Ideas for everyone
With TEDxDublin taking place today, Maggie Armstrong asks the Science Gallery's Ian Brunswick why it's so popular
TED talks started in California in the 1980s as a platform for 'ideas worth spreading' on technology, entertainment and design. With the help of the internet, they've become a worldwide phenomenon.
This year, TEDxDublin features a surfer teaching her sport to women in Iran, a vegetarian biotechnologist set to mend the world, a comedian, an economist, a creative-writing teacher, a mother of two autistic children making apps, and more.
But the 2,111 seats sold out before the speakers were even announced. So what's so great about TED? We spoke to Science Gallery's Ian Brunswick, the organiser of TEDxDublin, before the conference in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre today.
What inspired 'big changes' as the choice of theme this year?
We already had a few different speakers in mind before we thought of a tagline, and the unifying thread was either that everyone was at the cutting edge of a big change going on in our society, or they were individuals working to bring about a big change.
Issues such as climate change and financial crises can seem disempowering, but you feel inspired and empowered when you see individuals making big changes happen, all by themselves.
Do you put out an open call for speakers, or are there really 'fanatics' out there as the TED organisers' manual warns against?
The speaker selection is taken very seriously. We take recommendations, we do interviews, we go to events scoping people. We keep our ear to the ground for people who are not on the scene. This is an event about your idea, it's not about selling from the stage, promoting a political agenda; you have a chance to share something bigger than yourself with 2,000 people.
The manual also warns against 'bad science'. How do you ensure there is rigour in the talks' content?
We're very rigorous both before and after the talks. Generally, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. At the Science Gallery we have to scope speakers, papers, artworks and technologies frequently to see if they hold up, so we have a great network of researchers and scientists to call on if we ever need a second opinion.
In terms of the 'hive mind' – our collective consciousness; at best shared values, at worst groupthink – what topics were popular this year?
There is a lot of interdisciplinary thinking going on – people using biotech to empower people in low-income countries, individuals mixing skate culture with making, hacking and programing, or people such as surfer Easkey Britton combining her passion for sport, the environment and gender equality.
I see a lot of speakers crossing between technology, science, art and social entrepreneurship, so the hive mind is helping us make more connections across disciplines.
TED reserves the right to take down talks from the web, as with Rupert Sheldrake, author of 'The Science Delusion', who was censored. Are some ideas not worth spreading?
TED have a healthy approach to this. It is their event, so if a speaker doesn't follow the rules, they aren't obliged to put it up. Any speaker who doesn't get their talk put online – and that's very rare – can always share their viewpoint elsewhere.
In Sheldrake's case, the speaker got more press by accusing TED of sponsorship – and they did eventually post it online with an explanation (see: blog.ted.com/ 2013/03/19/the-debate-about-rupert- sheldrakes-talk).
Overall, I think criticism about TED and censorship is misplaced. At TED Global in Edinburgh earlier this year, George Papandreou, the former prime minister of Greece, spoke and there were protesters outside the event. TED didn't ban his talk, or ignore the protesters either – they filmed questions from the protesters and, at the end of his talk, they played the questions, which he answered on stage.
Some say TED is elitist. Is the profile of the speaker used to promote the event?
I understand how some people think that – TED is a really strong brand, even though it's a very small conference. But I don't think it's elitist. We have a very mixed group of speakers, some who have a public profile and some who are less 'discovered'.
We have had just as good feedback from our audience on the speakers whom no one has heard of as we have on the big names.
It's a sign we've got an open-minded audience that doesn't expect every speaker to have a book, TV show or Nobel prize.
Given most of us will be watching TEDxDublin on YouTube, will there be room for the 'deep discussion and connection in a small group' TED aims for?
YouTube comments don't provide the most sophisticated discussions on the internet. But on TED's own site, ted.com, there are really good discussions, with people asking insightful questions, and experts, or even the speakers themselves, replying and keeping the discussion going.
Do you see scope for another version of TED on a smaller, more regular scale?
There are a number of TEDx events in Ireland of which we're only one. I'd love to have a meet-up of all the people who are hosting TEDx events and see how we can work together to meet the hunger for ideas that is out there.
But this end of dialogue doesn't need to happen only at TEDx events – I'm sure we'll see more events that are non-commercial and accessible to everyone. If you can credit TED with one thing, they have made it okay to be intellectual, even cool to share new, unconventional ideas.
Which are your top five TED talks?
Benjamin Zander: 'The Transformative Power of Classical Music'; Aris Venetikidis (at TEDxDublin last year): 'Making Sense of Maps'; any of Hans Rosling's talks; Emma Teeling (at TEDxDublin last year): 'The Secret of the Bat Genome'; Dan Barber: 'A Foie Gras Parable'.
If you could convene Dail Eireann to watch one talk this year, which would it be?
The power of TEDxDublin is in seeing the diversity and range of ideas and speakers. If this many people are doing amazing things right here in Ireland, what idea worth spreading does each and every one of us have inside us?
It really makes you feel that we can change the status quo and think of new, innovative solutions to any problem that arises – that's a great feeling to have.
Watch the talks on tedxdublin.com