Launched in 1984 under the banner ‘Ideas worth spreading,’ TED conferences have grown into one of the most influential forums of the last decade, providing a platform for the most innovative brains and iconic figures of our time, from Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, to Al Gore and Frank Gehry, to share their ideas with the world. Now, the spin-off TEDx concept is exploding in Shanghai.
It was an American called Richard Saul Wurman who spotted an inspiring crossover between the worlds of technology, entertainment and design and brought together some of the most outstanding leaders in these fields to talk to an audience about their work – in a strict 18-minute format. While a coveted ticket to these invitation-only events cost thousands of dollars, the speeches are put online afterwards for all.
TEDx is based on that original concept, and focuses on local, independently organized events. They have spread like wildfire across the world, in a range of different formats for different communities, such as TEDxWomen, TEDxUniversity and TEDxCinema.
The concept has been energetically embraced since its introduction to China in 2008 – over 250 TEDx conferences have mushroomed across the country to date. A look at why the TED concept has become so wildly popular reveals a lust for inspiration and knowledge that flies in the face of oft-heard criticism that creativity and selfless sharing are in short supply in our heaving metropolises.
“It’s interesting how TED is very different in China and Asia to what it is in the West,” says Richard Hsu, the principal organizer of the huge TEDxShanghai event in 2012. “In its place of origin, TED was never looked at as a platform for learning; it was always a platform for ideas, but the rest of the world looks at it as a platform for learning. It teaches, it’s inspiring, it’s accelerating.”
Hsu was instrumental in introducing the TED concept to China in 2008. One aspect of his role is explaining to potential speakers what TED is, its benefits and why speeches last 18 minutes.
TEDxShanghai’s theme this year was ‘I am Chinese’ and some 1,500 people came to listen to presenters like world-famous footwear designer Jimmy Choo – who made a shoe onstage – and Chinese people effecting grass-roots change in Shanghai, such as Nuomi clothing label founder Bonita Lim.
“The idea behind the theme was the diaspora of Chinese,” says Hsu. “The Chinese translation means ‘I am the descendant of Chinese roots,’ and we wanted to show the outside Chinese to be proud of the people in China and the people in China to be proud of outside Chinese – that we’re all brothers and sisters.”
While young Chinese people are thirsty for ideas, Hsu, who also lectures at Tongji University, feels that their desire to learn is the main motivator.
“I think it is not ideas, it is not creativity, because in many ways they’re just too cheap – it’s learning. Learning is a currency. It’s like Tom Friedman says, ‘The new literacy is to never stop learning,’ and that’s one of the great things about TED – learning about things you don’t know about, perhaps you had no interest in.”
Yvette Yang, an organizer of the TEDxTheGardenBridge conference, a women-focused event held last October, says that since the TEDxUniversity conferences launched in 2010, she has noticed a surge in interest among students.
“Young people are more curious about the outside world, they are looking for meaning, they are looking for purpose in life and TEDx gives them so much rich content,” say Yang. “The ideas focus on social problems right now and philosophy questions we don’t really mention in our schools, and we think that young people really like it because they can learn something and it’s quick.”
Debra Kemper, the organizer behind last month’s TEDxShanghaiWomen, doesn’t believe people are necessarily coming to these events to be taught something, but rather to “look at things in a different way, a different perspective to what they have had before.”
Cross-cultural exchange was a big part of the ShanghaiWomen event, the theme of which was ‘Navigating the space between cultures.’
“It wasn’t just about expats being here,” says Kemper. “It was Shanghainese women who’d lived overseas and come back, or folks from other cultures that are here in Shanghai and how people are flourishing and thriving in those cultural gaps.”
As TEDx events become ubiquitous and more people get licenses to organize their own, maintaining the standards and ensuring that speakers adhere to the rules – and don’t, for example, use the platform as a way of advertising their companies – is one of the challenges for TED as a brand and the concept in China overall.
“That’s TED’s big concern,” says Hsu. “So there are TED ambassadors – I will become one this coming year – there’s TEDx training and webinars… I also think there’s the camaraderie – the first tickets I give away are for other TED organizers in the country.”
Another challenge in this hectic city is everyone’s busy schedules, something he has addressed by having morning and afternoon tickets.
“At most TEDx’s in the world, nobody goes home, nobody runs in and out, but in Shanghai it happens all the time. People can’t commit for the whole day… and want to look at your agenda and might then come to listen to three people.”
Presentations by interesting people is just the first step, the events also create communities that want to stay connected.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘We want to continue this conversation, we don’t want to wait a whole year,’” says Kemper of her women’s event. “We’re trying to figure out what we can do in the interim to keep those conversations running.”
While there’s no doubt that this platform is a force for positive interaction and inspiring ideas, one criticism that has been leveled at the TED concept in general is that it creates a special, exclusive club of those ‘in the know.’ Many of the TEDx events here are limited to a maximum of 100 people, which means organizers have to choose the make-up of their audience. On top of that, how does an organizer judge if an idea is one worth spreading?
“I think that goes to the central issue at hand, which is: are TEDx events about taking ideas from other places and bringing them here, or is it a generator of new ideas from the ground up?” says Richard Kelly, co-organizer of TEDxShanghai.
“When you get into markets like India and China where there are large populations and there hasn’t been a platform like that, I think that’s where it’s interesting. And who am I to judge if these ideas are good enough or big enough?” he continues.
“As for your ability to go to an event that’s about generating ideas – and there are lots of those events – it’s probably easier going to somewhere where someone’s put some thought behind them and for purely cost and logistical reasons has had to limit the numbers. So the reality of those two things is that there is a constant conversation, between how to make it choreographed and brilliant – and scalable.”
According to Yang, for the GardenBridge event would-be attendees could apply for a ticket in an open registration procedure, but “they must say they will definitely come, they have to be doing some job around women so they have more of an idea about the event, I prioritize that kind of person. Then I balance the age group – we want some students, we don’t want all students, and I don’t want it to be all corporate people either. But we don’t want to keep our events a secret – we want to spread ideas!”
The concept of sharing ideas may be relatively new, but it seems China’s TEDx explosion is no passing fad. “The underlying need of sharing is still pretty latent,” says Kelly. “And I can’t see that going away for a long time; and the idea of ideas emanating in a place like China that are globally applicable is even more latent than that. There’s a long way to go, and as far as the rest of the world looking at China and saying, ‘Wow!’”