Inspirefest 2016 Day 1

Today was the first day of Inspirefest, a two day conference in Dublin which describes itself as an “international festival of technology, science, design and the arts” (http://inspirefest.com/). The format is similar to a TEDx but more interactive: one stage hosts keynotes throughout the day and there are also panels and Q&A sessions. Then at 6pm everyone bundles into buses to the Inspirefest Fringe in Merrion Square for music, theatre and the interactive expo tent.

The official theme of the conference is STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) with a focus on innovation and diversity. Most of the entrepreneurs, academics and executives speaking over the two days are women. Inspirefest is the brainchild of Ann O’Dea, founder of tech news website Silicon Republic (https://www.siliconrepublic.com/), who has championed women in technology, and the inagural festival was held last year. In opening the conference, she stressed the diversity of speakers – 70% are women and many are from very different backgrounds. She noted the richness and depth of conversation that diversity can bring, and encouraged attendees to look at the diversity on stage and think: “wouldn’t it be a good idea if that was the same in my organisation”.

Disclaimer: there were so many amazing speakers on the day and unfortunately I haven’t got the chance to mention them all, but hopefully the below gives an idea of what went on!

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“The world needs curiosity, it needs understanding, it needs knowledge” – Enda Kenny opens Inspirefest

Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave the opening address, speaking of the importance of diversity and of supporting women in STEM. He stressed the role of the STEM careers program in secondary schools and noted that “the gendering of certain careers continues – STEM subjects are still seen by many girls as being for boys only”.

Education

Education and diversity, and diversity in education, were the focus of much of the day, with speakers and panels on STEM and STEAM. In a panel discussion on “Building an Inclusive Education System in STEM”, Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland, raised the issue of quotas to increase the number of women applying for research funding. He and Chair Ann O’Dea agreed that without a level of positive discrimination, talented women will remain “hidden” in the system.  Good news came from Christine Loscher, Research Director at Dublin City University, who announced that DCU is renaming all of its buildings, and 50% will be named after women. She also highlighted that female students at third level need to see that other women hold key decision-making positions in the University, to know that “it’s possible”.

STEM career stereotypes also came up, with Mark Ferguson pointing to a survey which revealed that the number one factor for secondary school students when deciding what job they want is that they will “fit in”. Equally, parents want the same thing for their children. He suggested that we need to challenge the stereotype of a scientist as a man in a white coat with “slightly mad hair”, or, as Ann O’Dea pointed out, the idea many girls and young women have that they are “hopeless” at maths.

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How do we get away from the “mad scientist” stereotype?

One woman who challenges those stereotypes is Zoe Philpott, who took the stage to talk about education in STEAM, and particularly her projects to link technology and the arts. Despite being told by a University tutor that she shouldn’t do coding because she was the “artistic type” and “a girl”, she immediately set up a dotcom on graduation. Since then she has worked in various creative ways to foster science education through technology and art, via projects including robots, crowd games and a collaborative event with the charity Girl Effect, which recreated for users the experience of a young women growing up living with poverty in Ethiopia. Her performance piece Ada.Ada.Ada., which takes its inspiration from Ada Lovelace, inventor of coding, will take place as part of the Inspirefest Fringe on the evening of Friday 1st July.

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Ada.Ada.Ada. (left) and an installation from “Girl Effect live” (right)

Zoe also took part in a panel discussion on “STEAM: The Convergence of Tech and Arts”, along with Noel Murphy of Intel and Nora O’Murchu of the Interactive Design Centre in University of Limerick.  The panel considered the “productive convergence of Science, Technology and the Arts”, or what Ada Lovelace called “poetic science”. As Zoe Philpott explained, with the “triptych of arts, science and mathematics, you can come up with visions greater than what we see before us”. She also used the “stone soup” story (http://www.michaelppowers.com/prosperity/stonesoup.html) to illustrate that when working on interdisciplinary projects people can cut through discipline-specific jargon by concentrating on the task itself.

The panel also noted that, in Art-Industry collaborations, the artist must maintain authenticity within the corporate context. Nora O’Murchu gave a fascinating example of this in the form of the “Empathy Machine” created by artist Joanna Hopkins – http://www.joannahopkins.com/#!the-empathy-machine/c14u3. The artist created a pop-up booth with a virtual avatar that, in the style of a therapist, would ask anyone who entered how they were feeling. However, to illustrate that “technology is not the answer”, the Empathy Machine was deliberately flawed, the message being that what is most important is the well-being of society and the humane way we must look at the world. See more about Joanna Hopkins’ work here:

Diversity

Throughout the day we heard from a number of social entrepreneurs and activists who are working to promote equality and diversity. Alexandra Bernadotte is the founder of Beyond 12 (http://www.beyond12.org/), an organisation which aims to increase the percentage of lower income students graduating from college in the US by supporting students at the intersection between school and college. She highlighted that in the US, only 8% of individuals from the lowest income quartile can expect to earn a Bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties, compared to 82% in highest income quartile. Based on her experience of growing up in Haiti and ultimately graduating from Dartmouth and Stanford, she observed a considerable gap in the standard required at school and at University; schools were producing students that were “college eligible, but not college-ready”. Beyond 12 works at three levels, Track, Connect and Coach (see below). Alexandra stressed the role of technology in supporting a social enterprise; it allows Beyond 12 to “amplify” the work it is doing.

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Beyond 12’s approch to bridging the gap between school and University for low-income students

Mid-morning featured several fascinating keynotes on “Change Through the Power of Social Media”. Lian Bell of Waking the Feminists (http://www.wakingthefeminists.org/) shared how she used social media to gain support for her campaign for equality and economic parity for all people working in theatre. Sinéad Burke, blogger and PhD student, (http://minniemelange.com/) explained how social media enabled her to bypass people judgement of her physical appearance. Frustrated with the media’s tendency to define women according to what they wear or who their partner is, she began to interview inspirational women on her blog. Sinéad has secured interviews with many famous women by promising that “I won’t ask you about your husband, your children, how you achieve a work-life balance and what you wear to work”.

How women are portrayed in the media was a thread taken up by Judith Williams, Global Head of Diversity at Dropbox. She drew our attention to unconscious bias; when we see someone who is “like us”, for example when reviewing a job application, we immediately get a good feeling and are more likely to hire them. Judith pointed out that, as recently as 2013, 83% of Google doodles featured men, who were chosen as significant contributors to science. Now that they have broadened the criteria to include people who contribute to society, the ratio is 50:50. Furthermore, as Alexandra Bernadotte also pointed out, diversity is not just about women. Judith Williams illustrated this point using the example of Louboutin “nude shoes”, which were recently made in a variety of colours after an employee pointed out that her legs were not beige.Google-Doodle

A diverse Google doodle

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Nude, not beige, Louboutin shoes

Diversity at work was one of the afternoon’s unofficial themes. In a panel discussion on “Workplace Diversity and Inclusion”, Ellyn Schook of Accenture implored delegates to not only use our own voices to create change in our organisation, but also to listen to other people’s voices. She outlined how an Accenture employee was the catalyst for the company’s new policy of allowing parents – both mothers and fathers – to work from home for a year after birth or adoption. Judith Williams urged that we need to “be allies to people who are different from us”

In a panel discussion on Board Participation and Executive Leadership, Lauren States, Harvard Leadership Fellow, stressed that diversity, in bringing different perspectives to a problem, boosts innovation and competitiveness. Raju Narisetti, a Senior VP at NewsCorp, stressed that female representation at Executive level is a significant issue: more companies in the S&P 1500 have CEOs called John than CEOs who are women. Diversity has also been a focus for Enterprise Ireland, and CEO Julie Sinnamon explained that through their work, 22% of start-ups are now founded by women, compared to 7% before this work began. The panel agreed that there are not enough women at middle and top management level.

The focus on business continued with Katherine von Jan of Salesforce, who spoke of how people can maximise their potential at work. She suggested that “retention tactics” e.g. yoga at lunchtime, foosball tables,  which have become popular, particularly in tech companies, and are often much lauded, actually “create a mousetrap that holds you in the job you’ve outgrown, to keep things more efficient for the organisation”. These retention tactics, she argued, limit the potential of employees. Monica Parker, founder of HATCH, also spoke of job satisfaction, using her company’s research to illustrate that “we have created a culture that worships at the altar of overwork”. She also highlighted that a sense of community with the people we work with is essential for job satisfaction.

Inspirefest Fringe

Turning to the evening program, the Fringe festival in Merrion Square kicked off with ResearchFest, supported by the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, where eight PhD students were given the opportunity/terrifying task of explaining their research in simple terms in three minutes, with (the caveat that strikes fear into the heart of every academic) NO SLIDES. All of the presentations were brilliant and the winner was Shauna Flynn of DCU, who used the analogy of lego blocks to explain how she is working on maximising the amount of transistors on a computer chip. Quite an achievement considering the actual title of her PhD is: “Plasma based surface nano-patterning of semiconductor materials using block copolymer lithography”.

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The ResearchFest presenters – eventual winner Shauna Flynn fourth from right

This was followed by a performance by Echo Brown of her stunning play Black Virgins are not for Hispters (http://www.helloechobrown.com/). The play is far broader than the title suggests; it is a compelling story of race, gender, self-worth, inequality, and urban poverty, and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Finally, we were played out by  all-female Bray trio Wyvern Lingo. Come back tomorrow for Friday’s report, featuring Tech, Finance and more Fringe!

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Wyvern Lingo on the Inspirefest Fringe stage

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The bucolic surroundings of Dublin’s Merrion Square

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