Image: TEDxWarwick / Flickr
Image: TEDxWarwick / Flickr

Inside TEDxWarwick 2019: A Q&A with the team

TEDxWarwick, the largest student-run conference in Europe, returns tomorrow for the 11th year running. From designing and creating the magazine edition and hosting a plethora of speakers to choosing this year’s flagship conference, Architects of Tomorrow, one of the team members, Ahmed Sorour, sits down with us to explain the days and months of preparation.

What is TEDxWarwick for those who don’t know?

A few months back (without revealing any names because of GDPR and whatnot), I had someone ask me if TEDxWarwick was some sort of fan-club with students watching TED talks every week. I nodded, and aptly said: “Yes, yes it is”.

Truth be told, TEDxWarwick is many things, but being demoted to a fan-club tends to hurt the soul. It’s a cultural and wholesome experience at its core, bringing swathes of speakers to campus – both nationally and from abroad – to speak about their experiences, struggles and ground-breaking ideas. We are a non-profit and non-partisan organisation. Our speakers are changemakers and scientists, daredevils and economists, refugees and survivors of conflict, and more; we bring extraordinary individuals with extraordinary ideas to take stage at our annual events.

More than just a university event, our reach extends far and wide, with our attendees hailing from across the UK and Europe, and our online audience numbering in the millions. We tirelessly work to involve local and student communities in our TEDx vision.

So yes, I guess you could call us a fan-club – just a bit more of die-hard one.

A half-score and one year ago, in the autumn of 2008, Kunal Amin […] decided to approach TED about organising an event at the university itself

Can you give us a brief history of the society/conference and how it’s expanded so much?

A half-score and one year ago, in the autumn of 2008, Kunal Amin, a final year Engineering student at the University of Warwick decided to approach TED about organising an event at the university itself. Since the request coincided with the developmental stages of the TEDx initiative, it was granted, and Warwick hosted one of the very first TEDx-like events in the world. Since then TEDxWarwick has been held every spring, growing in scale and depth year-on-year. Having been held in lecture theatres in 2010 and 2011, our main conferences since 2012 have shifted to the internationally renowned Butterworth Hall, located in the Warwick Arts Centre.

The team began a number of new initiatives; for the first time, smaller events known as TEDx Salons were hosted throughout the year. TEDxWarwick City 2.0 was held in October 2012, TEDxYouth@Warwick in November 2012, and TEDxWarwickED – focused on education – was held in February 2013. Other firsts for TEDxWarwick include opening speaker applications to the general public in 2013 and hosting our first student salon in 2017, giving those with an idea worth spreading a chance to take the stage at our events. Currently, speaker applications are open to anyone and everyone across local communities.

One of the major goals of the team is therefore to ensure that we expand our reach into local communities […] with inclusivity always in mind

At the moment, we work tirelessly to spark awareness of local and national issues, operate alongside the university’s Executive Office and departments as part of engagement projects across local communities, and partner with societies through events celebrating society achievements.

TEDxWarwick began 11 years ago when it hosted events in small lecture halls across campus. Ten years later, with a 45+ strong student team and 1200 attendees at the main event, we are not only one of the largest TEDx events in the UK, but also the largest student-run TEDx event in Europe.

From our humble beginnings to the present day (and with more than 180 speakers bringing their inspirational stories and talks across the years), we aim to make a difference: locally, internationally, and at the university.

Bet Kunal didn’t know this would happen! Someone should send him a quick rain check.

What was the logistical process behind TEDxWarwick 2019?

TEDxWarwick is a full-time commitment for all of our directors and team members. Preparing for a 1200 attendee flagship conference in the largest arts venue outside of London is pretty easy. It’s like riding a bicycle – if the bicycle, the ground and everything else is on fire. It’s the quintessential definition of stress and pain, but in a good way if that makes any sense.

Every TEDxWarwick conference, especially our upcoming one, demands an entire year of logistical planning across all our teams. Our Corporate Relations team is recruited shortly after the end of the previous event, and they then work to attain partnerships, build relationships and acquire funding for the following year. Afterwards, directors for each of our seven teams are recruited. They begin building upon the foundations in preparation for the following year’s event; this involves undergoing necessary training in tech, becoming acquainted with general TED rules and regulations (of which there are a lot), brainstorming marketing campaigns and approaches, while also pre-booking slots for speakers and performances, and making arrangements for accommodation and Butterworth Hall as a venue.

At the beginning of the academic year, most, if not all, of the preliminary work is complete. Being a regional event (as opposed to one strictly for students) already posits a serious up-hill battle. One of the major goals of the team is therefore to ensure that we expand our reach into local communities, families, staff and more, from Coventry and Leamington Spa to beyond, always with inclusivity in mind.

When it comes to the behind-the-scenes work at our major venue, Butterworth Hall in the Warwick Arts Centre, there’s a whole other beast to tame. Our Operations team here are vital in making sure that TEDxWarwick runs smoothly; their role includes ensuring that health and safety procedures are followed, creating minute by minute running orders for all team members and directors, and ensuring speakers and attendees arrive on time and know where to go. We also organise logistics with Scarman Hotel and the Arts Centre to ensure that the entire team carries out their tasks accordingly, working alongside each other for 14 hours during our rehearsals day and 16 hours during our main event.

Did I also mention we balance this all out by hosting three small, free Salon events for everyone? Yeah, that too.

This year the theme is Architects of Tomorrow. How do you choose the theme?

The beauty of TEDxWarwick is its transparency across all teams; each team member, regardless of their position, is allowed to contribute, provide ideas, and even constructively critique work. This is important as we believe that everyone on our team can provide a positive contribution to our event-planning process by maximising different insights into solving pressing challenges.

When it comes to theme procurement, the Content team generally holds the de-facto decision making ability, but they always liaise with both the Marketing and Creative teams. TEDxWarwick themes are generally abstract and open-ended (depending on the focus of the year) and subsequently lead to the curation of speakers that fit the bill. When the Content team come up with a theme, the Creative team brainstorms different design ideas which compliment the theme in a unique way, ensuring that the designs are vibrant, relevant, and contain a few Easter eggs for the few eagle-eyed audience members. The Marketing team then advises on possible marketing campaigns; for instance, where the theme involves an insinuation towards the STEM field and beyond, we are advised to pursue partnerships with large foundations like WMG, the Engineering Department and other societies in an effort to push the TEDx message further.

TEDxWarwick aims to fill a cultural gap on campus and in the region

When a few theme ideas have been decided upon, a vote is put to the entire team and the preferred choice becomes that year’s theme. Everyone walks away happy, knowing that they were a part of the decision-making process; such is the TEDx way.

If you’re interested in how our Creative team have worked to actively create the stunning designs for our events, here’s some more information:

Our first Salon Event, titled By Design featured a prominent lamp on its design. While the lamp at first seems meaningless (don’t tell Elena our Creative Director), the purpose of the event was to highlight the impact of design decisions on everyday life and referenced the work of legendary contemporary designer Ettore Sottsass and his signature optical illusion lamp, Tahiti.

Our second Salon Event, Thinking in Green, was designed with a collage of botanical imagery on a stark industrial backdrop, highlighting contemporary issues; our speakers were invited to provide solutions to Earth’s sustainability crisis.

Our flagship conference, Architects of Tomorrow, was designed using a plethora of architectural grid lines, following its namesake. Did you know that each of the grid lines can be combined to form the greater TEDxWarwick logo and our signature ‘X’? No? Well, neither did we. Thanks Elena.

What makes TEDxWarwick stand out?

In an age of 30 financial conferences about stock markets, economics, business, finance and more, one event aims to go against the grain: TEDxWarwick – a true David versus Goliath scenario.

TEDxWarwick aims to fill a cultural gap on campus and in the region. It’s less about depressing economic outlooks and information you might find in the Financial Times article, and more about our speakers, their struggles, their stories and their impact – something far more relatable and applicable to our audience members. This is not about providing a platform for high-ranking government officials or suspiciously paid leading economists, but a platform for the underdogs of society – those with ground-breaking ideas and stories that aim to inspire and change the world for the better.

TEDxWarwick is here to stay, long into the future

TEDxWarwick is built with everyone in mind, regardless of background, social status, location, earnings, whether you are staff, students, local community members or otherwise. Our events are held by students for everyone – no strings attached. With accessible ticket prices, fewer barriers to entry, and utilising the university’s reach into local communities, we aim to invite anyone and everyone to share in this unforgettable experience. After all, we can never put a price on ideas worth sharing, no matter how cliché it sounds.

Suits are also not mandatory which is a big plus.

What’s in store for the future of TEDxWarwick?

TED is not dead. It’s bigger than it has ever been, and with a growing interest among the student population, the university’s Executive Office, local communities and across TED global itself (several of our talks have been featured – a feat accomplished by less than 1% of TEDx talks worldwide) TEDxWarwick is here to stay, long into the future. Nothing further solidifies our impact or acts as a testament to our efforts than our awards record: we have frequently won Best Event and have twice been nominated and short-listed for the Best University Event nation-wide in the National Societies Awards.

TEDxWarwick is a family. All of our directors, team members and coordinators bond through thick and thin, despite the never-ending sea of challenges. We have grown from colleagues to friends, all working together for the shared passion of ideas worth spreading. It’ll pain all of us knowing that in a few weeks’ time we’ll all go our separate ways, some of us advancing into more senior roles, others graduating and following new pursuits. Regardless of what happens in the future, the TEDxWarwick lineage will continue, as we pass on the torch to the next generation of volunteers in the forthcoming year.

Sigh. Everyone loves a good sob story, and this – what we grew from, what we made and what’s in store for us in the near future – sure is one.

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