By Mitch Joel, Special to the Sun – February 18, 2010

Every year, a thousand very lucky individuals get invited to apply to a conference called TED. The truth is that Technology, Entertainment and Design is much more like a community than a conference, and that speaks volumes to how much the world is changing and evolving over time.

There are many components that make the TED experience interesting — from the calibre of speakers to the quality of those who attend (it is a mix of business leaders, showbiz types, entrepreneurs, educators, scientists and more). Most interesting is how the organizers of TED manage to produce an event that keeps their Type-A personality attendees engaged and focused on the content and overall experience for nearly five full days.

TED 2010 took place last week in Long Beach, Calif. (and I was fortunate to have attended). Each year, the conference takes on a theme, and this year’s was: “What the world needs now.”

TED curator, Chris Anderson, kicked off the event by letting the audience know that the time has come for action. To paraphrase his thoughts: We can’t just sit back and constantly reflect on how bad things have become in the past few years (war, the economy, the environment), so the time has come for us to live in the now and do something — something magical, something important, and something that will resonate and help us build the future together.

It may sound like one big, long jam session of Kumbaya, but it wasn’t. TED was best described by one attendee as, “gymnastics for the brain.” It’s an interesting place to be, and something that often leaves attendees stumped when it comes to explaining it to their peers — especially the business applications of such an event.

All sessions have sub-themes and feature three or four guest speakers who have 18 minutes each to present their story.

These speeches are intertwined with additional three-minute TED talks that are usually quick anecdotes or a demonstration of something new and unique.

One segment will have you listening to Microsoft founder and global philanthropist Bill Gates discuss new and hopeful energy solutions for our environment, then Jake Shimabukuro will assault your ears with his majestic mastery of the ukulele (Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody never sounded more beautiful). Biochemist Mark Roth talked about the potential for putting living organisms into suspended animation (and bringing them back), while comedian Sarah Silverman did what she does best (offend everybody).

And, with all that, comes ideas and conversations that spill out into the halls and into the lobbies of the surrounding hotels and restaurants and TED-sponsored parties.

Montreal entrepreneur Austin Hill credits his attendance at TED with helping him to crystallize the business model for his latest venture, Akoha (a social gaming platform).

Hill isn’t alone.

It’s not uncommon to catch some of the better-known business minds jotting down notes and then heading to their iPhones to brainstorm with their teams back home.

There is a social component to TED that can’t be understated. Each attendee does not pay to attend the conference — the fee is considered an annual membership to the TED community and acts as a charitable donation to the Sapling Fund, a private non-profit foundation that was established in 1996 by Chris Anderson.

The Sapling Fund owns the TED conference. The mandate of this foundation (according to the TED website) is to “foster the spread of great ideas. It aims to provide a platform for the world’s smartest thinkers, greatest visionaries and most-inspiring teachers, so that millions of people can gain a better understanding of the biggest issues faced by the world, and a desire to help create a better future.”

In the spirit of “Ideas worth spreading” (TED’S tag line), the conference organizers have shifted from a private annual event only open to 1,000 participants to creating a TED Active event that has people attending the conference in Palm Springs via satellite, to posting their infamous TED Talks online for free (which have seen by hundreds of millions of viewers).

There is also a TED Global event (taking place this year in Oxford, England), TED India, and special TED X events that allow anybody to create an experience in their own hometown (Vancouver has hosted TED X events).

Another special component is the TED Prize. While usually this award is given annually to three unique individuals, TED 2010 saw the granting of “one wish to change the world” along with $100,000 and the help of people in the TED community to assist in turning the dream into a reality.

Jamie Oliver, the world-famous chef, best-selling author and TV personality, won the award for his wish: “To create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again, and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”

The TED message of hope through knowledge is certainly worth spreading, and is something that the business world needs now.

Mitch Joel is president of the digital marketing agency Twist Image and the author of Six Pixels of Separation.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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