Around the Campfire Profile: Carl Bärstad activates Kids Hack Day

The campfire holds great significance for TEDActive. There’s something about a campfire that brings people together, warms them up, then inevitably opens them up to share their stories and ideas. This is exactly why the fire pit is a staple at TEDActive conferences. We are profiling the extraordinary attendees you’re likely to meet around the campfires, highlighting their personal experiences, passions and most meaningful conversations.

Carl Bärstad’s life philosophy is simple: Stay curious. It is this boundless curiosity that motivated him to tinker and experiment with electronics, organize his own TEDx event, create his own company Sparkling Science dedicated to helping others get in touch with their curious natures and create his own world movement: Kids Hack Day.

At TEDActive 2013, Carl was seen walking around carrying a black box and we couldn’t help our own curiosities — “What is that?” It was more than a conversation piece; it definitely wasn’t an ordinary box. It was a Hackerspace in a Box, a tool that Carl and his company use as “creativity generators” in their workshops. It helps any location — a neglected library space in Los Angeles, a classroom, or the TEDActive interactive spaces —  transform into a makerspace. With the help of Fallen Fruit, using the box, Carl was able to rig up this banana piano.


Since TEDActive 2013, saying a lot has happened would be an understatement. We caught up with him at a busy time — he was helping out with a TEDxStockholm event and was supposed to give a talk at a TEDxCopenhagen Salon event later that week. His Kids Hack Day (more on that later) was about to evolve from local to global. Here are some of his thoughts and insights about creativity and curiosity and a sneak peek into what’s on the horizon for him:

How did you end up at TEDActive?

It was my first year. It was because I was at TEDxSummit [a 2012 conference for organizers of local TEDx events] and I was really inspired. TEDxSummit is the whole reason that TEDxStockholm had grown to the point we’re at now. TEDxStockholm is a way for me to have that sense of community all year round. Have a space to grow professionally, pour your soul into something that’s bigger than yourself. Give people responsibility to distribute their own time, but make things happen.

What was your experience like?

There were a lot of other people doing a lot of interesting things. The reason I went was — my gut feeling told me —  if you want to find any progressive teacher or educator, or people who want to reform education and are doing great things, then you’re going to find those people in the TED community. It could as well be [about] technology, education and design.

I met principals and educators who are doing amazing things. One person I met, [Jacqueline Jenkins] is the junior school principal at the United Nation International School in New York. She knew everything about Makey Makey, Arduino, makerspaces and they even had a space in their school where kids could just go and work on projects like building robots, painting or doing whatever they want. They had thought a lot around the design of the space and I was super impressed. That whole idea of our Hackerspace in a Box is to promote those kinds of teachers and to give teachers a platform to inspire each other. We’re not there quite just yet. What I’ve realized with Hackerspace in a Box is it’s a bit hard to scale because it’s hard with workshops. You need really really clear instructions.

What conversations did you have around the projects that you’ve been working on — Hackerspace in a Box, Kids Hack Day, and more?

Hackerspace in a Box is the project I had done before TEDActive. I got to talk to a lot of people about it. Since I had a video to show, I brought my box with me. With the banana guys [Fallen Fruit], we connected and set up a banana piano at their table so people could play some music on the bananas. The black box seemed to invoke people’s curiosity. In the TED community, people have really managed to reclaim their curiosity, which was inspiring to me.


I met a couple, perhaps around 70 years old, organizing TEDx events. They were super super thirsty for new knowledge and they were really interested in what I was doing. They were like little kids which was incredible to see. Then I thought, “I want to be like that when I’m older. I want to keep being constantly fascinated by the world.” That’s my biggest fear, of losing that. I guess that’s a personal reason of why I do these things. The future belongs to the curious — that’s my philosophy. It belongs to our kids. Let’s not take that future away from them. By asking the question at what point in time did I lose my curiosity and how can I reclaim it with the help of a kid. Working with kids you can create a bubble, a space, you can do anything, you can try out a lot of things, and put yourself on the kid’s level. It’s a great experience and I think adults need to learn how to play.

And what about Kids Hack Day?

Kids Hack Day was semi-subconscious before I went to TEDActive. I had a slow hunch. At TEDActive, I connected those hunches. I got back home, I participated in Art Hack Day and then it all fell into place. TEDActive had a part in it.

I talked to Sugata Mitra [TED Prize winner] and he inspired me. This whole black box pedagogy that we use, it’s kind of like his SOLE project. His method, but with hardware. It’s about having kids go on intellectual adventures — being exposed to these really interesting questions and searching out the answers themselves. Here is a black box, you can turn it into an instrument. I’ll leave you with it. I’m not exactly sure how it works. But you’ll figure it out. And there are clues. They figure it out. The Makey Makey is quite intuitive. If you look on our videos even 11 or 12 year olds can manage to figure it out after a while. They get really excited. You don’t have to know what a circuit is to make it work. But if you can make it work, you take something and make something unexpected happen, that creates the motivation to continue exploring and making. It flips that switch in their minds — “I can do anything.”

Where does your passion, your drive come from?

It was all thanks to TED. When I was an exchange student in Madrid and I studied industrial engineering and management which we jokingly call “fake engineering.” It’s only theory. You feel useless with practical things. You can’t build anything. During that exchange year, when you’re a student, and especially when you’re away, you’re an exchange student, you’re away from that normal social circles and you get a lot of time and space to reflect … and watch TED Talks! I was bored in school. I wasn’t really interested in that field. There weren’t very good courses and everything was lecture-based. The first talk I watched in this period, in 2009, was Henry Markam’s “Building a Brain Supercomputer.” It was so deep and insightful and fascinating –that you could visualize the neural pathways that light up when you watch any object. I ended up watching ten TED Talks the whole night. They were all really good. I must have been quite lucky. Most of them are good but not all of them are super fascinating. I was high on inspiration for weeks. I felt that I had to contribute, make a difference in the world, the same way TED has done and also the way TED speakers have done. I maybe wanted to give a TED Talk myself one day. TED was the seed of my entrepreneurship.

[Almost there! Here he is a few days later giving a talk at the locally organized TEDxCopenhagen Salon:]



After our interview Carl sent us a few more updates on the status of Kids Hack Day where the first event will be held in Stockholm on August 31, 2013:

Thanks to the connections I made at TEDActive with Felipe Spath from Bogotá (who got a scholarship to come) Kids Hack Day #3 will take place in Bogotá spearheaded by Felipe’s friend, Juan Pablo Calderón who’s also running TEDxBogota.

Kids Hack Day Kampala will be spearheaded by TEDPrize winner Ruganzu Bruno who I also met at TEDActive and who will come to Stockholm on a scholarship to help us paint the space. We connected deep at TEDActive together with Sugata Mitra :)

carl sugata

Kids Hack Day Sydney will be spearheaded by TEDxSydney curator Jess Scully. Jess is amazingly energetic and passionate about education. We hung out a lot at TEDActive and also connected on a very deep level. TEDActive has helped me build relationships on both a personal and professional level that I feel is going to last a life time. 

It would never have been possible to do Kids Hack Day as a global movement without the amazing people in the TEDActive community. 

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