How TED ended up in Vancouver

Chris Anderson, TED curator | BCBusiness
TED curator Chris Anderson oversees the technology, entertainment and design empire.

TED curator Chris Anderson discusses how the global brand for inspiring and accessible ideas ended up on Canada’s West Coast

Andrew Graham is sitting at a sunny table in the Milano café on Denman Street. In front of him is his quadcopter. A sort of drone, the quadcopter was celebrated as an “athletic machine” by roboticist Rafaello D’Andrea in a TED talk that has been viewed more than 1,746,000 times. But his flying toy is the least of Graham’s TED connections. A TED Talk by Amy Cuddy about using body posture to reduce stress and boost performance had a profound impact on Graham: “Applying Amy Cuddy’s techniques was as effective for me as using medication,” he says. Yet another TED Talk by Marcin Jakubowski “inspired me to launch a cooperative that provides opensource agricultural technology and machinery solutions to people in Australia,” says the Vancouver-based entrepreneur.

TED2014 is coming to Vancouver, March 17 to 21 at the Convention Centre. Tickets for the conference and lecture series have been sold out since before last year’s event at $7,500 a pop (half that for the parallel TED Active event in Whistler—a relative bargain).

But as Graham’s example demonstrates, TED (which stands for Technology Entertainment, Design) has clearly been here for a while. “We hear stories like that all the time,” says TED curator Chris Anderson. The journalist whose magazine empire funded his private non-profit company, The Sapling Foundation, bought TED in 2001 and has overseen the event since. “It’s incredibly inspiring, humbling and wonderful.”

What do you get for your TED dollar? A series of 18-minute lectures, augmented by shorter presentations, workshops, demonstrations, debates, entertainment, a bit of partying and a shot at collecting some prized business cards. After five years operating out of Long Beach, California, TED will call Vancouver home for the foreseeable future. “We’d like to stay in Vancouver for a while, we really would,” Anderson says. “It will definitely be in Vancouver beyond this year—at least three years and hopefully beyond that.”

Why Vancouver? Perhaps because it’s the hometown of Janet and Katherine McCartney, twin sisters whose company Procreation Design Works Inc. was hired by Anderson in 2002 to take over all aspects of TED event operations and logistics. But Katherine insists the city sold itself. “We shopped around, but fairly quickly came to a unanimous decision about moving to Vancouver. The city’s spectacular architecture, vibrant cultural mix and glorious natural backdrop of water, parks and mountains were all a draw.”

“The sheer number of hotel, restaurant and unique venue options in the city was a huge draw for us,” says Janet. “We’re planning quite a few dinners and ancillary events for our delegates, and in our line of work having this diversity and breadth of choice is fantastic.”

The McCartneys also cite the new Convention Centre as a significant factor in attracting the event, and TED should keep YVR busy as well. “We have delegates coming in from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia,” Katherine says. “Roughly 14 per cent of our audience will be from outside North America this year.”

If not for its status as a non-profit, TED would merit a strong “buy” recommendation, reporting annual revenues of over $45 million. Speakers are not paid. Nonetheless an invitation to speak at TED can be a golden ticket for those whose videos catch fire, making them international superstars of the lecture circuit. And while a few mega-names such as Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and Bono have given TED talks, most speakers are unknowns with a compelling message or idea.

TED2014 will mark the 30th anniversary of the first event, held as a one-off in Monterey, California. But the evolution of TED into a global phenomenon has been much more recent. The first turning point came in 2006 when TED Talks went online, transforming what had been an exclusive and expensive seminar series into a free-access resource. The move was preceded by considerable debate within the organization. “It was controversial,” Anderson says. “A connected world means the rules about what you hang onto and what you give away have changed. The reasons for restricting access are still there but there are now good reasons to give it away. If you give away something good you will very quickly reach a wider audience.”

The other factor in TED’s explosion was the development of TEDx, the series of independently organized TED conferences held around the world (including Vancouver for the past four years). With 2,700 TEDx conferences in 2013 alone—featuring either free admission or tickets under $100—these satellite events have exponentially expanded direct public involvement with TED events. “There have been TEDx events everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to shanty towns,” says TEDx chief coordinator Lara Stein. “In North America there are all sorts of conferences and events available. But holding TEDx events in places like the Middle East can provide a safe haven for discussions that might not otherwise be possible.”

TEDx has roots at UBC. The first annual Terry Talks event at UBC’s Life Sciences Centre, held in fall 2008, was in effect the first TEDx event. “We’d applied for a grant to hold an event involving undergrads,” says David Ng, a senior instructor on the faculty of UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratory. (The “Terry” name was a play on “terra,” or earth.) But the UBC organizers were transparent about their inspiration. “We were pretty open about copying the TED template for our event,” Ng says. “After we did an amusing video for it that was posted on Boing Boing and some other sites, Lara Stein contacted me. I get the feeling that TEDx was something they were already working on but we just happened to be the first beta version that was rolling out. So we agreed to gather feedback for them.

“By using undergrads I think we showed that if you do your homework you don’t need a Bill Gates in the lineup to make it work. Smart, interesting, passionate people can put on a cohesive event.

“I think with TEDx they were also looking for a way to deal with the criticism about elitism,” Ng says.

There has been plenty of that. TED has been derided as a networking club for the wealthy, and scorned for what some feel is its self-satisfied, messianic tone. Writing in the New Statesman, Martin Robbins suggested TED’s official slogan, “Ideas worth spreading,” made it sound like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “People join for much the same reason they join societies like Mensa,” Robbins wrote. “[I]t gives them a chance to label themselves part of an intellectual elite…TED’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Ideas worth spreading’; it should be ‘Ego worth paying for.’”

Parodies have emerged, notably the Onion Talks, a series of videos featuring rapturous audiences applauding platitudes, ludicrous theories, and statements of the obvious. Locally a parody @TEDcouver Twitter account has been sniping at the upcoming conference as a gathering of Donald Trump-like buffoons. “When an organization grows the way TED has, the occasional jab or parody is to be expected,” Anderson says. “Most of what we’ve seen has been good-natured and some have been hilarious—we laugh along with everyone else. The rest is often just rooted in a misunderstanding of who we are.”

Anderson suggests the charge of elitism is strange for a group that makes its product available to anyone with a web browser. “As a small non-profit which decided to freely license its brand to local organizers, and give away its content to hundreds of millions of people around the world, it’s hard to take that line of criticism too seriously.”

The question of flash over substance has also been raised—even once, inevitably, in a TED Talk. In her presentation about introversion, author Susan Cain opined, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas. I mean zero.”

Although TED’s online videos are a sophisticated product—recorded with an array of the same cameras used at the Academy Awards and carefully edited to remove glitches and moments when speakers forget their lines—Anderson says the professional look of the videos is somewhat deceptive. “We encourage TED speakers to be themselves, and not these polished speakers they see in the videos.”

The most popular TED talks tend to have a certain “wow” factor, offering ideas that turn conventional thinking on its head, such as biologist Alan Savory’s assertion that global warming can be counteracted through increased livestock grazing. Other popular talks provide feel-good facts, such as Swedish doctor Hans Rosling’s survey of global statistics suggesting an inevitable march of global progress. All of which can lead wannabe TEDers to believe they can crack the lineup by following a can’t-miss formula. “There are people who try to game the system,” Anderson says. “Someone who decides they want to become a TED star, figure out the right way to emotionally manipulate the audience and get them to stand up and cheer—we’re alive to that and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding it. Audiences get wise to that very quickly. If you try to find a formula, it’s a trap. What we’re looking for is authenticity. There are lots of people out there with good ideas who really struggle to communicate them. One of the most important things we’d love to get a lot better at is helping coach them.”

Some of those amazing TED ideas, applauded in the room, face a rockier reception outside. Savory’s theory about the global benefits of grazing has been attacked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among others. Another talk by Felisa Wolfe-Simon about organisms capable of assimilating arsenic into their DNA did not withstand peer review. But Anderson points out that a TED talk can be just a starting point for public discussion. “If you look at the Alan Savory talk, it was very contentious in some circles,” Anderson says. “But if you look online you’ll find hundreds of comments and it’s really become a very healthy debate. People can move the conversation forward.”

TED does hold actual debates as well. “We had one on nuclear energy,” Anderson says. “There was one last year on whether innovation has stalled.”

TED is not averse to airing controversial theories—Anderson cites the late Elaine Morgan’s TED Talk about her contention that humans evolved from aquatic apes. “It’s not a mainstream scientific theory by any means. But her arguments were expressed with a great deal of rationality and respect for science.”

In general though, Anderson says, TED is not fond of conspiracies or activism unsupported by strong evidence. He says the anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) movement has been particularly critical of TED’s approach. “We probably wouldn’t put up someone who is rabidly anti-GMO unless they had some real scientific evidence,” Anderson notes.

“We’re not a platform for pseudo-science. No doubt we could make a mistake. But we fundamentally believe in the scientific endeavour. We believe the scientific method is the best at discovering truth and how the world really is. Inherent to the scientific method is skepticism and putting ideas up against each other in a rigorous search for the truth.”

TED events are held just twice a year. But thousands of TEDx events are taking place all year long. (There are also corporate TEDx events, organized internally at corporations including Samsung and Johnson & Johnson. The license is free, although donations are requested.) The rapid expansion of TEDx events has led to criticism that quality control has slipped and pseudo-science has made it past the gatekeepers—notably at a December 2012 conference called TEDxValenciaWomen, where speakers included a “specialist in energy movements for Earth healing through ceremonies, in harmonizing places and individual and collective environments, and Bach Flowers… and teacher of rebirthing,” among others with similar resumes.

Stein puts the problems down to growing pains. “We have certain curatorial guidelines. Around the edges there’s a lot of grey. And sometimes you have people with a different agenda. If we realize that someone has that kind of agenda, we will cancel the license.”

TED arrives in Vancouver as an established cultural force. Its videos have been viewed well over a billion times and translated into aproximately 100 languages.

Yet Anderson does not see TED as a media juggernaut. “People have this idea that we’re a giant organization. We’re not NPR [National Public Radio]. We’re 110 people in a New York office on a journey to understand the world a little better.”

Still, it’s clear Anderson relishes anecdotes like the tale of Vancouverite Andrew Graham. Recently, he says, he was in a New York café when a Polish waitress recounted her own story. After emigrating she’d fallen out with her boyfriend, suffered physical abuse, and found herself homeless. Someone gave her an iPod and she discovered TED Talks, including one by Ken Robinson on education and creativity that has become TED’s most-viewed video, with approximately 20,500,000 views on the TED website and well over five million more on YouTube. TED Talks, she told Anderson, had helped her turn her life around. “She had me shedding tears in the coffee shop,” Anderson says. “TED is not just for college kids and educated elites. It reaches a much broader audience.”