Culture Strategy Partners

TEDx Midwest: A few thoughts

Guest Blogger – Slover Linett Strategies November 2010

“Our colleague and collaborator Tom Shapiro, a partner at Cultural Strategy Partners, was one of the lucky few (okay, lucky 350) who attended Chicago’s homegrown TED a few weeks ago. The conference took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on October 14 and 15. I asked Tom to share a few thoughts about the gathering with our readers. Here’s Tom’s take.” – Peter Linett

I found TEDx Midwest immensely enjoyable and often engrossing. It was fascinating to witness both the “TED-ness” of the event—a communal, anticipatory giddiness of being privy to something “important”—and the speaker’s talks themselves. While listening in the darkened theater, I observed three themes, not about the content, but about the conference as a whole

First, a bit of background. These “x” versions of the TED conference are “local, self-organized events” put together under the “general guidance” of TED proper, the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference started in 1984 in Monterey, California. The TED formula is to bring a broad array of thought-provoking presenters together to speak to attendees in 18-minute talks—no notes, no bullet points, just wisdom and passion.

In this first-ever Midwest version, the twenty speakers and five performers included oceanographers, artists, entrepreneurs, architects, paleontologists, and authors, some of them MacArthur “genius” award winners. The assembled audience was hardly less illustrious, comprised of machers from the region, select high school students, and others seeking inspiration from the speakers as well as from each other.

The speakers didn’t disappoint. They were impressive and fascinating people telling impressive and fascinating tales. From paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey talking about finding the oldest human fossils in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge to Planet Space Company chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria promoting commercial passenger space flight, the talks covered a gamut of human opportunities and natural challenges (like resource depletion and global warming).

The gathering was perfectly situated in the MCA Chicago, which presents the best of current exploration and representation in the visual arts, and which hosted TEDx in a most welcoming and enthusiastic way. (Full disclosure: my wife directs the museum. The conference wasn’t sponsored or curated by the museum; the organizers rented the space.)

As a side note, I found that TEDx’s presence at an art museum raised interesting questions about the role museums and cultural organizations can play in bringing all kinds of contemporary issues and creative endeavors—cultural or not—to light. Should they stick to their knitting (e.g., “visual art”) or tackle the broader topic of creativity and innovation whole cloth? As museums increasingly try to function as “town squares,” bringing people together around complex issues and big ideas, they come to resemble a TED conference in certain ways.

But let’s get to those three themes, which I offer as possible ways to improve TEDx Midwest next year. (Note to cultural organizations: These principles might be worth keeping in mind when creating events, forums, and exhibitions that serve the broader purposes of social investigation and issue-tackling.) …

1. Speak softly; the brand already carries a big stick. A well-deserved sense of pride spilled forth from TEDx Midwest. From the conference title (“What the World Needs Now”) and subtitle (“Riveting Talks by Remarkable People”) to the emcee’s interjection of “Wow, that was amazing!” every 18 minutes, the self-congratulatory message was unavoidable. (Otherwise, Erin McKean was great as emcee and kept the program brisk and lively.) That steady drumbeat of “TED is special, you are special” was played more often than I thought necessary or productive. TED is special; the lineup of speakers makes that evident. I enjoyed feeling that for myself and as my own discovery.

Since this was TEDx’s first year in Chicago, maybe a healthy dose of self-promotion was necessary. Now that we’ve had a taste, let the big stick of TED speak for itself next time.

2. How about a little optimism? Since at least 9/11, the mass media and ambient pop-cultural noise of American society has been based on fear: of economic collapse, moral collapse, climate collapse, geopolitical collapse, not to mention the everyday terrors of overeating, over-drinking, over-gaming, and over-worrying. Fear is our unstoppable virus. TED, with its inherent blue-sky optimism, could offer an antidote.

TED sets up knowledge and inspiration as the essential ingredients to innovation, and suggests that innovation, with the right ambition behind it, can change the world. So I was surprised that about a third of the presenters used fear as motivation to action. The great enemy they spoke of was humankind and our wasteful ways. The great alarm they sounded was that very soon we will irredeemably exploit the earth’s resources if we don’t change course.

While those concerns are valid and urgent, for me TEDx was at its best when promoting opportunity rather than fear. TED can use its core strength of inspiring positive outcomes as a bright contrast with the otherwise omnipresent and depressing fear-mongering in our culture. Call me a Pollyanna, but I believe optimism begets optimism—and vice versa.

Overall, TEDx Midwest’s content invigorated. Perhaps next year the conference can select more speakers who showcase ideas in a hopeful rather than an anxious light.

3. Take more risks. Despite its reputation for iconoclastic thinking, TEDx Midwest was essentially safe. I wasn’t expecting this, given the cutting-edge buzz and community that TED generates.

By safe I mean that TEDx speakers tended to engage with issues that are already popularly accepted. For example, most of us are familiar with, and aghast at, images of clear-cut rainforests in the Amazon. Likewise, we’re in favor of clean oceans and expanded access to effective education. The TEDx speakers ran little risk of bumping up against our personal belief systems.

Inspiring people doesn’t require courting controversy, of course. It would be self-defeating for TED to provide a platform for ideas that are off-putting or that would could create wedges rather than bridges among the audience. (The main TED conference learned this earlier this year when a boundary-pushing talk by comedian Sarah Silverman turned into a very public Twitter tiff with conference curator Chris Anderson.) For the most part, TED wisely avoids political positioning; this is not the forum for salvos about water rights, gun ownership, or trade tariffs.

But surely that slogan, “ideas worth sharing,” calls for at least some ideas that are new or different enough to make us uncomfortable. Mightn’t the audience’s entrepreneurial gusto be better summoned by a blend of both well-understood and not-yet-accepted perspectives? At some point, aren’t safety and innovation mutually exclusive values?

Those points notwithstanding, the caliber, breadth and passion of the presentations at TEDx Midwest made me thrilled that the conference came to town. I look forward to being there again next year.