This post is adapted from a piece written for Campaign magazine (22.07.10), also available online at campaignlive.co.uk later this week.
Founded in 1984 as a one-off event in California, TED (Technology Entertainment Design) has come a hell of a long way. The numbers tell their own story. Since the launch of TEDTalks online in 2006, over 700 talks have been viewed 300m times and the non-profit has, in keeping with its tagline “ideas worth spreading”, expanded into a family of conferences and content available on an ever-growing number of platforms. The latter now include the TED Open TV Project (allowing broadcasters to incorporate TEDTalks into their programming without license fees) launched in May this year and an iPad app out in a couple of weeks. As they put it, TED is becoming “an organising principle for ideas.”
The theme of this year’s TEDGlobal in Oxford took a defiantly positive stance, drawing on recent data showing declines in infant mortality rates and extreme poverty, flattening population growth and increases in primary education enrolment, together with an “amazing array of new tech, new science, new social and political thinking, new art and new understanding of who we are.”
Whilst TED’s focus may be philanthropic, their approach to curation is unapologetically ruthless. The well-rehearsed speakers are world-class, with each talk adding a dimension to a central theme that builds over the course of a conference. It’s a highly structured, intelligent mash-up of very different perspectives on a series of themes, all serving a central thought.
We were lucky enough to be invited to an ‘Executive Briefing Day’ last week, where the experience was designed to give us a good flavour of the event. Sure enough, by 9am we were listening to Thomas Dolby play a blues set, having heard from Adrian Dolby (no relation), an organic farmer about his eco-centric vs tech-centric approach and Christien Meindertsma, an artist who with her PIG 05049 investigated the final destination of a pig (I gave up recording exactly where after I’d listed soap, bread, cellular concrete, train brake, cheesecake, fine bone china, paint, sandpaper, paint brushes, beer, wine, fruit juice, cigarette, injectable collagen and bullets). Shortly afterwards we were hearing from the ecological entomologist Marcel Dicke on why insects are a sustainable, viable food source for humans.
And by lunchtime a further series of talks had examined the concept of fairness, from the likes of Tim Jackson, economist and author of Prosperity without Growth and Jessica Jackley, the entrepreneur who set up Kiva.org, the micro-lending site for the developing world.
The afternoon continued with speakers exploring different “Unknown Brains” – including the neural maps defining our identity; the sentience displayed by the human stomach; and the edge of a leaf showing consumption of oxygen and a mesh of electric signals suggestive of a plant brain. The day concluded with a further four talks each of which challenged the state of global education, with a particularly powerful speech from the educational researcher Sugata Mitra sharing what he’d learned about self-organised, group-based education amongst children, having built computers into the walls of slums.
As all this should suggest, whilst there are ‘conversational breaks’ built into the day, attending TED is a non-stop, ‘live’ onslaught of information; a deluge of stimulating facts and ideas. Many of the themes that emerged in just one day of TEDGlobal’s four day program provide several weeks’ worth of food for thought. Last Thursday, the themes seemed to shed light on the tension between opposing forces:
- The ubiquity of corruption (according to Peter Eigen of Transparency International, bribery is still tax deductable in some countries) and the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ facing many organisations, versus a moral and economic need for corporate transparency;
- The power of micro-lending (specifically, the catalyst for growth a few dollars can provide for an individual in a developing country) particularly when an entrepreneur by-passes institutions and instead connects a ‘crowd’ of lenders to the people who need the investment most;
- The paradox of thrift – at the very point we should be saving, our governments need us to spend to kickstart our growth-based economies;
- The need for multinationals in the private sector to drive change in protecting human rights in the global supply chain, versus the need to “trust but verify” (arms control maxim shared with us by Auret Van Heerden) that involvement;
- The human desire for novelty vs the human desire for altruism.
We were asked: what’s stopping us doing the blindingly obvious things to encourage sustainable production? To write tangible ecological and social goals into every business plan? To put the relationship between present and future at the forefront of our thinking?
As Tim Jackson summed up in his talk, we need to re-think how we perceive prosperity: “prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet.”
Over lunch came a briefing on TED’s performance, its aspirations for business partnerships and, with that, a parallel with one of the themes of the day: the future role of the private sector, this time in relation to TED itself. Any organisation dedicated to the spreading of good ideas needs to find like-minded platforms and partners to help it do so with maximum efficacy. With many of the annual TED prize winning projects requiring ongoing support, it struck us that perhaps it’s time we as marketers thought more imaginatively. A logo on a ‘sponsors’ page or a bespoke TEDTalks banner is one thing. Shouldn’t brands help make the ‘ideas worth spreading’ a reality? Through funding them, yes, but also through utilising the other resources they as organisations have at their disposal? Along the way, TED might employ the brand’s own network to further propagate ideas worth spreading and become a broker for making more of those ideas happen.
TED has all the hallmarks of an intellectually elite, yet super benign culture: the passion, commitment and zeal of its ‘super spreaders’, TEDsters, TED fellows, TEDx organisers and TED translators (as its curator Chris Anderson drily points out, 4.5 billion people on this planet do not speak English) can be a little unnerving to the uninitiated. However, by the end of just one day any residual British cynicism had given way, overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of individual and collective insight, conviction and challenge to conventional thinking.
A prolonged power outage half way through the day – temporarily reducing TED to ED, as several commentators couldn’t resist pointing out – was also revealing. Instead of ruining the day, it allowed for some particularly TED-flavoured spontaneity, with an opera singer (who also happened to be an entrepreneur running her own nanny network, naturally) pulled out from the audience to give a fantastic, impromptu performance on the spot, swiftly followed by a comedian. Such is the diversity of talent at TED.
Chris Anderson ended the day describing his vision of “crowd-accelerated innovation”, which echoed an earlier comment from Kiva.org founder Jessica Jackley: “The way we participate in each other’s stories is of deep importance.” As if to prove the point, the very next day Anderson was conducting a surprise interview with Wikileaks activist and spokesperson Julian Assange.
TED exists as a platform dedicated to ensuring an ever-increasing number of worthwhile stories are told, disseminated and acted upon. And that too, we’d add, has to be the good news.
TED site: http://ted.com
GOOD mag series on TEDGlobal 2010: http://www.good.is/community/brainpicker
Good mag digest of Day 3 of TEDGlobal 2010: http://www.good.is/post/tedglobal-day-3-what-you-missed/
Bruce Nussbaum: Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?
7 must-read books by TEDGlobal speakers: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2010/07/19/ted-books/