Ideas are one of the earliest forms of currency. The exchange of information governs society, drives innovation and change and promotes a more inclusive and expansive global community. Today, anything with a bold and progressive agenda shines even more brightly among the deluge of trivia and negativity that sometimes seems to rule the internet. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the dominant forces in today’s ideas market — especially those concerned with technology and innovation — actually predates the internet itself.
TED, an ideas forum that became an internet sensation after its talks were readily available online in 2006, stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, three pillars that support every facet of modern culture. Today, TED is no longer the only player in what has become a veritable industry of intellectual discourse. Talks, conferences, presentations, panel discussions, round tables, showcases and salons are all thriving, with myriad subjects and approaches drilling down on the original’s expansive, all-encompassing approach.
TED itself began in 1984, a relatively low-key event organised by the broadcast designer Harry Marks and Richard Saul Wurman, a graphic designer, author and educator. Wurman and Marks had the foresight to see that the relationship with technology was fast evolving. That first conference, held in California, not only featured a demonstration of a new computer from a fast-growing local manufacturer called Apple, but included free compact discs for attendees, just a few months after their introduction in North America.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, TED v1.0 wasn’t a money-spinner, but the idea of corralling experts from their respective fields and giving them a platform and — eventually — disseminating their presentations to a global audience, gathered pace in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Wurman’s early focus spliced culture and commerce, predicting the surge in interest and investment that led to the first dotcom boom (and subsequent bubble). In 1997, he presciently noted that “successful projects in the next decade will be warm and fuzzy brought to you by hi-tech”.
Wurman sold his stake in TED to the entrepreneur Chris Anderson in 2001, amid the husks of shuttered start-ups and vanished venture capital. In 2004, the very first TED video was placed online —a year before YouTube had even started — and it quickly became clear that this was the way forward. Today, you can sift through thousands of videos online, watching everything from stand-up and performance to exploration, design and showcases of the latest in cutting-edge robotics, communications and computing.
The events themselves are still hot tickets, but the organisation’s vast archives of online lectures act as a repository of all facets of the human experience. From its relatively humble beginnings, the TED model has grown exponentially, exporting itself to other markets in the form of TEDx, a sub-brand of licensed events that borrow the branding and name recognition, but can cast their net wider into regional markets, while still adhering to TED’s own rules.
TED remains broadly progressive, with a strong preference for rigorous analysis and respect for the scientific process. The new crop of ideas conferences doesn’t always conform to expectations. California is the cradle of both the entertainment industry and the internet boom, but it’s also a realm of progressive ideas, some of which are more outlandish than others. It’s not surprising that the “ideas conference” should also venture further and further out into the realm of the unknown.
While knowledge can, of course, be commodified — a ticket for TED runs into the thousands of dollars — so can self-awareness. There are now well-established centres of meditation and mindfulness, many of which thrive on the preoccupations of Silicon Valley’s vast and often over-stretched workforce. The concept of “open source enlightenment” taps into the burgeoning intersection between business smarts, new age philosophy, self-help and mindfulness, with conferences such as Soren Gordhamer’s Wisdom 2.0 (now in its seventh year) attracting an equal spread of tech bigwigs and “traditional” enlightenment seekers.
The ideas industry is at the vanguard of New Age’s new age. More importantly, the strong sense of community and idea sharing has given fresh voice and impetus to some of the more pressing social concerns, both in industry and in society at large. TED has always had a strong commitment to feminism, but there are other high-profile organisations, such as Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit, established in 2010 and now a global concern, overseen by Tina Brown Live Media, “a company dedicated to summits, salons, flash forums and debates”. Brown’s unrivalled access has brought some of the world’s most important businesspeople and politicians and public figures to Women in the World, and its associated Foundation translates words and stories into action on the ground, aiming to bring rights, education and equality to women from all walks of life around the world.
The gap between ideas and ideologies is also narrowing, as vast global tech companies have an increasing foothold in the way we interact, on both a personal and political level. Perhaps the most prominent — and dominant — of all ideas festivals is the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos event, held at the Swiss resort since the 1970s, with other regional meetings and offshoots taking part throughout the year. Davos is a neutral platform, a think-tank in the true sense of the term, a place where presidents can mingle with pop stars and, theoretically, grand plans can be laid. It’s also become strongly symbolic of global economic and social disparity, highlighting the dispossessed and voiceless through their absence.
Even the smallest festivals have grown out of all recognition. Austin’s South by Southwest (SxSW) has expanded from a small, locally focused music and arts festival into one of the major dates on the global cultural calendar, featuring film, games and television, as well as music. In 2016, the festival announced the 30th SxSW would include the participation of both Barack and Michelle Obama, a sure sign of mainstream engagement.
A word about brevity. Not everyone has time (or funds, or the connections) for a long weekend of intensive lectures. PechaKucha is a global event that has ridden the coattails of organisations like TED, but with a very different approach from the outset. Devised and promoted by the RCA-trained architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, the PechaKucha derives its name from the Japanese phrase for chit-chat. Intended as a platform for creative presentations, Klein and Dytham established rigid rules for every participant: they can only show 20 slides for a maximum of 20 seconds each. Originally devised for the duo’s SuperDeluxe performance space in their hometown of Tokyo, PechaKucha Nights (PKNs) have now promulgated around the world, becoming a staple component of design festivals, exhibitions and Biennales in 900 cities. Tokyo alone has had well over 100 PKNs and the simple, viral nature of the idea ensures that it has spread rapidly. Dytham and Klein are adamant that it’s a combination of brevity, economy and curiosity that keep PKNs going, offering a place to get a quick injection of inspiration and spread your own message. Other rapid-fire events have emerged, tailored for our time-deficient age, such as the American Ignite Talks (which follow a five minutes/20 slides format).
Ever since the Rostra, ancient Rome’s platform for public speaking, humankind has devised ways in which ideas can be transmitted. The internet acts as the ultimate platform, beaming ideas straight to a (self-selecting) audience. On the surface, there appears to be a world of difference between a crowded bar of like-minded designers sharing their latest work and an elite conference for global business leaders and politicians. Yet all these events have something in common: a desire to find the sweet spot in between innovation, interpretation and communication. Ideas will always be valuable, but increasingly it’s the way those ideas are conveyed that gives the most lasting power.