Every year around this time thinkers and innovators from a variety of worlds collide at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. We go to TED because we want to be inspired. To use their words, we want to hear about “ideas worth spreading”. This year marked my 6th TED and more importantly, it marked a realization that what happens at TED (unlike Vegas), should decidedly not stay at TED.
Looking back on the themes and conversations that emerged this year, I was reminded of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s notion that “the only constant is change.” Many of the talks, from the first to the last, explored this idea and offered suggestions on how the world might be different if and when new ideas come into practice.
The first speaker to take the stage was the enigmatic former Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm. She set out with an ambitious talk aimed at spurring the privatization and the state-wide adoption of clean energy throughout the entire United States. Her plan laid forth a highly compelling proposition and was met with resounding cheers from a crowd of influencers so powerful they could easily tip the scales of power in any direction they wanted.
She was followed by speaker after speaker who brought equal enthusiasm and pleas to the crowd to rise up and take action. I could feel the urge for change underpinning each speaker’s heartfelt talk. Talks about game-changing technologies, medical advances, and inspired conversations ranging from personal health and wellbeing, to our relationships with our families and ourselves.
But this idea of change juxtaposed with the stasis of the audience plagued me. Why is it that despite an event like TED which brings so many powerful people together in one place, innovation still struggles to lurch forward? Climate change. World health. Global education. Human rights. Each of these noble causes that should ignite a crowd to pick up the gauntlet and strive to create a better world.
But something happens at conferences. Even at the revered TED – the place with arguably some of the most progressive minds in their fields – change comes slowly.
I spoke about this phenomenon with several attendees and asked why, even with such significant influence, conferences like TED have a hard time moving from ideas to action. In short, there’s no one, clear answer for this. It’s overwhelming. It’s hard to self organize. In a few days, everyone will return to their “normal” lives. So I started to ask myself, is this a conference for inspiration, or is it a conference for action? And why do we have to choose?
Wednesday afternoon – halfway through the conference – the ideas are flourishing and the crowd is excited about the prospect of what’s on the bleeding edge of science, technology, and other fascinating fields. I saw this as my opportunity to act.
Being the CEO of an experience design firm, one of the things we often have to address in the creation of experiences is the problem of how to catalyze people into action. Reminded of Freud’s theories on crowd behavior, sometimes people need personal compulsion to motivate themselves into action. I started asking people, one on one, what they wanted to change.
Someone said they wanted to build schools in the developing world but didn’t have the right contacts to connect his manufacturing company to appropriate NGOs. Twenty-five minutes later I had connected him to two founders of NGOs (one who was at TED and one who wasn’t) who are interested in partnering with him.
Later, a TED attendee who I’ve known for years told me about a product he’s developing and how he’d like to get in touch with researchers to help stress test the product’s attributes. Five minutes and one email later, he was connected with another attendee who he otherwise might not have met. Last I saw them they were sitting outside sketching ideas in each other’s notebooks.
It dawned upon me that what attendees at TED were missing was not the inspiration, but the tangible thread that leads to action. Realizing I am only one person, I started to enlist others in this effort. Before we knew it, connections were being made and people were starting to apply the inspiration and enthusiasm that the speakers imbued in them into practice.
And this is my idea worth spreading. This is why I believe TED and other events like it are doing the right thing by creating provocative places for people to intersect with new ideas. But as conference attendees we have a responsibility to be active participants in the experience. To simply sit idly by, watch a few talks, go to a cocktail party or two, Instagram and Tweet from the theater, and then go home does everyone – not just attendees, but literally everyone around the globe – a disservice.
So this year, and for years to come I will continue to spread this spirit to the conferences I attend. And I hope you will as well. It is our responsibility to do so. We owe it to Heraclitus.