conference rolled into Edinburgh last week, injecting into the historic seat of British enlightenment a genetically-modified burst of Californian optimism, intellectual awe and technological wonder. Even the rainclouds dispersed dutifully on cue, bathing 850 delegates from 70 countries in a warm, sheeny glow of intellectual curiosity and righteous indignation.
From an Adland perspective, the non-profit TED has an awkward, politely embarrassed relationship with marketers. An unspoken intellectual snobbery permits a social kiss but never a full embrace. TED acknowledges that 'corporations' are 'part of the conversation', but probably only because their intrusive advertising makes them too loud to ignore. Brands are regarded like a rich, brash new neighbour who buys the big house with the best beachfront and throws lavish parties but seldom gets invited to intimate dinner parties in return. The marketing industry does play an active role at TED, but generally on the fringes, leaving the editorial content to 'proper' stuff like science, education, urban futurism and saving the world.
Away from the stage, the relationship chugs along nicely. The TED organization openly relies on marketers' sponsorship dollars to feed the gargantuan bandwidth required to pump out the free daily streams of wonderful TED Talks (half a billion streams, and counting). At TEDGlobal, brands like BlackBerry
were invited to show their wares in an exhibition space that formed part of the 'simulcast lounge'. Scottish whisky brand Dewars
bankrolled a night of folk music and 25-year old malt in a 16th century building. The gesture was well received by one of the most pernickety crowds on the planet and added a dash of glamour to the week's social calendar.
From a European perspective, there are some curmudgeonly detractors who find the TED format somewhat smug and self-satisfied. When I told the creative head of a London ad agency that I'd be attending the conference in Edinburgh, he dismissed TED as 'a load of rich people applauding other rich people who've spent a fraction of their fortunes making some shit countries a little less shit'. Maybe there's a small grain of truth there, but this particular cynic had never actually been to TED. Yes, some speeches are laced with saccharine and are rehearsed within an inch of their life. Yes, it can feel a tad discomfiting when standing ovations are dished out like gold stars in Sunday School and intellectual statements are greeted with the kind of whoops normally reserved for the basketball court. But there's nothing else like it on earth. Fifty eclectic speakers intoxicating your brain with a unique cocktail of science, psychology and art.
What's wrong with a massive dollop of optimism? Human beings are capable of the most amazing ideas, insights and innovation so why not slap some of the hallowed ones on the back, shove them onto a stage and let anyone with an internet connection bask in the glow? Given the amount of inane, flabby drivel that clogs up the arteries of the net, what's not to like about brain cells being granted celebrity status? TED is probably the only place where Malcolm Gladwell performs for free.
The event is so quirkily cool, even MPs talk a lot of sense. The eerily articulate Rory Stewart
of the UK's Conservative Party
gave us a robust, impassioned analogy against intervening in countries without walking around in the shoes of the people who live there. He got one of the biggest 'standing o's' of the week when he declared: 'If we can do much less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.' In my book, that's a pretty good code to live by.
Other highlights included: philosopher Alain de Botton
setting out the case for Atheism 2.0 (which borrows from rather than blindly ignoring some of the community rituals and social markers of organized religion: 'the problem with secularism is that it's badly organised'); psychologist Alison Gopnik
describing babies' brains as the 'R&D department of the human race'; historian Niall Ferguson
discussing the six killer apps that have until recently safeguarded Western hegemony (competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the Protestant work ethic) and Kevin Slavin
(founder of games company Area/Code
and social TV start-up Starling
) explaining that algorithms have become a force in their own right and that as they battle each other for supremacy inside the financial markets 'we've lost the sense of what's actually happening in the world that we've made.'
One of the technological talking points was a robotic bird created by the Bionic Learning Network
at German company Festo
that is so aeronautically lifelike, it was dive-bombed by confused seagulls at the closing picnic in Holyrood Park.
Elsewhere, entrepreneur Justin Hall-Tipping
shared his mission to bring free electricity to the world by 'getting control' over the electron. This will allow him to create a clear carbon solar film that stores energy on any surface and allows the user to easily transfer excess power: 'The grid of tomorrow is no grid. Energy of the future is free.' He carries in his wallet a photo of a child dying of thirst to remind him of this pledge.
I liked the talk by The Financial Times' 'undercover economist' Tim Harford
in which he dismantled the 'God complex' by suggesting that evidence-based decisions are superior to the undisputed claims of so-called experts. In our trend briefings, Contagious has actively encouraged a culture of risk and innovation amongst brands (something we dubbed The 5% Club). Harford stated: 'Show me a complex system that works and I'll show you a system that evolved through trial and error.'
Brands mindful of the privacy debate should take note of Rebecca McKinnon
. Co-founder of the citizen journalism portal Global Voices
, she called for a 21st century Magna Carta, or 'consent for the networked', whereby 'governments and technology serve the world's people and not the other way around.'
Interestingly for a geekfest, one of the underlying themes of TED - corroborated by a number of the writers, doctors, scientists and economists on stage - was the sense that digital genius and computer omnipotence will never supersede eye contact and the human touch. Or, as we say at Contagious, innovation but not at the cost of experience.http://conferences.ted.com/TEDGlobal2011/