A Conference Makes Learning Free (and Sexy) – TEDx Article from the New York Times

This article was published in the New York Times on September 24, 2010.

A Conference Makes Learning Free (and Sexy)

By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM – Published: September 24, 2010

Chris Anderson videoconferencing at a TEDxChange event. Credit - Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

Participants make signs expressing goals.

Participants make signs expressing goals.

ONCE a year, there is a mass migration of the intelligentsia to Long Beach, California. There, inside the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, a block from the Pacific Ocean, they gather for four days to share ideas and score gift bags at the TED Conference. Sold out a year in advance, the conference has scholars, scientists, musicians as speakers. They are boldface names: Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, Jane Goodall. And as for any A-list party, an invitation is required.

The price to get in: $6,000.

Unable to meet the growing demand for access to TED, its organizers decided to democratize. They imagined a new conference that was TED but not TED, organized by local groups like schools, businesses, neighborhoods, even friends — at an unTED-like price: free.

And so last year the TED principals introduced a new concept called TEDx. They encouraged would-be organizers to apply for free licenses, and hoped for the best.

“It wasn’t clear at all that it would work,” said Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, which takes its name from the conference’s original areas of focus: technology, entertainment and design. He figured the inaugural year would bring 10 to 30 TEDx events, primarily in the United States.

To his surprise, there were 278 events last year in places as near as New Jersey and Florida, and as far as Estonia and China. There was TEDxKibera, held in one of Africa’s largest shantytowns in Nairobi, Kenya. And there was TEDxNASA, which had space-themed lectures.

Already this year there have been 531 TEDx events. Another nearly 750 are to take place this year and beyond.

“Students can’t afford to go to TED,” said Marina Kim, 27, who in 2009 organized TEDxAshokaU — part of Ashoka, a network of social entrepreneurs based in Arlington, Va. — and is planning a TEDx event for February. “The power of TEDx is that people can spread the same message but it’s user-generated,” she said.

Many TED and TEDx talks can be seen free on the Web, where they are the antipode of the viral videos of laughing cats and dancing babies that entertain millions of bored office workers each day. And yet the TED videos, too, have gone viral — viewed more than 319 million times since they went online in 2006.

There are TEDx talks about math curriculum’s, health care and mastering the work-life balance. Often, they capture the local flavor of the city in which they are held, like the TEDx event about breaking down walls held on and around the Great Wall of China. Rarely are they as polished as TED talks, though the best ones end up on TED.com. They can be gatherings of more than 1,000 people, or a few friends in a sparse room. But as is the case with TED, the most powerful events use multimedia, humor and audience interaction to make lectures about serious topics inspiring and easy to grasp.

Take Hans Rosling, a physician and a professor of international health at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. He has spoken at both TED and at TEDx about economic development, health and poverty by narrating eye-catching animations of United Nations statistics as if he were a sportscaster at the Kentucky Derby.

On Monday he spoke at the Paley Center for Media in New York during TEDx Change, a conference organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, about the progress of the global health goals set forth a decade ago by the United Nations.

Behind him was a large digital graph showing the relationship between child mortality and family size. A box of countries labeled “Western” had lower child mortality rates, while a box of countries labeled “Developing” had higher child mortality rates. Visualization software he developed (known as Trendalyzer) sent orbs representing various countries floating across the graph while time fast-forwarded from 1960 to today. Dr. Rosling spoke faster and faster, narrating what was happening as time flew by: “Now you get eradication of smallpox, better education, health services — There! China comes into the Western box here! And here Brazil is in the Western box! India’s approaching! The first African country’s coming into the Western box! And we get a lot of new neighbors. Welcome to a decent life!” (Video of the presentation is on the Gates Foundation’s Web site.)

If you think that was a unique way to enliven statistics, consider the 2007 TED talk at which Dr. Rosling wanted to show attendees that the seemingly impossible was possible — so he swallowed a sword.

“We rehearse and rehearse in my hotel room,” he said in the lobby of the Paley Center after his TEDxChange talk. “Twenty-five times.” (And that was for a sword-free lecture.) Then he reached into his breast pocket and flashed a reporter a Boy Scout-style sword swallower’s badge.

Also at TEDxChange was Mechai Viravaidya, a former senator in Thailand known as Mr. Condom. He shared his unusual tactics to teach Thai people about family planning and H.I.V. and AIDS prevention, including asking police officers to dole out condoms, organizing condom-inflating competitions and selling condoms and caffeine at a Coffee & Condom stall. Efforts like these helped new H.I.V. and AIDS infections in Thailand decline by 90 percent between 1991 and 2003, he said, saving millions of lives.

When Melinda French Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was asked what she hoped the people watching live via Webcast in 40 countries would take away from that particular TEDx event, she replied, “that change is possible.”

The first-ever TEDx was in March 2009 at the University of Southern California, organized by Krisztina Holly, vice provost for innovation at the University of Southern California and executive director of U.S.C.’s Stevens Institute for Innovation. She held a second event this year, selling out all 1,200 available seats and turning away hundreds of people.

“Students were just beating down the door wanting to sign up,” said Ms. Holly, who goes by “Z.” “We actually had a student write in his application that the whole reason the student came to U.S.C. was TEDx.”

Yet she pointed out that just a year ago, TEDx was a major risk because TED’s organizers had to relinquish control. On the other hand, TEDx is an example of a new model of business plans that harness fans of the brand to help it evolve.

Mr. Anderson agreed, though he said the looming questions were “How do you avoid damaging the TED brand? Can you package TED in a box?”

Apparently you can. A TEDx license is required to organize an event. The rules: recipients must not be associated with a controversial or extremist group, and cannot use TEDx to promote religious or political beliefs, or to sell commercial goods. There are also rules governing the event format, including that speakers must be filmed and that they don’t speak for more than 18 minutes each. TEDx organizers cannot charge for tickets, though TED makes some exceptions for groups that need help with production costs. Organizers who want to charge a fee (which can’t exceed $100) must seek permission from TED.

Today, TED executives are looking to the next phase of growth: leveraging TEDx as an educational tool.

“We know teachers are using the talks in classrooms,” said Lara Stein, TED’s licensing director. “What could we do to move that along?”

After all, as Mr. Anderson pointed out, the rise of online video means a teacher doesn’t have to be someone sitting in front of a classroom talking to 30 people. Especially if something like TEDx can make learning and social change “sexy,” as Ms. Kim of Ashoka put it.

“It’s an experience,” she said. “It’s not a lecture. It’s transformational. That’s why people like me are hooked.”

Results of Urban Design Brain Storming Session

On Wednesday August 25, 2010 a group of 24 TEDxers enjoyed an evening of discussion and debate around the ideas of good Urban Design.

Following the TED Talks we broke into six groups that discussed urban design that they liked and disliked.

Here is the summary of the points discussed.

Good Existing Urban Design

Walk Streets – Strong communities emerge from the close proximity and the car free streets.

Strand – A great place to walk or run and watch the world.

Wood Chip Walkway – Another great place to walk, meet people and exercise dogs.

Sepulveda Median – Replanting has improved the visual appearance of the street.

Bad Existing Urban Design

Downtown Manhattan Beach – Could be improved by removing the cars and turning the section from the ocean to the Valley / Ardmore area into a pedestrian street

Rosecrans / Highland Intersection – The area is congested, confusing and the parking structure dominates the corner.

Manhattan Village Mall – Needs a retrofit with the parking placed under the ground and mixed use buildings added. Westfield has created various malls that are great places to be.

Big Box Retail – Many stores are ugly and negatively impact the local environment.

Sepulveda Boulevard – Perhaps the ugliest street in town. If the road was buried the space on top could be turned into the heart of the city.

Lack of Street Cafes – Creating social spaces that allow and encourage people to meet to talk, drink and eat.

Lack of Bike Lanes – To improve life the city needs to have a network of safe bike paths and sidewalks. If it is attractive to walk or bike more people will do it. If it is dangerous they will stay in their cars.

No Community Gardens – Some of the under used parking lots should be turned into community gardens.

Big Unknowns

Hearing the Voice of Non-Motorists – Planning decisions should consider the needs of all stakeholders and that includes walkers and cyclists.

Downtown Manhattan Beach Vons – The redevelopment of this property could improve or ruin the down town area. Little is known about the plans for the property.

Big Questions

Without public transportation it is hard to redesign the city to be less orientated about the car. Public transportation removes the need for large amounts of parking and reduces congestion. Without addressing transportation it is hard to decide how best to redesign the city.

Could the congestion be reduced by adjusting peoples work schedules so that we do not have two distinct rush hours.

Changes may impact city and business revenue for the better or the worse.

Can visitors be attracted to downtown for reasons other than retail, perhaps education and performing arts.


Many items were discussed and the above is based on the notes I have. I probably missed about half of the good ideas. Sorry. Email me or comment if I missed something.

TEDxFullerton – Accepting Applications

Susan and Pam (who many of you may have met at a TEDxManhattanBeach event) are working like crazy on TEDxFullerton and they are now accepting applications for their one day event. The application deadline is Sunday August 1st, 2010 and the application only takes a couple of minutes to complete.

The official press release is below and the easy to complete application is here.

I am sure it will be a great day and the speakers they have recruited are very impressive. If you have any questions I believe that both Susan and Pam will be at the TEDxManhattanBeach event on Wednesday August 4, 2010 or you can contact them directly through their website.

TEDxFullerton Press Release

TEDxFullerton, hosted by Fullerton College’s Fine Arts Division, will be held Friday, September 10, 2010 from 8am – 6pm at Fullerton College’s Campus Theater.

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x=independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.

TEDxFullerton is being produced by ArtspaceOC, “a playful collision of spaces + a serious think tank”. ArtspaceOC is the brainchild of Susan L. Petrella, and Pamela Hughes Tice, lifelong artists, arts patrons and advocates whose vision is to “inspire Orange County to be a “creative” community”. TEDxFullerton begins the conversation about what is means to be a “creative” community. What are the “ideas worth spreading in Orange County” which will achieve this goal?

Interested attendees must apply to participate in this limited space event. Applications are available at www.tedxfullerton.com and must be received by August 1, 2010 to be considered for admission. Attendees’ $50 ticket price will include Friday’s daylong program including an interactive reception.

A limited number of corporate sponsorships for TEDxFullerton are available through Susan L. Petrella at 714.975.0284 or tedxfullerton@gmail.com. Follow along on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TEDxFullerton.

About TED
TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then, its scope has broadened to include science, business, the arts, and the global issues facing our world. The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives — in 18 minutes. Attendees have called it “the ultimate brain spa” and “a four-day journey into the future.” The diverse audience — CEOs, scientists, creatives, and philanthropists — is almost as extraordinary as the speakers, who have included Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Nandan Nilekani, Jane Goodall, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Sir Richard Branson, Philippe Starck and Bono.

TED was first held in Monterey, California, in 1984. In 2001, Chris Anderson’s Sapling Foundation acquired TED from its founder, Richard Saul Wurman. In recent years, TED has expanded to include an international conference, TEDGlobal; media initiatives, including TEDTalks andTED.com; and the TED Prize. TED2011, “The Rediscovery of Wonder,” will be held February 28-March 4, 2011, in Long Beach, California, with the TEDActive simulcast in Palm Springs, California. For details on all upcoming conferences and events, visit www.TED.com.

About ArtspaceOC
ArtspaceOC is the brainchild of Susan L. Petrella, and Pamela Hughes Tice, lifelong artists, arts patrons and advocates whose vision is to “inspire Orange County to be a “creative” community. ArtspaceOC will continue to stimulate this conversation in the months and years to come with unique events such as TEDxFullerton, speakers’ series, white papers, blogs and podcasts and other ventures/adventures.

*This independent TEDx event is operated under license from TED.