Al Gore's coming back!
The man whose presentations served ostensibly as bookends for his first TED conference used the bully pulpit of the stage as TED2006's final speaker to announce he was coming back - no, not to politics, but to TED. Next year.
And that, coming from a man who likes to quip it's not been long since "I used to be the next President of the United States", says a lot about the transformation not only of the former vice president to the causes of averting global climate change and warning of media complacency, but also of TED.
TED2006 will likely go down as a remarkable year of consistent rhythm - a seamless alignment of the conference's original concentration on "Technology Entertainment Design" with TEDsteward Chris Anderson's vision of a world meeting social causes, often through inspired efforts of individuals commited to making a difference.
Not that Anderson will slow in his ambitious efforts to keep evolving the TEDconference and trying new ways to increase the velocity of productive communication between members of the TEDcommunity - whether through electronic introductions, the new TEDuniversity or various lunches, galas, beach parties and the two-years-running nighttime beachfront drumming session, this time sans Mickey Hart.
The three trends
0. Climate Change. Al Gore has been on a crusade for planetary preservation, warning influential audiences from Los Angeles to New York of the devastating potential impact of global warming. Allowed to break from TED's rigid 18-minute limit on talks, Gore was allocated a full one-hour Bonus Session on the opening day. With the disarming power of a sharp wit many had not expected and an up-to-date fact-filled slide show he made a compelling case global warming is fact, while doubt about is fiction. Afterwards, many who had doubted global warming were instead suggesting he needed a strong name for it - like global crisis or catastrophe. It's thus smart that Gore's releasing a film this spring, with "Pulp Fiction" producer Lawrence Bender who also attended TED, along with teams of surrogates to take the talk out to the country. Gore's was a sharp contrast to the presentation at TED2005 by Bjørn Lomborg, of skeptical environmentalist fame, which ranked climate degredation towards the bottom of priorites dubbed "bad projects" as decided by an assembly of experts.
0. Youth, Innovation and 'Upgrade Paradox". A variety of speakers addressed the issue of innovation, creativity, educating youth and our future. Sir Ken Robinson argued creativity is as important as literacy, and said we train it out of our youth. Zany astronomer Clifford Stoll suggested those who want to know the future 20 years out should ask kindergarten teachers, not technologists or futurists. Neil Gershenfeld of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms described how his $20,000 mobile fab labs are used by young children, who are often bedazzled and spend hours learning to build complex technical systems. Finally, NYTimes tech columnist David Pogue described the "upgrade paradox" by which well-meaning, consenting (presumably) adults work to "improve" a piece of software so many times "you finally ruin it."
0. One Person Can. Over and over, speakers came to the stage demonstrating what a difference one person can make, whether it's the pioneering aviation of Burt Rutan, the video game worlds of David Perry, the natural animal-human interactions photographed by Gregory Colbert, or the aggregation of many individual testaments to violence of the Witness project as presented by musician Peter Gabriel.
The three themes - Ways to Get There
0. Doing Good and Doing Well. Green is the new... There was Al Gore, who professed that work to stem global overheating will create new jobs and businesses, and Bronx environmental activist Majora Carter, advocated ecological restoration projects, installing green roofs and improving traffic flows could create jobs ["Green is the new Black," is a phrase she uses to fight bad urban planning in predominantly African American neighborhoods]. Both argued economic incentives are crucial. Venture Capitalist Vinod Khosla cited similar success of economic incentives in Brazil, where adoption of "flex fuel" ethanol consuming cars has surged to 70% from 4%.
0. Ignore Assumptions. Live Forever (Nearly). Sprout New Limbs. In addition to the scorn of conventional education suppressing creativity, presenters argued we are often tied down by our own assumptions. Aubrey De Gray of Cambridge University suggests it is time to do away with ageing, which he says kills 90% of Americans and that extending lives of those destined to die of old age currently costs $200 billion in this country alone. It may seem unusual unless you, like De Gray, expect humans to naturally live to be 1,000. Similarly, regenerative medicine pioneer Dr. Alan Russell asked if a newt can regenerate a lost limb, why can't humans?
0. Look out for Patterns along the Way. Futurist Erik Peterson of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies spoke of the challenge of population growth, governance, and information flows among the challenges we face over the next 20 years. Soon thereafter, Hans Rosling of Stockholm and Gapminder offers an engaging and graphic demonstration of the importance of drillng down into data and trends, and not overgeneralizing. Finally, Stanford biochemist Paul Berg, who shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, offered a fairly professorial walk through his recombinent DNA work. A couple of minutes from the end he launched into how identical twins' same genetic makeup can interact quite differently depending on the environment - worth a talk in its own right.
The three people
0. Larry Brilliant. Crowned as head of Google's foundation on the eve of TED, Brilliant energetically declared himself "the luckiest guy in the world" not for gaining that post, but for having seen the last case of smallpox in the world when he helped lead the eradication efforts. Furthermore, the maverick public health campaigner and former technology CEO aims to garner support with his $100,000 TEDprize to create a "Early Detect, Rapid Response" system that might stand a chance of halting avian flu before a pandemic spreads. He dubs this INSTEDD - International System for Total Early Disease Detection.
0. Cameron Sinclair & Jehane Noujaim. Yes, this will make it four people, yet Sinclair and Noujaim each deserve not only their individual $100,000 TEDprizes, but commendation for their efforts to raise the profile of innovative, humanitarian grassroots design and of independent, humanitarian films with their own famous TEDprize wishes.
0. Al Gore. Some Republican-leaning attendees spoke vehemently afterwards about how they felt two quips Gore made about the two presidents Bush, respectively, undermined his contention that Climate Change was an ethical, moral and spiritual issue, not a political one. Nonetheless, Gore won over many with a quick humor few saw in his public performances, his earnest climate campgain, and his frank assessment of his own political acumen. Asked by Anderson if he would run for president again, Gore noted that aside from election as vice president, he had run four times nationally and lost. To which one audience member blurted out "you won!" "Yeah, there is that," was Gore's reply.
The TED moment
TED has always been famous for its TED moments of amazing revelation.
This year, one such moment from off stage was recounted by Chris Herot, who found himself sitting on a bench in front of a tank of large fish during the TED gala evening at the Monterey Aquarium where he joined actress Meg Ryan and string theorist Brian Greene as they were deep in conversation around the origins of the universe and the concept of a larger purpose to existence. Also participating was Thomas Stat of the design consulting firm IDEO. "And in a moment that could only have occured at TED, not one but two people brought up what the Dalia Lama had told them about the topic in personal conversations they had had...," he reported.
The one complaint
TED2006 inserted itself smack in the middle of a broad trend of social entrepreneurship which has attracted innovators and philanthropists alike. Some long-time TEDsters still complain, as in recent years, there is 'less' of the T E and D in the TED experience, and that may very well be true.
Nonetheless, there was no lack of Technology at hand than engineer and pilot Burt Rutan or MIT D Lab head Amy Smith, or nor any shortage of intrinsic Entertainment and performance skill in Serena Huang, the 11-year-old violinist who also showed pluck at storytelling, saying she chose the instrument over the piano because with the violin she could hide it if she wanted to get out of practice, nor any shortage of Design sophistication with Joshua Prince-Ramus, architect of the Seattle Central Library.
Anderson's leadership is ambitious - he's announced a further TEDglobal conference in 2007 in Arusha, Tanzania, which some believe may require him to build a highway for participants to get there.
Yet, in a world of rapid change and literally dozens of fresh ideas for innovation and investment, an even greater challenge TED community faces is its impact outside the Monterey Conference Center and a four-day event. One can envision a far greater reach for TED, if it is able to preserve the intimacy of the event itself, while opening its flow of ideas more fully to the world. This could include greater public access outside even the amply-appointed simulcast room - which would also challenge the drumbeat of critics promoting open-source conferences.
TED has resided for more than two decades among the pantheon on the top of the premier conferences, and deservedly so. Like any event or institution, conferences face a challenge of reinvention and remaining relevant. As Shel Israel noted in his interview with Tom Abate in last week's San Francisco Chronicle, TED's rhythm is beating to a younger and more hurried drumbeat than it had under design maestro Richard Saul Wurman, who founded and nurtured TED for years.
Under Wurman, TED was described by some early attendees as a form of "show and tell for adults" which involved into a "show and tell with geniuses for adults." Under Anderson, it is self consciously moving from the "Cirque du Soleil for the mind" he envisioned in acquiring TED to a "Cirque du Soleil for the mind, with humanitarian intent," much to the applause of an audience willing to plunk down $4,400 14 months in advance to ensure a spot in the conference's Main Hall.
TED is as strong as ever.
Finally, congratulations to 2005 TEDglobal (Oxford, UK) producer Bruno Giussani for his excellent liveblogging of all sessions, here, and ditto to the copious Ethan Zuckerman, who turned over his entire website to TED for four days of live blogging in which he estimates he wrote more than 19,000 words in 45 postings. Blogger Verite, indeed!
Up next for TED2007? "Icons. Geniuses. Mavericks." What more could you want?