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TED: "The three-letter-conference in Long Beach in denial about the credit crisis"

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 07, 2009

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The title of this post isn’t mine. It came via Infectious Greed editor Paul Kedrosky’s twitter feed yesterday (@pkedrosky). And, he’s right, the economic crisis has certainly been remote from the presentations we’ve seen on the stage at Long Beach in the past couple of days.

To be fair to TED, its acronym does stand for Technology, Entertainment and Design, so economics isn’t really an official part of its remit. And the conference has never set out to be the Davos of the west. But still, the criticism obviously hit a nerve, and this morning, Chris Anderson took the stage to answer his critics. “Firstly, I think this week has shown there might be some issues in the world more important than whether GDP rises a bit or falls a bit in the next few years,” he said, before going on to quote Craig Venter saying he wasn’t sure whether the optimists or pessimists had it right, “but the optimists will get something done.”

“That’s the stance here,” Anderson continued. “Once the nightmare passes, the ideas we have heard this week have a shot at shaping the future.”

There have definitely been a lot of ideas here, and some very serious issues have been addressed (global warming and the energy crisis among them.) The final day also took a step away from the high concepts of the past couple of days back towards reality, with George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok giving a surprisingly optimistic presentation on the world’s future and social theory professor Barry Schwartz giving a great talk on “practical wisdom and the remoralization of professional life.”

But the talks that have made the most impact with audience members blend optimism with pragmatism. Ray Anderson’s tale of his work at Interface appealed because of the clear examples he gave of the impact his decisions made on his business. And Willie Smits’ presentation on reforestation of the Indonesian forest (pictured), which was a highlight for many, essentially provided an incredible lesson in the power of complex systems design.

The challenge now, as the conference wraps up, is for attendees to go forth and do, not just talk. That's clearly Anderson's attitude too, and he made many pleas from the stage for community involvement to live beyond the conference itself. He also announced that entrepreneur and TED Long Beach attendee, Addison Fischer, has already donated $1 million towards the attainment of Sylvia Earle's ocean-saving wish. That's pretty amazing. But in the words of Barry Schwartz: “At TED, brilliance is rampant,” he said. “But without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.” Right now, the world clearly needs both.

Photo: TED/James Duncan Davidson

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Reader Comments

Chris Anderson

February 8, 2009 10:19 AM

Fair story, which apparently your headline writer omitted to actually read. We're not in denial about the crisis, Helen. Here's a transcript of what I actually said on the stage.

"Firstly, I think that this week's shown that there might be some issues in the world more important than whether our GDP is going to rise a bit or fall a bit over the next few years, for example the rain forest, the oceans, planet earth, our children, our sense of meaning, happiness, those kinds of things.

But secondly I would like to put up here a quote that Warren Buffet sent to Bill Gates and Bill included it in his annual letter, and this is, you know, what John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930. This is so profound, and so applicable to where we are right now, and that the piece I'd particularly like to show, is the sentence toward the end:

"But today we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine the working of which we do not understand."

That, honestly, is my take on what's happened here, that we have created a destructive and impenetrable tangle, and no one, not even the smartest people in the world, honestly know how to untangle it. The link between cause and effect has been broken. No one knows whether if you pull a string here it's going to improve something over here, or just increase the tangle.

So I go back to the start of this quote. "This nightmare will pass away in the morning, the resources of nature and men's devices are just as fertile and productive as they were."

This is what TED believes, that market cycles come and go, governments come and go; but the world of good ideas lasts forever, and that is what will determine when the nightmare lifts.

I was so struck by something Craig Venter said at Oxford a couple years ago, that, he wasn't sure whether the optimists or the pessimists were right, but he knew this: that it was the optimists who were going to get something done. And so that is the stance here. When the nightmare passes, the ideas we have heard this week have a real shot at shaping the future, and that's what I believe TED to be."

Helen Walters

February 8, 2009 03:50 PM

Chris,
Thanks for sharing the full text of your comments. To be clear, the headline comment wasn't mine. And actually, I saw a later tweet from Paul Kedrosky in which he wrote that TED, for him, remains one of the only events he attends "with an infectious and intrinsic intellectual power law." A LOT went on at the conference this year, and I'll bet that some of the un-curated conversations that took place outside of the official programming will lead to some world-changing actions. But I got the impression, from comments that I read and from people in Long Beach to whom I spoke, that some serious discussion of the world's unprecedented financial situation would have been welcomed. Given that one of the clear themes of your event is the power and impact of cross-disciplinary thinking, getting your audience to apply their considerable brainpower to this critical issue could drive a whole new conversation that in turn could shape the new world in which the other speakers and doers of the conference can thrive. The theme for next year's conference is "What the World Needs Now," so it strikes me that you understand this. Meantime, thanks for addressing the issue from the stage and, again, for reproducing your comments in full here.
Helen

John Winsor

February 9, 2009 12:00 AM

As a first time TEDster the conference was an amazing experience. One that will take a few days to absorb.

I do think TED and the folks who attend the conference are in a unique position to lead a paradigm shift by translating the ideas worth spreading into actions worth taking. But, only if everything is on the table. A new holistic model must be developed that not only includes, Technology, Entertainment and Design but also includes the underlying moral and economic implications that will support this new paradigm.

I've written a bit more about it here: www.johnwinsor.com.

Overall, Chris and the team did an amazing job. TED has a bright future of inspiring people to translate ideas into actions that change the world.

Kyra Gaunt

February 9, 2009 09:57 PM

I was a TED Fellow this year in Long Beach. I am a professor of Anthropology and Black Studies at Baruch College, one of the top business colleges in the nation and the most diverse college in the nation (160 countries + 92 Languages represented). While the financial crisis was not EXPLICITLY addressed, what was addressed at TED2009 were the kinds of concerns and issues AND IDEAS that have people rise about such crises. Human beings reaction to money and the crisis is crazy at best. Some of the world's leading experts aren't making a bit of difference with every sound byte I have heard. TED altered the view of the world as more than about our GDP. It inspired in me and the other 40 fellows the opportunity to pursue what really matters and each of us has something that matters that WILL change the world when we find the group/tribe of people who also are out to make a difference with our specialties. The lack of talking about the crisis in and of itself means nothing about TED or the world. HOWEVER, we got immersed in the possibilities that 1300 influential change agents in the world are making the impossible possible. Predicting the outcomes of wars or what Iran will do next. Predicting and changing the impact of infectious cells. Dealing with a 100% fatal disease and choosing being alive not disabled or handicapped. It puts all this nonsense about the crisis in perspective. WE ARE ALIVE and CREATING THE FUTURE ANYHOW!!!

Hugo Schotman

February 10, 2009 01:17 AM

"... Davos of the west."
Is central Europe considered East? Or did I misinterpret that? Did you mean to make us pause and think?
Perhaps it is better not to use compass directions anyway because it all depends on where you stand. "The Davos of the USA" might have worked. (I live in Switzerland.)

Duke Stump

February 10, 2009 07:50 AM

Desperation versus INSPIRATION.

What is versus WHAT COULD BE.

Tactics versus SYSTEMS-THINKING.

Words versus WISDOM.

If it's okay with you I'll take the latter.

TED is certainly not the ultimate panacea to our current market malaise. That said if we would simply manifest the principles behind TED in our every deliberation, we could create positive systemic change.

Live possibility,

Duke


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What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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