On July 12-16 2010 TED Global took place in Oxford, UK. The main theme was “And Now the Good News” and it gathered about 700 attendees and more than 60 speakers on the main stage (not including side events).
This was my first “big” TED (so now I ain’t no TED virgin no more!) and in most cases it fulfilled my expectations. The experience was encompassed by a full immersion that required all of your attention and physical endurance to get through a week packed with activities, from conference sessions by fellow attendees (through the TED University program) to the main conference at the Oxford Playhouse, from social lunches and dinners to formal and improvised parties, including the now traditional TED Runs in the park at 7.00 am! New valuable high-level relations were created and some old ones were reinforced. I surely see this TED having a positive impact in my near to mid-term professional and personal life.
On a relative scale, the weakest point for me was the main program, but read the next two paragraphs before saying I didn’t enjoy it.
I had very high expectations for the speakers, fomented by the TED Talks I frequently watch online, the ability of TED curators to find amazing speakers (both well and lesser known) and a theme that looked like manna falling from the skies: Good News. As I stated in a previous article, mass-media are keen on spreading mostly bad news and I was counting on TED to uncover some of the really good things that are happening all around the world. While most of the speakers were interesting and offered ideas that I’m not frequently exposed too, IMHO the (really) good news had a hard time coming out. Another strong characteristic that left me puzzled is that several speakers used a similar method for presenting, as if following an invisible TED Manual on how a speech should be structured. In the end I was most positively struck by those that had a different approach like humorists Maz Jobrani and Ze Frank, or those with a very personal presentation style like Patrick Chappatte, Ethan Zuckerman and Sebastian Seung.
A positive way to look at it is that TED might be a victim of its own success. After watching such powerful talks online like Jill Bolte Taylor‘s one, I now expect every speaker to bring a frozen brain (with the spinal cord attached) on-stage. I had already seen three of the presentations of this edition of TED Global at the local (and excellent, read my review) TEDxAmsterdam back in November 2009, so they were no surprise to me. Working in the conference business, I participate in many events year-round and see -literally- hundreds of speakers, so the washout effect is inevitable (though I realize too this won’t happen to most “regular” attendees).
In a nutshell, TED Global was a one week holiday for the mind and a stimulating environment to meet interesting people, a much needed break from every day business. Understanding the full effect of it might yet take me a couple more weeks of processing.
The event reviews published on Conference Basics cover the kind of details that appeal to event organizers and in no way tries to be a “journalistic” summary of the event.
If you want to find out more about what happened at TED Global 2010 I suggest you read the following articles:
- TED Global Conference: where ideas have sex by Carole Cadwalladr (The Guradian / The Observer)
- TEDGlobal: A four-day social experiment in optimism by David Rowan (Wired)
- Ethan Zuckerman’s reporting from TED Global 2010
Watch my photos from TED Global 2010 on flickr.
TED Global took place in several venues. All of them, except for the River Cherwell, were located at walking distance from each other. To help with directions, TED staff worked as human signage (see photo), a flexible solution to help the attendees find their way from one place to the other. The main conference took place at the Oxford Playhouse. Sponsored areas were located at the Randolph hotel in the form of social spaces and demo-booths. Lunch and coffee breaks were distributed mainly between the Randolph Hotel and the Fire+Stone Restaurant, while later other venues were made accessible (read on for further details). Evening events were also distributed on several locations, including Keble College, The Ashmolean Museum and the Malmaison Hotel.
This theater was the main conference room. Offering a classic theater layout on two levels, it had comfortable chairs and good visibility from almost all locations. The acoustics were superb (especially during musical performances), something most modern “shoebox” conference rooms get wrong. People orderly queued outside on the sidewalk before each session, often exposed to light rain but with their mindset tuned on networking, these moments were precious for meeting other fellow attendees.
Keble hosted the TED U sessions (at the O’Reilly Theatre) , Welcome and Grand Opening parties, breakfasts and other informal meetings. It was also the most affordable of the recommended accommodations (college dorms), and was the one I chose for myself. The rooms were simple but comfortable enough (including internet access, toiletries and other basic amenities). The hall used for breakfast had an astonishing resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
The Randolph, located just a few meters away from the Playhouse, played several roles. It was one of the recommended hotels, one of the locations for lunches and coffee breaks, it hosted the bookshop and -more importantly- the live simulcast of the sessions taking place at the Playhouse. The simulcast lounge consisted in three large social spaces (sponsored by IBM, Shell, Intel and Steelcase) and offered the opportunity to follow the conference while eating, talking with other TEDsters, doing some work or just relaxing and playing with the demos presented by the sponsors.
The Fire+Stone restaurant, specialized in baking pizza, was located a few blocks from the Playhouse and offered the biggest lunch area and was also accessible during breaks.
The Freud Bar hosted the TEDGlobal Fellows and TED Senior Fellows night on Tuesday.
The beautiful Ashmolean Museum hosted the TEDsters Reception on Wednesday.
Zizzi was used as a third option for lunch during Thursday.
This ex-prison, now hotel and bar, hosted the Grand Party on Thursday evening.
This location just a few minutes from Oxford by bus was chosen for the closing BBQ and punting on the river (imagine punting as the British equivalent to gondola rides in Venice).
The TED audience (or TEDsters) was the real attraction of the event. It consisted of an eclectic and well balanced mix of business men, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, students and all-in-all interesting characters. The total attendees was about 700 people, with an estimate of 60% Americans (USA), 30% European and the rest coming from all over the world (I met several Australians, Indians and several Latin Americans). The audience consisted of at least 35 to 40% women.
The dress-code was rather informal, with sports shoes and t-shirts being the most present (including myself and other two guys in Vibram’s Five Fingers).
Networking was also informal, and it didn’t feel uncomfortable to bluntly ask whoever happened to be near you (at the venue, restaurant or anywhere) where he came from, what he did, etc. In fact, networking was strongly promoted by the organizers especially during idle times and, to be honest, it was one of the main reasons to attend TED in the first place.
The TED format is a well established classic by now and it comprises much more than their trademark 18-minute talks on the main stage.
The presentations on the main stage ranged from the classic 18-minute talks to shorter 5-minute presentations by some of the TED Fellows. The 18-minute format helps the speaker (and the audience) to concentrate in one idea or project and also a high number of presentations per event, which guarantees that you’ll be exposed to several different ideas, raising the odds of finding interesting ones. It also reduces the possibility of getting bored: if a presentation does not attract you, it will be over shortly. Q&A sessions are managed by the hosts, in this case Chris Anderson (TED curator) and Bruno Giussani (TED European Director and curator of TED Global). All speakers are called “professors” and the rest of us are the students. (I mistakenly added the previous text here while it belongs to TED U below)
TED University (TED U)
TED University consists of “fast paced sessions where you will see your fellow TEDsters go on stage and deliver presentations on a variety of topics”, or in short, we -the attendees- get the opportunity to present to other attendees (and speakers). Applications to be on stage open several months before the event and I was surprised by the high quality of most presentations. The two TED U sessions took place at the O’Reilly theatre inside Keble College (with simulcast lounges in several places) and were hosted by June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media. All speakers are called “professors” and the rest of us are the the students.
TED U Partners Sessions
The TED University Partners Session was a new addition to the program. Following the format of TED U, talks are suggested by TED’s sponsors and they are chosen by the curators. It’s a good way to involve give the sponsors visibility while not compromising the “editorial independence” of the conference’s content. I found 2 out of 7 really good and the rest were ok.
TED Fellows Conference
Similar to TED U, the speakers are TED Fellows, who present the projects they are currently working on (in most cases they became fellows because of those projects).
TED speakers came from different walks of life. Successful entrepreneurs, astonishing innovators, future-shaping scientists & researchers, fine artists, rising stars and all-around interesting folks find a place on the TED stage. Follows a list of the ones that I liked the most.
Maz Jobrani: An Iranian-American stand-up comedian (official website), Maz aims to change -through humor- the negative stereotype on Arabs, Middle-Easterns and Muslims in general that the Western media is so full of. Not only he found an original way to do so, he made us all crack-up to tears. An example of Jobrani’s stand-up comedy from YouTube. On a similar line, comedy impresario Jamil Abu-Wardeh (twitter, presentation from TEDxDubai) opened the possibility for stand-up comedy to be present in Dubai and the Middle East, creating successful TV programs, a groundbreaking comedy tour and challenging those that still think that a good laugh cannot change the world.
Naif Al-Mutawa, created the comic The 99 based on Islamic culture with characters that derive their powers from the 99 attributes of Allah. It shows to kids (and not only) that heroes can come from anywhere in the world.
Patrick Chappatte: humor and cartoons was a recurring topic on TED Global 2010 and Chappatte gave a refreshing and funny but still rich session that showed different ways that technology has changed societies all over the world.
Novelist Elif Shafak engaged in a multilevel storytelling trip that took us from personal stories to politics: “Stories cannot demolish frontiers but they can punch holes in our mental walls. Through those holes we can get a glimpse of the other and sometimes even like what we see”. Watch her TED talk here.
Miwa Matreyek (web) delighted us with an original visual and musical performance.
Marcel Dicke presented some convincing points on why we should eat insects instead of meat to stay healthy but also as a delicacy (according to Dicke we actually we already eat 1/2 kg of insects per year). Watch his presentetion at TEDxAmsterdam here.
Sebastian Seung (profile) explained his project to map the connectome, which represents the set of neurons and synapses that make up the wiring of the brain. His presentation was both informative and entertaining through his unique presentation style and sympathy.
Professor Sugata Mitra (Wikipedia profile) took us on a trip to rural India where he tests his research on education technology. He bluntly concluded with a citation from Arthur C. Clarke that he had interviewed shortly before his death “If a teacher can be replaced with a machine, he should be“. As strong as that affirmation sounds, it puts evidence on the fact that a human teacher should add value to the education process otherwise she’s just sucking up time from the kid and not contributing to the educational process. Read Ethan Zuckerman’s summary of Sugata Mitra’s presentation here.
Chris Anderson who not only is the curator of TED but also a moderator in several Q&A sessions gave his first ever TED Talk at TED Global 2010. He talked about how the power of ideas combined with online video can change the world by creating a new way of learning. On a side-note, he made a great use of presentation service Prezi unlike anything I’ve seen until now.
Last but not least, surprise speaker Julian Assange participated in an interview with Anderson to explain WikiLeaks‘ goals and recent leaks, including the shooting civilians and journalists in Afghanistan Irak by US troops. Watch Assange’s TED talk here.
Practically every TED Global session featured a music performance. Always of very high quality and supported by the good acoustics of the Playhouse, artists like Annie Lennox, Thomas Dolby, Karsu Donmez and Mor Karbasi enriched the experience by stimulating our senses other that just our brains.
Stage & Stage Management
Stage design is a strong element at TED, often decorated with vintage objects that tell a story. The Oxford Playhouse during TED Global 2010 was no exception, with the stage’s leitmotiv being media. Several iconic media & communication tools were displayed including classic typewriters, a radio microphone from the 50’s, old TV sets, a small printing press, video recording machines, a feather fountain pen and an antique telephone (plus some stuffed pigeons, not sure why*). Vertically, the stage had multiple layers with letters carved on them and on the background the classic TED logo hanging down from the main screen. The theater’s original stage had a semicircular platform added to it which became the default position for speakers (marked with a circle made of red carpet).
*Thanks Monique and Bruno for clarifying the story about pigeons: traveling pigeons were one of the first long distance means of communication (read comment by Monique below for more details)
The staged underwent constant transformations to adapt to the following presentation. Different kinds of lecterns and small tables were used (see photos) to match the speaker’s style (hold his papers, computer, water or just to act as a point of reference). Several instruments were placed (and then swiftly removed) for the musical intervals.
Lights played an important role during conference sessions (both of the main conference and TED U). They constantly transformed the atmosphere, often matching the theme being presented. Blue was the default color and the whole range included red, yellow, green-ish, pink and intermediate tones of all of them. The visual effect of this color changes was compelling and somehow set the right mood. The whole room featured dozens of different stage lights which not only guaranteed a visually attractive show but also served the high-quality standards required for the video-recording of the TED Talks. Lights didn’t interfere with the main screen (a common mistake in many conferences).
Acoustics in the Playhouse conference room were superb, one of the benefits of using a traditional theater. Video quality was very good and the hanging main screen had great contrast and luminosity, most probably thanks to the use of a powerful projector.
I think that event organizers -including myself- can learn a lot from TED’s stage design and light settings as they are a good means to creating the right “in presence” atmosphere. If you’re going to attend a physical event (as opposed to a virtual one online), then the settings have to be worth it. Same goes for the projector & screens: use the best ones you can afford, even if it requires you to sacrifice other things from your event.
Catering can be divided into four moments: breakfast, conversation breaks (between sessions), dinners and special events. Quality of food was from good to excellent with, in my opinion, the lunches being the least attractive ones and dinners the best of all. Wines were always very good. Quantity was never a problem, or actually sometimes just too much (especially during dinners).
Lunch was divided in three different venues (Randolph, Fire+Stone, Zizzy’s) as did coffee breaks (Playhouse, Randolph and Fire+Stone). As all locations were near, it was never a problem to find a spot to eat/dring and good company to share it with.
 Interesting detail: as it had happened at TEDxAmsterdam, after Marcel Dicke’s presentation we were offered delicious snacks that had mealworms on them. Dicke’s presentation explained why we should eat insects and TED gave us the possibility to move from the idea to action (that is, eating the insects).
Sponsors are actually called “TED Partners” and they are immersed in the TED Experience in a way that does not feel invasive. No cheesy categories like “diamond”, “gold” and “silver” were used. Some examples:
Intel, IBM, Shell and Steelcase supported the social spaces at the Randolph and had their own booths embedded into them.
General Electric hosted the Grand Opening Party at Keble’s Liddon Quad and Johnnie Walker sponsored the after-dinner drinks at Freud Bar.
Frog Design designed most of the conference documents including the excellent Conference Book.
Several minor partners added gadgets to the conference bag (see below for more details).
As mentioned before, TED partners had a TED U-style session where the speakers were proposed by the sponsor and approved by TED. The content of these presentations never felt a marketing pitch as in most cases they were personal/professional experiences of the speakers or connected to research and development projects rather than actual products or services.
Live streaming came in two main flavors, Simulcast and live-stream from home.
Simulcast: the sessions taking place at the Playhouse were transmitted in real-time in the social spaces located in the Randolph hotel. This allowed attendees to talk, eat, work or just relax while following the presentations.
Livestream from home: a payed solution was offered to those who wanted to follow from home the whole program taking place on the stage of the Playhouse (the hosts had to apologize a few times from the stage towards those watching it over the internet because of some kind of technical problems). The live-stream offers TED an extra source of income and those that are interested just in the content an affordable means to watch it (though I think the miss the most succulent aspects of the TED experience, and besides the best talks will be distributed for free on the Internet later on).
Networking & Matchmaking
Networking is one of the two main reasons to attend TED, on the same level as the inspiration offered by the talks. Possibilities to meet other interesting TEDsters are multiple and the organizers strongly emphasize that you introduce yourself to those around you at every moment. Even those that look shy have no problem in introducing themselves and asking who you are and what you do. Business cards flow like water between attendees and you’ll find the section on the website dedicated to the user profiles a useful resource to delve deeper into those surrounding you (plus you can send them emails).
All social events, and even waiting in line to get into the Playhouse, represent a valuable opportunity to discover the fellow delegates. Though you’ll probably have a group of “friends” you talk with more often, you’ll find that the opportunities to meet strangers are plenty. Event the TED Run, informal running sessions spontaneously formed at 7.00 am, proved an excellent way to meet new people… and to get some workout in an otherwise brainy conference packed with activities from morning till night.
The [big] size of the badge helps to remember names and companies, especially for those like me that have a problem retaining associations between names & faces.
TED offers a list of 10 people you “should meet” on their website, which is the product of their so-called secret matchmaking algorithm. I found this sort of useless but it was a good reminder to do some research before the event took place on whom the other attendees would have been.
Networking was not necessarily business oriented and I never felt people were trying to pitch me their product or service (nor did I try to do that with others). It was rather a friendly exchange, often fun (especially during parties) and a great chance to engage in interesting conversations that followed the topics presented on stage.
There was no iPhone/mobile App for networking and I guess that nobody missed it (me included).
Support Material / Giveaways / Goodies Bag
TED pays special attention to the goodies bag and the design & quality of the conference program book.
Goodies bag & Giveaways
The conference bag, a special edition made by Rickshaw from San Francisco, featured a tweed-like pattern “inspired by the famous woolen textiles of Scotland and Ireland. Featuring the classic Herringbone pattern favored by British royalty, sportsmen and a famous detective” (from the description included in the bag).
The bag was crammed with a series of interesting, useful or just curious items including (selection): a Kymera Magic Wand, a Bobble water bottle, a Rhodia Webbie notebook, a conditioning hand sanitizer, an umbrella (very useful with Oxford’s rapid changing weather), a copy of the book Please Take One* by Mike Dickson, an Inklet trackpad tablet for Macbook, several DVDs (the BBC documentary Life and two movies), a Truephone SIM card, a booklet containing other gifts (like digital subscriptions to magazines and music and a Fonera Simpl wifi router by FON), the program book and other program related documents.
A nice touch was the special greetings message that many of the gadget producers included together with the product (see photo).
An extra box of gifts was delivered directly to my room and it included several snacks, Perrier water (in contrast with the Bobble bottle that allows you to improve the taste and carry around tap water), an Ethernet cable (very useful to connect my laptop to the internet socket in the room) and a practical face towel.
Beautifully design by frog design & Hybrid Design is a high quality print collectible that contains the bio’s of the “main” speakers & performances, useful information on the event, the staff, a mini-guide to Oxford, a pull-out map and event small perforated cards that can taken out to write down something and share it with other people (a phone number, email, etc).
Small brochures featuring the content of TED U sessions and the main program. More practical to carry around than the Program Book.
TED Fellows directory
A booklet featuring the TED Fellows bios, contact info and the projects they are working in.
Registration Process & Badge
Online registration to TED Global 2010 was smooth. Formally, you apply for an event and your application has to be approved by TED. Once that happens you get instructions on how to pay to the Sapling Foundation (the non-profit entity that manages TED).
I already had a profile on ted.com but I further completed it as this was my main window towards other attendees.
The conference badge is made huge (outer side 194 x 135 mm, inner content 172 x 101 mm) on purpose, so you can easily see (or remember) who’s around you. It features your first name (in big bold characters), surname, role company and country and the three keywords/topics to “talk to me about”. It also includes a photo (ideally recent and passport-like) for security reasons and to discourage people passing on their badge to others. On the back you’ll find a very practical agenda.
In several occasions I contacted the TED staff through email (requested some extra info to be added to my info, details and help to book accommodation at Oxford) and they always answered swiftly and efficiently.
Communications Before the Event
After registering and before the conference I received several updates on the activities, the program and my personal schedule (you could sign up for special events that took place the morning before the start of the conference activities).
Communications During the Event
The TED hosts (Chris and Bruno) and the TED staff in general, were responsible for giving program updates and other useful information during the conference. Every morning an email was sent with the highlights of the current day.
Communications After the Event
Soon after the conference was over Chris Anderson sent an email (“Time to Exhale”) with some of the highlights of the event, links to articles published by attending media and an “urge you to continue the conversations that started in Oxford”.
One week after the event I received the request to answer to the event’s survey.
Shortly after that I received a password protected link to the entire video recordings of the event.
Sidenote: When TED became ED
On Thursday July 15, and for about 40 minutes, TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) became the ED conference as Maz Jobrani joked on stage over the fact that technology had failed (the Oxford Playhouse suffered a major tech shutdown). From one side this proved that no event is immune to technical problems, independently of the production budget. On the other hand, it showed the right way of confronting the issue and being transparent towards the audience plus a good dose of creative improvisation. First Bruno and then Chris got on stage to inform us on what was going on and the estimated time it might have take to restore things (initially 10 minutes which extended to about 30 or 40). The waiting was not passive though. Chris Anderson invited the attendee -and professional soprano- Genevieve Thiers to entertain us with a capella singing. Then comedian and TED speaker Maz Jobrani entertained with some jokes from his repertoire and TED Fellow Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo with a heart moving poem. Read more on the ED Conference incident here.