Unsomnia 2.017: asking what needs to change is only the beginning

UNSW Sydney’s UNSOMNIA made a triumphant return to a sold-out audience, posing an important question: what needs to change?


Photo: Prudence Upton

UNSW Sydney’s UNSOMNIA made a triumphant return to a sold-out audience last Friday, posing an important question - “What needs to change?”

Hosted by UNSW Law Senior Lecturer and part-time stand-up comedian Dr Justine Rogers, UNSOMNIA 2.017 featured 10 presenters discussing a range of topics, including sex, humility, the up side of solar power, travelling to outer space, travelling to inner space, poverty, refugees and more sex.

Solange Cunin, former UNSW Engineering student and Director of the start-up company Cuberider, asked: what is it that we need to change to get more students involved in STEM, to help meet the growing work demands of the 21st century? Her answer: give high school students the ability to access space and experience the satisfaction and rush of being involved in a space project.

And she should know. As the Director of Cuberider, which enables high school students to conduct their first real space mission, she has had more than 2000 students learn coding, data analytics and a suite of the hardest soft skills: collaboration, critical thinking and effective communication.

"Imagine being able to point to something incredible, a rocket launching, a sparkling satellite shooting across the night sky, a new space station that houses people on their way to Mars, and say: I did that," she said.

"It’s the 'why' that has been missing in our education efforts. It is the inspiration that strikes the match to an internal fire and kindles it through the hard times to ensure we persevere."

Cunin explained that the first Australians to gain access to the International Space Station (ISS) were not leading scientists or engineers, but Cuberider school students.


Solange Cunin, Director of Cuberider. Photo: Prudence Upton

"We’ve had students create virtual reality simulations of the ISS which will allow astronauts and space tourists train for life in microgravity," she said.

"We’ve had students investigate the astronaut’s environment and design a moisturising cream specific for that environment, collaborating with dermatologists and pharmacists to do so.

"And we have had students investigating the structural effects of the extreme heating and cooling of the ISS as it moves in and out of direct sunshine and expands and contracts.

"These are all teenagers, working with their normal teachers through a structured program. These are their ideas and their ambitions, and they now have a platform from which they can explore and play within STEM."

The UNSW Business School's Dr Sarah Walker, a development economist who has worked in Kenya, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eastern Europe, provided a powerful presentation about refugees and posed the question: how should we think about and respond to the refugee crisis?  

Her solution was to recognise that refugees can provide meaningful economic opportunities to local populations and to develop policies designed to amplify these positive effects.


Professor Tom Frame argues the importance of humility. Photo: Prudence Upton

Professor Tom Frame, student of the Ethics of Public Leadership, argued that the addition of humility in our public debates could help to bring civility back into the public conversation.

"On so many issues, people are frustrated by their inability to have others understand their point of view – to empathise with their position and why it is compelling. They have given up listening and, worse, caring," he said.

"We can change the world but that change will be pointless if we ourselves don’t change, and the crucial change I have in mind concerns the embrace of humility. I want to suggest that it is a platform from which we can exercise empathy and understanding, insight and wisdom."

Scientia Professor Martin Green from the Faculty of Engineering and Director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics argued that pessimism about the prospects of renewable energy, particularly among our policy makers, was what needed to change.

"The costs of renewables, particularly solar, have dropped dramatically over the last two years. Not only have they dropped much more quickly than anyone anticipated, they are still dropping, with none of the likely impact of this yet being factored into the political discussion," he said.

"Last year, most new electricity generation capacity worldwide and all new capacity in Australia was from renewables. With recent cost reductions, I believe it is almost certain that the majority of all electricity produced will be from renewables by 2050.


Scientia Professor Martin Green discussing the future of renewables. Photo: Prudence Upton

"By sticking our heads in the sand and trying to live in the past, we are slowing this transition and also increasing the level of atmospheric CO2 ultimately reached and the severity of its impact. We are also cutting our companies and entrepreneurs off from the opportunities that arise from being early adopters.

"We need to be realistic about the transformation that is occurring and to, as quickly as possible, change the pessimism about the future of renewables permeating our politics."

Other UNSOMNIA talks included:

Associate Professor Lyria Bennett Moses on the need to re-think the disciplinary nature of university education in order to turn out the graduates that our societies will need in the future;

Associate Professor John McGhee, Director of the 3D Visualisation Aesthetics Lab at UNSW Art and Design, about his work exploring the visualisation of complex scientific and biomedical data;

Professor of Development Studies Duncan McDuie-Ra on the importance of removing impunity;

Dean of UNSW Built Environment Professor Helen Lochhead on the concept of public good and the role it plays in shaping cities;

Kirby Institute Research Fellow Dr Denton Callander posing social and cultural questions about sex, sexuality and sexual health;

And Dr Khandis Blake from UNSW Science offered us a way out of the perennial conflict between explanations of human behaviour (and misbehaviour) that rely either on nature or on  nurture. It is a complex nature-nurture interaction, she argued, and we still have a choice to transcend both our biology and our circumstances.


Photo: Prudence Upton

UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs said the evening presented an opportunity for the University’s experts to celebrate their leadership on an issue in an entertaining and thought-provoking format.

"One of the key pillars of UNSW’s 2025 Strategy is social engagement to promote discussions, debate and policy development on the key challenges facing society," he said. "Opportunities like UNSOMNIA 2.017 highlight our ground-breaking achievements and showcase our global expertise.”

The full UNSOMNIA 2.017 program, including video excerpts is available here.

UNSOMNIA 2.017 is a collaboration between UNSW’s Grand Challenges Program and the new Centre for Ideas, providing a distinctive homegrown but globally oriented balance of expertise and entertainment to promote the work of UNSW academic staff and students.