On the return from the TED conference in Vancouver and the TEDActive conference in Whistler, Andrey Egorov and Nikolay Yakovenko shared some insights with Evgenia Russkikh, who was busy preparing for the TEDxSkolkovoLive event – a live broadcast of the TED conference – in Moscow.
TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design.
It all started back in 1984. That was the year in which the first ever TED conference took place. It was organized by two men named Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks. Those present were introduced to a Macintosh computer hot off the production line, and the first ever CD, which was created by Sony; a mathematician named Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated the practical application of his fractal theory, and Marvin Minsky, an expert in artificial intelligence, gave a presentation about his new model of the mind.
The conference has been an annual event since 1990. In 2001, the rights to organize it were transferred to the Sapling Foundation and its founder, Chris Anderson, who became a curator and presenter of TED conferences. Anderson coined a slogan for the conferences: “Ideas worth spreading”. Every year, the TED Conference invites leading thinkers and personalities from around the world to give an 18–minute lecture. Their talks are then made freely available on the website TED.com.
TED is a community for people from all over the world who are keen to come up with bold ideas in technology, entertainment and design, and then discuss these ideas and bring them to life. In other words, if you have come up with a way to change the world, you will be welcomed with open arms at TED, where you will be able to present your idea and find the people you need to make it a reality.
In truth, the word 'conference' is something of a misnomer in this instance. TED events are more like shows, where the people with all the best ideas give speeches and presentations to a captive audience. Anyone who has seen the late Steve Jobs delivering a speech will have no trouble imagining how it works. TED talks are now hailed by many as excellent examples of what the ideal presentation should look like: they tell us a great deal about the art of public speaking and about how to deliver a captivating speech.
There is only one hard and fast rule, and that is that no presentation must last longer than 18 minutes: this is just enough time for the speakers to set out their idea succinctly, without the risk that the audience will start to get bored. The whole point of TED talks is that you do not simply read from a script: instead, you are expected to give a performance, provide a bit of a wow factor, and inspire the audience with your idea. All the talks are uploaded to the website TED.com, and by 2012 they had already accumulated over a billion views!
In many countries the TED formula has long been seen as the key to delivering a great presentation. The speakers invited have included leading academics, senior executives from major companies, world–famous celebrities, public figures, innovators and politicians, and the list is constantly being added to. Among those who have given TED talks over the years are Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Sir Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Bono, Philippe Starck, Ivan Krastev, Isabel Allende, Alain de Botton, Gordon Brown and many others. TED talks are very popular in numerous countries, and have been much imitated, copied and used as a guide. In Russia, however, they are not very widely known. As yet, nobody from Russia has given a TED talk.
There are a number of different event formats and projects under the banner of TED: a TED conference is held annually in Long Beach, California, and also broadcast live in Palm Springs; and the TEDGlobal event takes place every year in Edinburgh, in the UK (in 2014 the host cities for these events were Vancouver, Whistler and Rio de Janeiro, respectively). There is also the website TED.com, on which new TEDTalks discussions are uploaded every day. On top of that there are various other initiatives, including the Open Translation Project, which involves translators from all over the world working on a voluntary basis. This project has provided people with the chance to have subtitles available in their native tongue. TED has also organized the annual TEDPrize event, whereby outstanding individuals who dream of changing the world for the better are given an opportunity to make their ideas a reality. There is also the TEDFellows program. TEDFellows helps innovators from every corner of the world become part of the TED community and, with the community’s help, increase the positive impact of their remarkable projects and activity exponentially.
In order for the format of the TED conferences to be made known to as many people as possible, the organizers of TED decided to give local organizations and individuals from around the globe the chance to organize conferences of their own. The goal was to encourage interaction between people and bring various groups of people together. The conferences were to be run on exactly the same lines as the major TED conferences, and the letter x was added to the name to make it clear that this was a local, independent event, organized on the basis of a license issued by the organizers of TED. TEDx events feature talks by local speakers and also screenings of talks given at TED conferences.
Let us get down to business…
Why do people travel from far and wide just to attend TED conferences? What do they get out of the experience?
Besides the talks themselves, people go to TED conferences to enjoy the interaction with others on a 24/7 basis. Every last detail helps with this – from the badge you wear, which shows where you are from and where you work, and your interests; so you might be standing in line for a coffee, and your gaze happens to fall on the badge worn by the person next to you, and you mutter a few well–rehearsed lines, including keywords such as "wow, Russia, Sidney, Shanghai, San Francisco, Google, China, space, startup..." and then before you know it you are chatting away as if you have known one another for years – and the person you are talking to might be the chief engineer at Google, the man who invented Tetris or...(you can use your imagination here, and insert the name of any of the key players setting the agenda in technology).
The breaks between sessions last at least an hour, i.e. you have always got time to meet a few new people, and there is nowhere to hide in the evenings, either – you have got no choice but to talk to people – whether it is the opening dinner or closing dinner, a dinner with a guest speaker, or an open table night (when you choose one of the city restaurants from the list and have dinner with several other TEDsters there).
There is also an app called TEDConnect, which gives you a list of everyone at the conference and enables you to message them. It also provides you with a personal top10 of other attendees, chosen by an algorithm, who have the most in common with you in terms of their views and activity. What better reason to try and get to know them?
The people at TED conferences – now there is a good topic for conversation – always turn out to be either interesting or super–interesting. There is nothing special about this guy, you think to yourself, but no: it turns out he was a consultant for the Olympic Committee in Sochi, because he helped organize the Games in Vancouver. And who is that on my left? It is the editor–in–chief of Fortune magazine – this is an article he wrote about TED, which he sent me. Multiply all that by a factor of 1,000 and you will get some idea of the number of people there...the only problem is that there is barely time to meet even 10% of them. It is a pity also that you only tend to meet one more person from Russia each year or perhaps two at most…
When Chris Anderson addressed the organizers of TEDx, he highlighted the fact that TED is an organization which is not afraid of taking risks or of making mistakes; he also said that it is constantly on the move and is always trying to break new ground. TED never seeks to restrict things with red tape, or set things in stone. Yes, there are compulsory rules on the way the events should be run, but these are generally guidelines rather than strict regulations.
At TEDActive and TED events, it is the people themselves that create that unforgettable atmosphere, that desire to be among their number. Every single one of them is unique, and almost like the main star of a film: they each have their own particular style.
OK, let us turn now to the talks themselves (they will appear on ted.com within a month); how long does the conference last, though?
5 days (not including the “zero” communication days, when meetings are held between organizers of TEDx conferences from around the world). Over the course of 5 days, there were 130 speakers at TED.
Which of them has stuck in your memory most?
My answer will not surprise you very much; it was undoubtedly interesting to listen to what Edward Snowden had to say about information security.
and then to hear the response, the next day, from Richard Ledgett of the NSA,
add to that the Gateses, Sting, Larry Page on the Google’s upcoming projects, Margaret Stewart talking about design on Facebook,
Del Harvey talking about preventing negative incidents on Twitter, and Hugh Herr from MIT, a double amputee who is able to lead a full life thanks to his bionic legs; he invited a dancer up on stage, named Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who performed a magnificent ballet dance (one of her legs is artificial, too).
Isabel Allende’s talk was very inspiring. She talked about old age – she is 70 plus and chose to live life with passion. The world’s population is getting older and we will soon be living in a world full of elderly people, so it is high time we gave that matter some thought.
I also like the fact that TED knows how to poke fun at itself. On the final day the actress Julia Sweeney addressed the audience, giving a summary of what had happened over the last few days at TED.
(She came on stage walking like a robot, and tried to prove that she herself was the artificial intelligence mentioned previously, and was giving her talk without human assistance. She even demanded an X–Prize for her efforts. Later, as her real self, she made fun of lots of the TED speakers.
There were more than 100 talks in all. They covered topics ranging from the latest breakthroughs in science and advanced technologies, projects which are helping millions of people around the world, art and culture, and issues which are sensitive but need to be discussed.
All of these talks will appear on TED.com within a month.
As it turned out, there were quite a few graduates of Singularity University at the TED event, so a special SU–TED lunch was arranged for our benefit. Ray Kurzweil spoke at this lunch about the future, like he usually does, and then Peter Diamandis and Chris Anderson announced, from the TED stage, the launch of a new prize. The X–Prize will be awarded to the first piece of artificial intelligence to deliver a TED talk on its own.
Is that overly ambitious? Knowing Diamandis, I would not have thought so. If you remember, back in 2004 he announced a $10 million Ansari X–Prize to the first team to launch a private space–craft. This prize was described as "crazy" at the time, but sure enough a team came along and won it.
This year’s TEDPrize, incidentally, was awarded to Charmian Gooch, an anti–corruption activist and the head and co–founder of the NGO Global Witness. She was awarded the prize for her efforts to make it impossible to create anonymous companies, and to make information about their owners freely accessible to all.
The TED Prize has been awarded since 2005 to outstanding TED participants for showing a "desire to change the world". The recipients of the award over the years have included: Bono, Edward Burtinsky, Cameron Sinclair, Edward Wilson, Karen Armstrong, James Oliver and others.
What do people do at the conferences between the sessions?
We didn’t have any down–time, unfortunately. After spending the whole day at the conference, it was time for dinner – together with the speaker or other guests, and there were also parties.
Mark Ronson (the late Amy Winehouse’s producer, who has worked with many other artists) spoke entertainingly at the conference itself about the history of modern music. And at the party at the end of the conference, he made us all dance for 3 hours without a break by doing a 3–hour DJ session instead of the 1–hour one initially scheduled. This was because we refused to let him go. Everyone was on the dance–floor: Chris Anderson, the young TED participants and the elderly trustees, the speakers and the organizers.
Before the event there is a familiarization tour of the venue, and the participants are told why this particular venue was chosen. The organizers also pass on a few interesting tales and anecdotes from TED’s history. Anyone who wants to attend the rehearsals is allowed to do so, so that the organizers of TEDx events can see how it all works.
What exactly happens at a dinner with a speaker?
When we registered, there was a list of names on which you could highlight the ones you wanted to talk to over dinner (not all of the speakers were on the list, of course – there was no sign of Bill and Melinda Gates or Snowden),
I got lucky: I shared a table with the wonderful Amanda Burden, who dramatically altered the way New York looks during her time as head of town planning under the former mayor Bloomberg (the famous High Line, for example, was one of her ventures). The other people around the table were no less interesting: the head of the mayor of Vancouver’s administrative staff, the architect Joshua Prince–Ramus, representatives of IDEO and National Geographic, and someone from Skolkovo.
In addition to TED2014, there was also another conference – TEDActive2014 – held in Whistler, Canada. What exactly is TEDActive, Nikolay, and how does it differ from TED?
The TEDActive conference was thought up in order to bring together the organizers of TEDx events and other innovators. It is held every year at the same time as the TED conference. The people who attend the conference are able to watch what is happening at the TED event via a live video link–up.
As for the specific features of TEDActive, the name itself gives a clue as to what the conference is all about: each person present is more than just a passive audience member; they can take to the stage to share their big idea, pass on their experience to others or organize their own seminar. For this reason there is no dividing up of people into speakers and audience members at TEDActive conferences – everyone is equal.
The main objective of a TEDActive conference is to help those taking part to set their creative spirit free and recapture the joyful feeling you get when you do something at your own initiative. Innovations occur when you do something of your own accord, find out something new and look on the whole process as a game.
People at the conference can sign up for workshops in order to learn how to use the tools they need, and may also lead such sessions and teach others. The participants at TEDActive include organizers of TEDx events from various countries, and interpreters working on a voluntary basis.
TED is famous for organizing events in a high–quality way. What particularly stands out in your memory as something that Russian event organizers ought to bear in mind?
I would highlight the surroundings for the event – from the super theatre that was erected in just 6 days inside the black box of the Vancouver conference center, to the area alongside it: this was where the partners’ zones were. TED chooses its partners based on how innovative they are.
If you see a stand with eye-glasses on display, that will be Google; there was a 3D printing stand made of chocolate; the stand focusing on journeys into space or inside matter was organized by MIT Media Lab; and the one about science and art was a Metaspace, created by the artist Johannes Girardoni. There were also stands about some of the key challenges facing the world: you can come up with ideas about how they can be solved and write your ideas down.
And then there is the food – it is always organic and environmentally friendly, and there is an incredibly diverse range of foods, from whipped wheat germ and protein loaves to smoothies made using pedal–powered blenders! If you wanted one you had to start pedaling – or of course ask the waiter to do it for you…
Particularly worthy of note were the creative zones which were set up at the event. In addition to the main hall, which was known as the ‘theatre’, there were two additional halls at TEDActive2014: TED Labs and TED ActiveLabs.
These additional halls were divided into zones in which there were sofas, chairs and beanbags, with two plasma TVs in each hall. There was always something to watch on the screens: broadcasts of TED, presentations, talks by people taking part in TEDActive.
The organizers had even been creative and thoughtful about the design of the hall in which the participants had lunch. It is also worth noting that during TEDActive every participant was able to leave a special wish for all the others, and write down a few thoughts to share with everyone else.
In the foyer and the corridors there were special information desks on which you could see the main program of events.
There were also banners in the corridors, next to the information blocks showing which way to go, on which people could write the title and start–time of their seminar.
There was also a special stand with a time–line for the future, on which people could write or draw what they thought would happen in the foreseeable future, and what might happen in the longer–term.
And of course there was a constant sense of celebration, the feeling that you were part of something fascinating, and a sense of being on an equal footing with everyone else.
The principle behind TEDActive conferences is that the people present can all decide which seminar to attend, or organize a seminar of their own on an impromptu basis. This really created the impression that each individual was part of the organizing team for an important event. It also helped to break the ice quickly, encouraging us to establish strong personal bonds and develop the community of TEDx organizers, who are united by a common idea.
TED events are organized in a highly professional way. It all starts with the TED participants being met at the airport by volunteers, who are distributed between the guests’ various arrival points.
On the day before the event everyone attending the conference receives a message saying that they can collect their badge before the official start of the event, to avoid a crush on the first morning or having to stand in line.
Right from the outset and throughout the entire conference, volunteers and organizers are on hand to help create a positive atmosphere of celebration. They try to write down the most interesting things happening right on the spot, using iPads, iPhones or laptops.
The TEDActive conference was held in a large hotel in the village of Whistler, which was the key venue for all the conference events and was referred to as ‘home’. Everyone knew where they would be welcome at any given moment.
Evgenia, how was the live broadcast of TED in Moscow? You were in charge of TEDxSkolkovoLive – how did it work out?
We organized a live broadcast from Vancouver in the Central House of Entrepreneurs. Since our license for TExSkolkovoLive allows us to have a maximum of 100 people present, we had to close registration for the event a week before it began, and 50 people left their contact details with us in case anyone dropped out. In the end, there were more than 80 people at the screening, including senior managers from Moscow city government, the Agency of Strategic Initiatives, and, of course, the Skolkovo Foundation.
A significant limitation when you are watching a video of a TED conference, of course, is your knowledge of English, so we try to provide simultaneous translation into Russian for people who cannot follow what is being said in the live broadcast. As far as I could tell, everyone at the event was able to feel pretty much at ease, and they enjoyed doing a bit of mingling during the break between the two sessions. It was nice to be able to welcome some of the organizers of other TEDx events in Moscow.
Andrey, what great things have you been inspired to undertake by this trip? Have you had any new ideas? What are you going to do in Moscow now? Why is this important for projects such as Skolkovo?
Every talk (ok, not all of them, but about 75%) represents a new idea, a discovery, a problem being posed, an initiative which inspires new ideas for new projects – not just technological ones but social ones too. On top of that, TED is an incredible community. Event formats such as TED are therefore crucial for Skolkovo.
Our team is going to continue to organize TEDxSkolkovo conferences on www.tedxskolkovo.com.
In Moscow the problem we encountered was this: a lot of people here know and love the original TED format, but refuse to believe that amateurs will be able to organize something similar here. Our hope is that we will gradually be able to change this.
At our New Vision conference we got somewhere near what we consider to be the right format. We talked about science, multimedia platforms, neurons and lunar rovers, and we also touched on journeys into the depths of Russia and about what modern opera is all about. We didn’t just talk about opera: there was also a live demonstration on the stage inside the Hypercube.
There were more than 100 people in the auditorium at the time. To a large extent Skolkovo’s audience consists of people who have created startups, entrepreneurs in technology and so on. We now wish not only to keep their interest going but also to add new audience members from other areas of activity.
Our next conference is going to be called ‘Possible is everything’. We are giving this topic an extremely broad interpretation: from the ways in which modern science is pushing back the borders of the possible, to a discussion of how the most obvious and simple things often turn out to be more difficult than anything else. The event is due to take place in October, so in mid–summer we will be able to share a few more details about what exactly is going to happen.
I also intend to continue working with the organizers of TEDx conferences throughout Russia (and there are already quite a number of them – from Kaliningrad to Novosibirsk) – during the conference I was invited to continue my ambassadorial work and made a senior ambassador for TEDx, responsible for Russia and its neighboring countries. I am planning to hold a workshop in the near future for all Russian conference organizers, in the TEDx format – this will probably happen in early June at the Startup Village conference.
Finally I would like to call on everyone to join the TED community and represent Russia at what I consider to be the most innovative conference in the world. Places at TED usually sell out a year in advance, so if you want to be at TED2015 (which will also be held in Vancouver, in March 2015), register now! You might also be able to get a place at TEDGlobal in Rio in October 2014!
Western media on the TED2014 Conference
Photos from TED Flickr account were used to prepare this article.