bubbles — I’m in the fossil fuel and energy transportation bubbles, but other people are in the ocean bubbles and plastic bubbles. What links us is that we all advocate that we fundamentally have to change our relationship to fossil fuels.

Are you going to play a role in the energy transition? What are your next steps?

I’m going to help with the decarbonization pathways — that takes time, and it takes not just technical work but also consultation with key stakeholders. There’s methodologies with this but the Minister doesn’t want to end up with something too theoretical but rather, is grounded in our political reality. I’ll be helping with that. We need to find as many partners as possible — in Costa Rica, obviously — but also outside. My role is to tell the story as best as I can so that we can attract anyone around the world with brilliant ideas. We want to be the testing ground for a fossil-free society. In Costa Rica Limpia, I see the electrification of buses as a very strategic action plan. This is something that is going to transform life in a very tangible way. The buses are beautiful, quiet, and they don’t pollute. Imagine a single mom with two kids who will be commuting on that bus — her life will be transformed for the better.



You can now get customized TED Talk recommendations in your inbox

As the number of TED Talks on TED.com grows, we’ve created a new way to discover talks you’ll love: Tell us your favorite topics and areas of interest, and we’ll send you a customized email brimming with talks worth your personal attention.

Here’s how it works: First, log in to your TED.com account (or create one, if you haven’t already). Then visit ted.com/recommends and tell us the topics that fascinate you most, as well as your personal goals in watching TED Talks. In other words: What do you want to get out of the time you’re spending online?

At the TED Recommends sign-in page, you can decide what kind of talks you’d most like to watch. Ask yourself: What do you hope to learn from watching a talk?

We’ll take that input and combine it with your watch history to serve up jaw-dropping, a-ha-moment-inducing, worldview-altering talks—picked just for you. The more you watch, the better the recommendations will get.

And you won’t just be taking our word for it. The recommended talks are selected by members of our community who share your passions and have strong opinions about what you need to see right now. You’ll hear from these community members in your personal email and learn why they served up what they did.


Tiq Milan talks to Netflix, the determined search for aliens, and other TED news.

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As usual, the TED community is bursting with new projects and discoveries. Here are a few highlights.

The power of representation. Writer and trans activist Tiq Milan, at left in the photo above, was interviewed for a new initiative by Netflix and GLAAD called “First Time I Saw Me.” Alongside Elliot Fletcher, Jamie Clayton, Jazz Jennings and other trans actors and media makers, Tiq spoke on the realities of being marginalized in media, and what representation means to him. “With representation, we’re going to see the hearts and minds of people change,” he said. “And then, we see policies change.” Bonus: As a beautiful part of the project (and a surprise to Tiq!), Netflix commissioned visual artist Rae Senarighi to live-paint a larger-than-life color portrait of Tiq as he spoke. (Watch Tiq’s TED Talk here.)

The most fearless comedian alive. In a new profile in Glamour, Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid offers her thoughts on the internet, our political landscape and the limitless possibilities of humor. Maysoon uses her comedy to shine a light on Islamophobia and disability, and is a vocal advocate against bigotry of all kinds. She co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival (now in its 14th season!), “to combat the negative images about Arabs and Muslims in media.” (Watch Maysoon’s TED Talk here.)

Illuminating truth by mining map data. In a feature by the BBC, political scientist and megacity expert Robert Muggah revealed fascinating insights from several super-maps he helped develop at Instituto Igarapé. By sifting through key data points found while researching geographical patterns, these maps can offer fascinating information about climate change, refugee and migration patterns, even light pollution. Instituto Igarapé has just released a new website, Earth Time, for global citizens to dive into to understand comprehensive information through highly visual, accessible formats. (Watch Robert’s TED Talk here.)

Where are the aliens? American senior astronomer Seth Shostak was recently interviewed for Vox’s Explained series on Netflix on the famous Fermi paradox and the possibilities of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life. At TED in 2012, Seth shared a bold prediction: we’ll find aliens within the next two dozen years. Others are not quite so sure, retooling a probability equation called the Drake equation to shut down our hopes of finding and communicating with otherworldly beings. As a researcher at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, Seth is determined to prove them wrong. (Watch Seth’s TED Talk.)

Cancer: a descendent of the ancient dog. New research from Elizabeth Murchison and others has found that the closest relative to ancient American dogs isn’t a dog at all — it’s a canine cancer. According to an article by TED speaker Ed Yong in the Atlantic, canine-transmissible venereal tumors (CTVT) likely began in the genitals of a dog thousands of years ago. By remaining alive in dogs dozens of generations (and continents) beyond its humble origins, CTVT stands as the closest living descendent to indigenous American dogs. (Watch Elizabeth’s TED Talk here.)

Dance us to the end of love. One important update isn’t about a speaker at all, rather about someone we got to know through a TED Talk: the dancer and choreographer Gillian Lynne, who died last week after an astonishing life. Here is what Sir Ken Robinson said about her, and it’s worth reading at length:

Gillian Lynne. Have you heard of her? Some have. She’s a choreographer, and everybody knows her work. She did “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” She’s wonderful. Gillian and I had lunch one day and I said, “How did you get to be a dancer?” It was interesting. When she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the ’30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate; she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. People weren’t aware they could have that.

Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about the problems Gillian was having at school. Because she was disturbing people; her homework was always late; and so on, little kid of eight. In the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian, and said, “I’ve listened to all these things your mother’s told me, I need to speak to her privately. Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her.

But as they went out of the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

I said, “What happened?” She said, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet, they did tap, jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School, founded the Gillian Lynne Dance Company, met Andrew Lloyd Webber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.