TED is a heck of a phenomenon. There are good reasons too – not only do they clearly focus on great production which shames any similar event I’ve been to, the central organisation has done a very powerful thing by providing free licenses to run independent events – TEDx events – around the globe and, above all else, the speakers are great (if you need any reinforcement of this point, just go to the website at www.ted.com or check out the app).
So, fresh from my first TEDx experience in Sydney yesterday, here’s a summary of the whole thing, including the hits and misses (yep, misses).
More than any other event I’ve attended, the team at TEDxSydney do a spectacular job of disseminating information and building anticipation. The real masterstroke though is the application process. The need to apply for your spot, the knowledge you’ll be screened before you get a ticket and the final appearance of the coveted e-mail has to be one of the most effective ways imaginable to get people excited about going to what is essentially a one day conference.
It pays off. It is hard to imagine a crowd could be more pumped for a one day event from the moment it kicks off in earnest.
I’m sure The Carriageworks had a bunch of great things going for it, but it’s a Sydney event, and you can’t get more Sydney than the big sails. The Opera House seemed like a great fit – as noted, a great demonstration of the power of an idea realised despite hardships. (As a sidenote, you do have to wonder if a similar undertaking would have any hope of success with the current political class.) It also offers a lot of flexibility for staging, and the use of the Studio as a lounge area was a great idea (although lacking the vibe of the main auditorium for the speakers, it was worth the visit). To have the option of imbibing the harbour between sessions is hard to beat.
Alright, this section could be a little long, because there was kind of a few.
The Food Adventure
Of all the great ideas at this event, the idea of crowdfarming all of the food was inspired. Inspired, absurd, improbable and spectacularly successful. The logistics of this are hard to get your head around, but there were about 2200 attendees, and all the food came from attendees – some with a farming background but plenty of it from people growing in their backyards, on their balconies or in any other nook and cranny they could cram a pot. Special mention to the Neutral Bay balcony beekeeper. Outstanding.
So kudos to Food Curator Jill Dupleix, the team at Grow It Local, and the team at Aria Catering (who sat around and waited to see what turned up before planning what they’d do). They are to be commended for pulling off the most amazing feat of the whole thing.
From the moment the lineup was announced you knew it was going to be hardcore. Each one of the speakers did a fairly stellar job. The first standout for me was Prof. Ron McCallum covering the technology that has seen the experience of reading evolve for those lacking sight over his lifetime. More than just the technology though, it was a celebration of the role of community and people in that story. The day started with a standing ovation, and he really was amazingly inspiring.
I’d been expecting Jennifer Robinson to be similarly inspiring and I wasn’t wrong. Initially throwing the obvious carrot of Wikileaks, she instead introduced Benny Wenda and the struggle of the people of West Papua for self-determination. Forgotten, unlike East Timor, there is a serious tale of injustice still emerging in West Papua and the story of progress in the face of fierce opposition, and a steadfast belief in the power of justice to prevail was a pretty compelling tale to tell. That the good advocate topped it by actually bringing Benny Wenda to the stage was the unexpected highlight of the day. He’s a hero.
So all that before morning tea and the loss of all lawyer jokes from the repertoire.
Those were the 2 talks most about inspiration (although Damien Mander, former sniper turned protector of animals, cast out a pretty serious challenge for the crowd and Paul Pholeros describing ways to improve health through building would be my other two high points). All the talks engaged in different ways though. I had never pondered the archaeological value of space junk before, nor considered the ramifications of digital storage of our history. Special mention of the motto for the day from Simon Jackman – “In God we Trust … all others must provide data” (yep, there’s a research theme there too). There really wasn’t a flat spot.
If I was to try to reduce it to a couple of messages for the day, the most obvious recurring theme was the fact that a good idea takes time and nurturing to take hold. Many of the speakers were talking about big things that started out in a small place, without necessarily appreciating the scope of where it would end up. So I guess if you’re doing a PhD, it’s reassuring to know that persistence is a pretty vital component of serious success. One other theme that emerged was the success had by building from the ground up (meaning building things with the people affected) rather than imposing big ideas from on high. Suits me, seeing as I’m not in a position with any elevation.
Breaking it up with music has to be one of the best innovations of this conference. It reinforces the idea that inspiration is to be found across all genres and outside your own little part of the world.
The only thing to say here is that all the performers were stunning, and that I will never listen to a high note at the opera the same way again.
The production team did a spectacular job. A particular shout out for the excellent video bits between, particularly this one, which had everyone smiling. And if you’ve ever tried to give a kid a new food, you’ll enjoy this, which made my daily battles seem like a much nobler pursuit than they are.
The crowd turned up ready to be engaged, and they weren’t forgotten. The plan to get people entering through different doors was a good way of getting people to mix. The queues for food and the like were also a fair bit more congenial than other trips to the opera house. TED promotes the idea that chance meetings at these events could lead to big changes. I suspect not in my particular case, but I hope so for someone.
Great tradition to get audience members up to share a big idea too.
So this section is shorter, but I think there is a tendency to provide nothing but glowing praise. There’s no need to be an echo chamber for the good vibes, they’re there. There’s a couple of things I have no doubt the organisers would like to do even better (and it’s not like they’re not pros who would know this anyway, but to the casual reader, it’s worth knowing it wasn’t conference utopia).
The timing was a big fail. The schedule is packed. But if you’re doing an event like this, it’s your job to get through it. There was not a session that finished on time, nor did they generally start on time. There were some speakers who blew way through their allotted time (glancing at the counter). And it’s fair to say that if you ask people to be in a session at 45 past the hour, opening the doors at 42 past the hour is probably not going to do the job.
Now, it being TEDx and the vibe being of the glass half full variety, you definitely get a little leeway. And I’m sure no one wants to tell anyone to wrap it up before they’ve reached the end of their narrative. The thing is it felt like those in the last session, particularly the final musical act of John Butler and Jeff Lang, were a bit short-changed as everyone fatigued through the one hour overrun. Likewise, do you walk out of Kate Miller Heidke to get to the session in the Studio?
You have the sense that as it grows into the space, this will get resolved.
It seemed like there was a bit of a theme of sustainability running through the event. So having a sponsor handing out the toiletries bags they give to their first class passengers seemed like a false note. Or maybe I’m overthinking it, but given the attention to detail, it was jarring.
This one’s out of the control of the organisers. As great as the crowd was, when you overhear “I preferred it when it was just us and more intimate”, it’s fair to say that there might just be a couple of people who don’t get the whole “Ideas Worth Spreading” bit. If you were going so you could hang out with the cool kids at an exclusive party, I don’t think it was the event for you.
Yep, it was pretty great. There’s a bunch of inspiring people to hear from, and pleasingly, they weren’t all people who had to leave Oz to produce ideas. Would I go again? Probably, although not necessarily every year. It would definitely be interesting to know what proportion of people actually take the inspiration and make some adjustments. Does the group hug on the day translate into behavioural change? Hopefully there are people with more smarts than me looking at it.
And now, I’d better go and start planting a bee plant, or whatever you do to make that honey.
If there’s one cause worth taking up in the wash-up, it’s absolutely support of the Free West Papua movement. Check out http://freewestpapua.org and spread the word.