The Global TEDx Phenomenon

You’ve probably seen a TED Talk. It’s an online video of 5 to 15 minutes in length, with an unusual, inspirational, or informative topic, recorded at one of two annual conferences with the overarching theme of “Technology, Entertainment, and Design.”

Some time in the past year or so I began to notice something new: talks branded “TEDx” with the name of a city or place. These are local events licensed by the same organization that holds the annual TED conferences. The first TEDx event was held at Mumbai, India in February, 2009. By October 2012, the month I attended TEDx MidAtlantic, my first, there had been over 5,000th events held around the world.

At TEDx MidAtlantic, organizers shared stories and videos from the first TEDxSummit, a gathering of organizers of other events around the world, held at Doha, Qatar in April. This week, the community has been buzzing with the publication of an article about TEDx in the December issue of WIRED magazine.

I was curious about where and when these 5,000 events had taken place, so I obtained a list of every TEDx event and created an interactive data visualization. It looks like the map that accompanies the WIRED article, but what makes this one special is that you can filter by region, event size, or even by individual country. Special thanks to Boian at TED Conferences, LLC, for providing the data.

In nearly four years of TEDx, there have been events in over 1,000 cities in 141 countries. Even more remarkable, the growth is the same wherever you look. Rather than a gradual geographical migration, the TEDx phenomenon seems to be blooming everywhere at once.

TED has built a cult-like following, in large part, by giving content away for free. Few of us will be paying $7,500 to attend TED2013 in Long Beach. But many of us will watch videos of the talks. TED has gone out of their way to make them available: on the TED site, the YouTube channel, the Roku channel, the video podcast, the iOS app, etc. TED just logged its billionth video view this week.

Precisely because TED Talks are ubiquitous online, and the themes are human and universal, they have spawned a borderless global community, and TEDx is the physical extension. This creates a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is whether the content of these mini-TED events can retain the same level of quality that online viewers have come to expect. While TED defines the format and the branding, TEDx content itself is generated and curated locally.

The opportunity is something that the WIRED article touches on very well, the idea of “predictable unpredictability” that has been the subject of recent academic research on how physical gatherings work in the information age. When we are online, we have full control of what we see and hear; and tend to select just the information we want. However, when we are sharing a physical space with others and following a program of speakers, we relinquish control of our content filters and open ourselves up to unexpected realizations and interactions.

No one knows whether TEDx will continue to grow, or change, or be replaced by something else. The Salon and coffeehouse both gained and eventually lost their place as a setting for intellectual and artistic exploration and discussion. For the time being, I will follow this new movement with interest and appreciation for the rare opportunity it provides to give voice and rapt attention to new and thought provoking ideas.

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TEDxMidAtlantic Day 2 Session 3

Session 3: Wide Open

Maria Bello (@maria_bello) discussed her advocacy of women’s rights and female empowerment, especially in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.

Jim Shelton (@JIMSEDU) spoke about opportunities for innovation in Education. In one striking example, an experimental program used unconventional methods to train unskilled people to be IT support staff for the US military, and found that the new trainees vastly outperformed colleagues with years of experience.

Antrim Caskey presented a series of her photographs documenting the damage caused by mountaintop removal coal mining. It is a process that radically changes the landscape of the Appalachian region, and poisons its residents with coal dust and sludge.

Jack Andraka (@jackandraka) is a 15-year-old Maryland student who invented a nearly 100% accurate test for pancreatic cancer that is far cheaper, faster, and more accurate than existing tests. He had a hunch that carbon nanotubes combined with an antibody could be used to capture and identify marker proteins in a patient’s bloodstream. After appealing to 200 scientists, he convinced one researcher at Johns Hopkins University to let him use his laboratory, and after much trial and error, successfully proved his invention.

Jordan Evans gave us an inside glimpse of the Curiosity Mars Rover program; the dedicated team and the intense amount of testing and preparation that made the landing possible.

Loretta Claiborne delivered an inspiring recollection of her life growing up with an intellectual disability with her mother’s stubborn support, her discovery of the Special Olympics program, and her intense appreciation and respect for Eunice Kennedy Shriver, its creator.

Exoneree is a rock band composed of people who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison, and later exonerated by new evidence with the support of the Innocence Project. Interspersed with their performances which closed the session, each member of the band had a story to tell about enduring years in prison for a crime they did not commit.

TEDxMidAtlantic Day 2 Session 2

Session 2: Committing Ourselves

A recurrent quotation in today’s session was this one, which also does a great job to sum up and expand the program’s “Be Fearless” theme into a distinction between the life of a risk-taker and that of a comfort-seeker:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
— Theodore Roosevelt

Bill Shore (@billshore) challenges conventional thinking about managing charity efforts. Why not evaluate a non-profit by the amount of good that it does rather than upon its administrative cost ratio? His organization, Share Our Strength, has set a goal to end child hunger in the United States, and has forged strong partnerships with restaurants, food producers, and other corporate partners.

Darell Hammond (@DarellHammond) began his talk by recalling his happy childhood in a group home in Illinois, funded by members of the Moose organization, where he and other children were given ample opportunities to play in the home’s playground. Called to action by a story about two inner-city children who died playing in an abandoned car, he created KaBOOM!, an organization which helps build playgrounds in underserved communities to satisfy children’s need for unstructured play.

Gautam Gulati (@drgautamgulati) calls himself a healthcare artist, and calls for a dramatic remaking of the health care industry to increase coordination of care and improve outcomes for patients.

Kakenya Ntaiya (@KakenyaN) grew up in a Masaai village in Kenya and told a powerful story about her coming of age as a young woman. Having been engaged for marriage at the age of 5, she was discouraged by the manual labor and servitude of a traditional woman’s life, and chose teachers as her role models. She was the first woman in her village to gain the permission of her village elders to come to the United States to study. She is now giving back to her village by building an academy for girls.

Jason Seiken (@jseiken) spoke about transforming the culture of the PBS digital media department. His team improved the look of the web site and created some playful videos “remixing” well-known PBS personalities like Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross. One of his many pieces of advice about leading a revolution is to make at least one change that satisfies a key stakeholder; in his case an edgy web site redesign incorporated new features enabling member stations to make local programming available to their viewers on the pbs.org web site.

Brian Conley (@BaghdadBrian) is a freelance journalist and filmmaker who specializes in reporting from areas of crisis and conflict around the world. His organization, Small World News, provides training and other resources to other aspiring reporters to share their stories from places such as Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan.

Geoff Tracy (@chefgeoffs) described the entrepreneurial path that took him from launching his first successful restaurant, Chef Geoff’s, at age 27, and beyond to a small and growing restaurant empire in the Washington D.C. area.

Classical Revolution (@ClassicalRev) orchestrates impromptu classical music performances in public places to preserve and increase public appreciation for the artform. The session closed with a performance with a blended ensemble from the Baltimore and Washington D.C. chapters.

Next: Session 3: Wide Open

TEDxMidAtlantic 2012 Day Two

Photo by David Quinalty

Jump to Day One: Session One | Session Two | Session Three
Jump to Day Two: Session One | Session Two | Session Three

At some point during Day Two of TEDx MidAtlantic 2012, I put my finger on what made the event so energizing: a conspicuous absence of negativity. The ticking time bombs of the world’s great problems were held up and verbally defused. Presenters faced their fears, wrestled them to the ground, and left them to expire on the red rectangular carpet.

The spirit of possibility filled the room. Attendees warmly applauded each of the presenters, who supported each other, and in turn were praised by the organizers, etc. The positivity was so palpable that the only askance gesture was the absence of a standing ovation.

I was reminded of the first rule of improvisational comedy put forth in Tina Fey’s book Bossypants: Yes And — meaning that no matter what another actor does on stage, you must acknowledge it and build on it. You must never dismiss, diminish, or ignore. These two days of talks were very “yes and.”

One of my intentions for this series of blog entries is to link to the presenters’ background information and published work so that interested fellow attendees can further their study of the people and topics. All of my commentary is from memory. I welcome your additions, corrections, inquiries and comments, and would be delighted to see this forum used as a way to continue the dialogue.

The session opened with a video montage of photos from day one.

Session 1: Leading the Charge

Joseph Kvedar (@kvedar) presented a set of technological solutions to the detection and management of disease. In one example, a male health care professional, to his complete surprise, learned from a genetic test that he was predisposed to Type II Diabetes. Using a mobile device, he began to measure and track his blood glucose level. While this disease usually goes undetected until symptoms become severe and debilitating, this patient was able to see his levels increase as the disease developed for the first time, then normalize as he began to regulate his diet, giving him more visibility and control over his health.

Anna Lee spoke about Maria Montessori and the thoughtful approach to early childhood education that is embodied by Montessori schools such as Meadows Montessori in Frederick, Maryland where she is Director of Education.

Frances Hesselbein (@ToServeIsToLive) painted a series of vignettes around the theme that everyone has a single moment that defines their life. In her case, it happened when she was a child and her grandmother told her a poignant story about respect for others. She recalled this moment later in her life, in the Oval Office receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in honor of her work for the Girl Scouts of America.

Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) gave a powerful talk about his struggle to publicly reveal a personal secret which put him at odds with U.S. immigration policy. He has lived most of his life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States while working as a successful journalist for the Washington Post, Huffington PostNew Yorker magazine, etc. His story puts a human face on the issue of immigration policy and confronts the commonly stated perception that it is a black and white issue of legality. Moreover, he makes a strong case that the language of the debate is flawed, since only actions, not people, can be judged to be legal or illegal.

Mario Livio (@mario_livio) lectured on the importance of curiosity as a catalyst for discovery and innovation, through the prism of his work as an astrophysicist. He made the case that curiosity is stimulated by a set of mental patterns as we are presented with new information, and tends to self-perpetuate as this leads to further discoveries. Memorably, he reported that satisfying curiosity stimulates the same pleasure center in the brain that is activated by sexual satisfaction or a good meal. He implored the audience to start an epidemic of curiosity.

Cameron Russell (@CameronCRussell) entered the stage playing the part of a fashion model in form-fitting designer dress and eight-inch heels, then made a quick change into comfortable shoes, sweater, and wraparound skirt to illustrate her point that image is both powerful and superficial. Fashion images are the work of a team of stylists, photographers, and designers; the model is merely someone who has won the “genetic lottery” and does not bear authorship of the images they appear in.

Amy Webb (@webbmedia) shared a humorous, geeky narrative of her single life, which included online matchmaking, devising and optimizing a personal dating algorithm, and competitive intelligence gathering. Her efforts culminated in a happy marriage, and in a published memoir which hits bookshelves in January 2013.

Next: Session Two – Committing Ourselves

TEDxMidAtlantic Day 1 Session 3

Session 3: Engage

Noted entrepreneurs, event sponsors, and technology pioneers Steve and Jean Case introduced the presenters in this session.

Foreshadowing one of the Day 2 speakers, the video Happy Little Clouds, a remix of PBS oil painting instructor Bob Ross was presented.

Alec Ross (@AlecJRoss) is a special advisor to Hilary Clinton who spoke about how digital communication and social networks are changing the actors and pace of modern diplomacy.

David Rubenstein (@OneCarlyle) founded the Carlyle Group, the largest private money management firm in the world. After introducing his life’s story and his decision to purchase historic documents and donate them to government agencies he made a strong case that philanthropy should be practiced in the same way that the word itself is derived, as “the caring of man,” not just in the sense of wealthy benefactors donating to worthy causes. Everyone has benefitted from government in some way, and in an environment of declining public resources, everyone has an obligation to give back to the government-established institutions that they treasure.

Freeman Hrabowski was jailed for five days in 1962 at the age of twelve for marching in Birmingham with Dr. Martin Luther King. Against that backdrop, he excelled academically and is now president of University of Maryland Baltimore County. While most students with enthusiasm for science, mathematics, and engineering eventually select other areas of study due to lack of encouragement and support from their parents, teachers, and the educational system, he and his programs have been remarkably successful motivating students to pursue and achieve advanced degrees in these areas.

Colin Powell (@powellcenter) used his life’s story as a case study for the positive influence of structure in children’s lives. Raised in Brooklyn by Jamaican immigrants, Powell was not a stellar student but found motivation from the strong sense of honor imparted by his parents and community; and opportunity in his college’s ROTC program. He continues to draw inspiration from America’s immigrant community, who remind him of the promise and potential offered by the United States.

Marci Harris (@marcidale) established PopVox as a way to organize communications between elected representatives and their constituents. The web application provides voters with a way to better understand and influence the issues of the day; and provides officials with a clear and quantifiable way to gauge voter interest in specific issues and legislation.

Sage Salvo (@SageSalvo) is a poet, musician, PhD candidate in economics, and professor who advocates hip hop as a legitimate literary form, and whose Words Liive program engages young people to experience and create musical and poetic works. The program closed with a Words Liive performance.

Next: Day Two

TEDxMidAtlantic Day 1 Session 2

Session 2: Walking a Wire

Erica Saben (@CharmCityMove) told how, despite the odds, she realized her dream of being a professional dancer, then went on to find a niche as a wire walker. When you believe you can be anything you want to be, you have the power to make your dreams real. Her talk was followed by a wire-walking performance.

Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt) described about how partisanship has increased its stranglehold on American democracy. But the real threats are those which we all have in common, regardless of our divided politics. The metaphorical “asteroids” about to hit us all include global warming and the national debt.

Barbara Van Dahlen (@bvandahlen) recounted the losses she has experienced in her own life, and how she has channeled these experiences into Give An Hour. The organization links US military veterans with mental health professionals who donate their time to aid those who have sacrificed for our country.

Paula Kahumbu (@paulakahumbu) spoke about her work to preserve wildlife habitats in Kenya, fragile as they are, threatened by expanding urban areas, farmers who poison the wild animals that threaten their crops, and the indigenous warrior culture. One highlight was Lion Lights, a bright young farm boy’s solar-powered, motion-activated lion repellant invention.

Adrian Bejan (who previously presented at TEDx Bucharest) delivered a fascinating argument that design is a fundamental feature of nature rather than a conscious act. For example, the principles of aerial locomotion including the relationship between velocity and mass, are the same whether applied to an insect, a bird, or a jet airplane.

Theo Colborn recited a letter she had written to President Barack Obama on the topic of industrial chemicals and their effect on developing human embryos. While there are many laws regulating chemicals based upon their cancer-causing effect, there are fewer regulations limiting the use of chemical compounds that influence the endocrine system.

Charity Sunshine Tillemann­-Dick (@CharityTD), soprano, accompanied by piano, violin, and cello, first delivered an amazing operatic performance from Bizet’s Carmen. Then she told her story of survival, near-death, and comatose hallucinations she experienced recovering from life-saving double lung transplant surgery. Along the way her talk was a meditation on mortality, the power of love to overcome death, and a call to action for organ donation.

Next: Session 3 – Engage

TEDxMidAtlantic 2012 Day One

Jump to Day One: Session One | Session Two | Session Three
Jump to Day Two: Session One | Session Two | Session Three

After years of watching TED Talks online, I decided to attend an independently organized TEDx event to see what it was like. The two-day TEDx MidAtlantic, held in Washington, D.C. on October 26-27, 2012, with the theme of “Be Fearless,” exceeded my expectations. It was an intense exploration of passionate people and inspiring ideas, a glimpse into the unfamiliar, and an inoculation against cynicism and doubt. If I had to sum up the whole TEDx MidAtlantic 2012 experience, it would be that it demonstrates the great potential that is possessed by every single person. We can realize that potential when we overcome fear, embrace failure, inspire activity, and reject the inertia of yesterday’s ideas.

The program opened with a video clip of a three-year-old boy reciting the poem “Litany” by Billy Collins.

There was also a making-of video featuring musician Imogen Heap and her development of the soundtrack to The Happiest Place, an independent film about a human-powered journey through Bhutan.

Session 1 – What We Hold Dear

Silvia Barcellos discussed the human tendency to prefer immediate gratification – choosing chocolate when it is offered now and an apple when it is offered later – and its implications for health and economic decisions.

Alessandro Acquisti (@ssnstudy) revealed that with ubiquitous online social networks and face recognition technology, nobody in public is really anonymous. Along with his discovery about patterns of social security number assignments, his research has proven that your face can reveal far more about yourself than you may have ever thought possible.

Jessica Ladd (@JessicaHLadd) shared a solution to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. STD’s spread when people do not know they have been exposed. When people do find out that they are carrying a disease, they may be ashamed to tell their sexual partner or partners. A simple web site provides education and anonymous notification services.

Jules Polonetsky (@JulesPolonetsky) spoke about the economics of online privacy. If you are a guest in my house, I intend to offer you a slice of pie. However, that does not mean you can just walk in and take it out of my refrigerator. Likewise, online businesses can alienate customers if they exploit personal data without first establishing a mutually understood context for its use.

Jaison Morgan (@JaisonMorgan) presented the history and relevance of incentivized competitions as a stimulant for innovation. For centuries, western society has been encouraging innovation with contests and prizes, a phenomenon that disappeared for most of the 20th century, only to see a resurgence in the late 1980s.

Lt. Gen Mark Hertling presented his finding that obesity is not just a domestic health crisis, but a national security issue, and poses challenges for training and fielding our soldiers. In the Army, it is being reversed through a “Fueling the soldier” initiative emphasizing healthy choices.

Next: Session Two – Leading the Charge