Where Smart Isn’t Boring

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When it turns out that the guy sitting behind you at an event is an astronaut who just came back from outer space you get kind of pumped about the event.

The gal beside me was a social worker who counsels soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The fellow in front of me, I eventually found out, is in charge of a half-billion dollar technology budget. Sitting next to him was the founder of Xerox PARC.

Such is the crew that attends TED events. This one was a special USC spin-off called TEDx, which attracted 1200 hungry minds, eager to gobble up musical performances, experimental films and the musings of a neuroscientist, an adventurer, a robot designer and the inventor of the Na’vi language in Avatar.

Oh yes, and my talk about innovation and creativity in the fashion industry, which is based on the Lear Center’s Ready to Share project. One of the best things about speaking at TEDx was feeling the energy of a radically diverse crowd that is clearly convinced that smart doesn’t have to mean boring. That audience was poised to vacuum up as much information as their brains could hold (a lot of #TEDxUSC tweets said stuff like “brain now blown”), and they seemed to think that this was a whole lot of fun. Extreme sports for the mind.

Now who would have thought that the first TEDx event, held at USC last spring, would turn into 500 unique global events in 70 countries in 35 languages? Fifty thousand people attended a TEDx event over the last year and they expect 100,000 more this year. The well-funded versions, like the ones at USC, feature live performances and a series of speakers who are asked to give the “talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less. The scrappier TEDx’s often feature a selection of videos from TED.com’s impressive online archive (sometimes they’re projected on hanging sheets). Discussion ensues . . . and the hope is that good ideas will spread.

You can’t help but wonder, what is it about the TED format that has captured a global audience? Why are people around the world so excited about listening to a bunch of passionate geeks?

Although it’s hard to get the stats, at least ten TED videos have been viewed over a million times each (Al Gore’s talk is among them). The great thing is that this weird conference, invented by design-guru Richard Saul Wurman, would help to get the general public interested in the achievements and the aspirations of people tackling problems with Technology, Entertainment and Design (yes, that’s what TED stands for). Public intellectuals like Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Dawkins and Larry Lessig have graced the TED stage, along with celebrities like Bono who are trying to transform their fame points into charity points. The combination apparently holds appeal for scrappy innovators in third-world countries and for tech-savvy and media-weary audiences in rich countries like our own.

I suspect one key factor in TED’s success is that there’s no schedule announced, and so each speaker, performance and film is a surprise – a kind of rollercoaster for your brain. More importantly, people who assume they would have no interest in a certain topic (for instance, fashion) can’t pre-schedule their bathroom break: they end up exposed to new material that they’d never find in their RSS feeds. We say we want our content a la carte these days, but it’s kind of nice to have someone else program an evening for us.

It’s surprising how well this disjunctive format works. No one bats an eye at the juxtaposition of a thrill-seeking cliff jumper and a “Rockstar of Science Award-winner” or a guy who made an ingenious Rube Goldberg machine and a woman who makes defibrillators that can be embedded in your heart. Actually, it does remind me a bit of the old-style variety show, in which sketch comedy, dancing animals and earnest musical performances abut interviews with pop culture icons. But at TEDx, the questions people are addressing are a bit more sophisticated than you’d see on David Letterman (for instance, how does your brain’s faulty perceptual mechanisms impact your grasp of reality? That was a very popular topic on the TEDx Twitter stream.)

I think a lot of people assume that the “E” in TED stands for Education, but the Entertainment factor is key, and it should come as no surprise that after Richard Saul Wurman sold TED he created the Entertainment Gathering, a very pricey event, in which you might find yourself seated between Frank Gehry and Salma Hayek as you listen to Yo-Yo Ma talk about his creative process.

I think the success of the TED format goes to prove that even the most technically proficient social media masters crave the opportunity to rub elbows with real people (and celebrities), and to share an experience with other humans in real-time. Marty Kaplan and I just completed a series of faculty workshops at USC about Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy, and we heard over and over again from faculty that the best projects emerge from casual conversations with their colleagues. We all know that wine and cheese is an excellent social lubricant, but who knew what a crucial role it plays in launching serious academic research projects.

Wurman figured this out long ago, and now the TED brand is becoming more and more powerful, as they yoke together exclusive invitation-only events, a rich online video archive, and a massive global outreach campaign that is TEDx. What next? I’m thinking a cable channel.

 

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