Public Talks in Sydney

Center Stage

It is nearly time for Vivid Sydney, and I thought in light of that I’d share some of my thoughts on the current state of public talks and events in the city.

For a long time there has been an underground movement of public intellectuals in Sydney, trying to fight back against the corporatisation of the city. Starting on the outskirts of the universities, people have spent years meeting up and discussing the growth of a counter-culture, of an intellectual movement that can inspire a new generation of creatives, writers and thinkers.

Part of that movement, in my view, is the establishment of platforms where young people in particular can share their ideas. Historically, Sydney has been very bad at this. The traditional platforms, provided mostly by the universities, have only allowed the established class of professional experts to speak. Often these platforms are almost solely run and talked at, by tenured professors, frequently decades into their work.

Younger researchers, let alone those outside of the university system, have lacked a sufficient platform. In my view, Vivid, TEDx and other newer platforms are starting to change this. By opening the door to younger speakers, they are starting debates on new issues that frequently get swept under the rug. This not only includes youth issues (issues like student debt, cost of living, housing, unpaid internships), but also new ideas on the future of work, new technology, art and design.

The stereotypical view is that young people are the future, and therefore that they should have a crucial role in discussing ‘futuristic’ topics (social media being a big one). But I think that this view is slightly deceptive. Young people do not merely have an interest in futuristic systems, but also with systems as they currently exist today. Almost everyone under thirty has a view on the employment system, the education and the political system, however it is rare that they are ever given a platform to share that view.


I believe that public talks, ideas festivals, conferences and other events that happen in Sydney in the future should address these concerns, and allow young people a voice in proceedings. Not only will they be impressed by the calibre of talks, ideas and discussions triggered by young people, but I think it will trigger a new wave of ideas that haven’t yet been discussed.

Crucial to this is the abandonment of ‘expertise’ requirements for public talks and lectures. Someone need not be an expert in a topic to present a thoroughly researched presentation; this is literally the job of a journalist every day. Instead, we should see public talks and lectures as an opportunity to allow non-experts a voice in the discussion and a platform by which they can engage in expanding their own minds. One of the most common complaints about working life is the idea that it is not stimulating enough – part of the reason is that people aren’t allowed to engage in platforms that provide this necessary stimulus. Opening up these platforms would thereby not only trigger new ideas but also stop people getting so bored in their jobs.

I think it is upon the traditional, mainstream, public talks and lecture programs to change their applicant criteria, to open up their selection process and to choose people a literal different. Otherwise we will continue to have the same, on-rotation 50 year olds speaking about old ideas to an audience who are no longer listening.