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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

12 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010: Day Two


Suspended animation, augmented reality, and what sheep’s knuckles have to do with the future of cultural problem-solving.

We’ve been busy live-tweeting from TED 2010, so yesterday’s highlights come mostly in photos and quotes — see Twitter for play-by-play updates.


Be skeptical. Ask questions. Get proof. Don’t take anything for granted. But when you get proof, accept it. We have a hard time doing that. ~ Michael Specter

Science tells us what we can value, but it never tells us what we ought to value. ~ Sam Harris

AIDS researcher Elizabeth Pisani shows the remarkable and life-saving effects of HIV treatment, but says that, contrary to popular belief, treatment is not all the prevention we need. In fact, it leads the infected to take their guards down, so they become less careful, which can be dangerous.

Pisani’s book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, sounds fascinating and eye-opening.

Pisani shows some counterintuitive HIV stats

Nicholas Christakis, whose social contagion studies we tweeted some time ago, talked about

Christakis’ book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, is a sociology and digital anthropology must-read.

Christakis calls obesity a 'multicentric epidemic,' reduced not to the behavior of individuals but to that of the 'human superorganism.'


Ex-CIA covert operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson shares Global Zero, her advocacy for eliminating nuclear weapons.

One thing our country needs is better political debates. We need to rediscover the lost art of political argument. ~ Michael Sandel

If we weren't afraid our servers might go down tomorrow, we'd dare say 4chan founder Christopher 'moot' Poole was endearing, but left us underwhelmed and missing a connect-the-dots idea. Hypothetically speaking.

Kevin Bales reveals some shocking facts about modern-day slavery: Today, there are 27,000 people in real, physical slavery. He points to four main causes: Overpopulation, extreme poverty, vulnerability of disadvantaged groups, and corruption.

'What enables slavery is the absence of the rule of law. It lets people use violence with impunity.' ~ Kevin Bales

Kevin advocates “freedom dividend” — letting people out of slavery and letting them work for themselves, which causes local communities to flourish. He says the total cost of enduring freedom for those 27,000 contemporary slaves is $10.8 billion, which is how much the US spent shopping this past holiday season.

We stand wholeheartedly behind Chris Anderson’s recommendation for Bales’ chilling and fascinating book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

A TED first: Mark Jacobson and Stewart Brand (whose compelling new book, Whole Earth Discipline, we reviewed recently) entered a good old fashioned debate on the merits of nuclear power.

Brand for, Jacobson against

If all of the electricity in your lifetime came from nuclear, waste would fit in a Coke can. ~ Stewart Brand

Each got 6 minutes to defend his stance, followed by an audience grill and refuting arguments.

To power the entire world with wind you will need only about 1% of US land area. ~ Mark Jacobson

Despite his charisma, Brand 'lost' in the end -- the audience skew moved from 75/25 in favor of nukes in the beginning of the debate to 65/35 by the end.


The Extraordinary Legion of Dancers, LXD, were extraordinary indeed.

LXD received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at TED 2010 yet.

Though without the impact of a live performance, you can see for yourself:

When I dance, I want people to question the reality of what they’re seeing. ~ Madd Chadd

Game designer Jane McGonigal delivered some staggering statistics on gaming: Since World of Warcraft launched, we’ve spent 5.33 million years solving it; to put this in time perspective, 5.33 million years ago, the first humans stood up.

In the game world, we become the best version of ourselves. ~Jane McGonigal

Today’s kids, McGonigal pointed out, spend some 10,000 hours gaming by the time they turn 21. At the same time, the average child with perfect attendance spends 10,800 hours in school by graduation — so there’s a parallel “education” going on. She advocates for using social games as something bigger than escapism from reality — a cultural advancement tool putting gamers’ problem-solving talents to work. She demoes World Without Oil, a collaborative social game made in 2007.

Ancient dice made out of sheep's knuckles, invented in Libya, are world's first recorded gaming device.

McGonigal premieres Urgent Evoke, a game developed in partnership with the World Bank. If you complete it, you get certified by the World Bank as “social innovator”.

Music icon David Byrne, a cultural hero of ours.

Byrne says people in 19th-century opera houses used to yell at each other just like they did at CBGB's in the 70's.

Photosynth mastermind Blaise Aguera y Arcas demoes some remarkable Augmented Reality technologies using Microsoft's Bing

Inventor Gary Lauder says energy efficiency is about more than just vehicles: It's also about the road. He points out that converting a traffic light into a roundabout -- something well-adopted in Europe, but tragically scarce here in the US -- reduces accidents by 40%. He proposes a new hybrid sign that blends a Stop sign and a Yield one.

In the developing world, 10-50% of vaccines spoil before delivery. Kids die. ~Nathan Myhrvold

Polymath Nathan Myhrvold delivers some known but still chilling statistics about malaria — it sickens 250 million people a year; every 43 seconds a child in Africa dies — and demonstrates a radical new way of fighting the disease: By laser-blasting infected mosquitoes.

Myhrvold orchestrates an incredible on-stage demonstration, wherein a mosquito is shot by a laser beam in a glass tank.

We've stitched together the slow-motion sequence of the mosquito blast. Click the image to look closer.


Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, amazing as usual.

Stephen Wolfram, creator of revolutionary semantic search engine Wolfram|Alpha, argues raw computation combined with built-in knowledge changes the economics of the web and democratizes programming. He talks about the principle of computational equivalence — the idea that even incredibly simple systems can do complex computation.

Wolfram says you don't have to go very far in the computational universe to start finding candidate universes for our own.

For the first time, Microsoft Labs’ revolutionary Pivot software is availble for the world to tinker with.

MacArthur genius fellow Mark Roth admits he didn’t know what TED was until Chris invited him to talk, but we quickly forgive him after hearing his incredible — literally — and surprisingly grounded sci-fiish work in “suspended animation,” a slowing life process and makes a living being appear dead without harming, then reanimates it. In layman’s terms, resurrection.

The amazing TED Fellows are a mind-blowingly multi-talented group, working in anything from crowdsourced citizen journalism to e-waste management to humanitarian documentary film-making.

For live coverage of today’s and and tomorrow’s TED talks, follow us on Twitter. And keep an eye on the TED website as the first of this year’s talks begin being uploaded.

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11 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010, Day One


What one pound of tuna has to do with five years of chocolate milk, spider silk and a ukulele.

We’re thrilled to be reporting — and live-tweeting — from TED 2010, themed What The World Needs Now. Here are some highlights from an exhilarating and punchy first day, which opened with an appropriately bold address from Chris Anderson.

I don’t like what’s been happening in the world. What the world needs now is a restart.

Session one, Mindshift, opened with one of our big behavioral psychology heroes and winner of the Nobel in Economics, Daniel Kahneman. He delved into the cognitive traps of happiness.

The first cognitive trap about happiness is a reluctance to accept its complexity.

Kahneman went on to describe the differences — and conflict — between the experiencing self, which lives in the moment of the experience, and the remembering self, which frames that experience in our memory through the stories it tells about it. He asked us to consider a vacation at the end of which all of our memories would be erased by an amnesia-inducing pill and all of our photos deleted — would be still choose the same vacation?

We don’t actually choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. We think of the future as dissipated memories.

In a surprise livestream from London, Prime Minister candidate David Cameron slung some cliches about transparency, accountability and choice as the three key game-changers in politics — we were not impressed. And, frankly, we don’t think TED should be dabbling in the messy and murky waters of purely-political (as opposed to social policy) agendas.

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro followed with a mind-blowing rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

It is no doubt best experienced live, but you can get a teaser-taste here:

Activist Esther Duflo, founder of, made a powerful case for immunization and other interventions to stop preventable diseases that kill over 25,000 children every year. And she raised the difficult question of aid efficiency, saying we can’t actually know how effective aid in Africa is because we don’t know whether Africa would’ve been better or worse off without it.

An interesting nugget came from Duflo’s work on distributing mosquito nets. Turns out simply getting them to the community is only half the work. Getting people to use them is a different story, and there’s something to be learned from Kahneman here — behavioral economics of sorts: If you make the nets free, people won’t see them as valuable, so they won’t use them. So, do you make them free to maximize distribution, or do you sell them to increase their perceived value and thus incentivize people to use them?

Esther Duflo's answers to preventable diseases that claim thousands of lives a year.

Duflo concluded with the compelling question of why, in technology, we spend so much time in experimeting to find the best solution, but we don’t do the same in social policy.

Michael Shermer followed with a fascinating talk about pattern recognition and its psychology of skepticism and belief. He zoomed in on agenticity — the tendency to project our own beliefs on invisible objects — and pointed to it as the cause of conspiracy theories, managing to slide in a few rather entertaining jokes along the way.

Contrary to some conspiracy theories, we now know 9/11 was not a plan of the Bush administration because… it worked.

Session Two, Discover, opened with cancer researcher William Li, whose groundbreaking work in angiogenesis is revolutionizing the war on cancer, fighting the disease by cutting out blood supply to the vessels that favor the cancerous tissue.

Li contended that diet is one of the most effective cancer prevention mechanisms and identified a number of antiangiogenic foods — ones that help nip the blood supply to cancerous cells.

Because fat tissue is highly angiogenic, Li advocated a hand-in-hand fight against cancer and obesity by attacking their common denominator — angiogenesis — through dietary prevention.

Cheryl Hayashi followed with an informative, though not particularly engaging, talk about spiders and spider silk, the only fascinating takeaway of which was the possibility of using spider silk — a highly flexible and resistant structural material — in flexible body armor in the future.

Carter Emmart, Director of Astorvisualization at the Hayden Planetarium, followed with the utterly fascinating demo of the Digital Universe Atlas, which we raved about on Twitter a few months ago:

In a short talk, Philip Kaplan demoed his latest venture, Blippy, a social tool that shows what your friends are buying online and off, which reminded us of Facebook Beacon debacle and thus only made us shudder with skepticism.

The TED folks played “Parisian Love,” Google’s Super Bowl spot, from the stage — turns out, not because Google paid for it, but because they just loved how it captures the digital age.

What followed was our favorite talk of the day — chef extraordinaire Dan Barber, who dove into the serious overfishing problem and its many sidekick consequences: bycatch, pollution, ocean depletion.

Dan Barber, the day's highlight.

It takes 15 pounds of wild fish to get you one pound of tuna.

Barber pointed to smart, sustainable fish farming as a way of keeping fish on the menu and off the ocean’s death toll. He spoke of one such farm, which uses extensive, not intensive farming — along the entire ecological chain — even letting gorgeous pink flamingos feast freely on the fish.

We need a radical new conception of agriculture. One in which the food actually tastes good.

He also pointed to the failure of food distribution — not the mere lack of tonnage — as the reason why one billion people will go hungry today. To feed the world, Barber said, we should look not to the capitalist agribusiness model, but in the ecological model. And he got one of the most well-deserved standing ovations we’ve ever seen at TED.

The day’s last session, Action, spotlighted some recent TEDPrize winners and the phenomenal, actionable projects they’ve undertaken with the help of the grants and support they received.

Ideas are all very well, but what the world needs now is action. ~ Chris Anderson

Between these mini-presentations, TED announced the launch of SETI Quest, a new site aiming to engage the open-source community in a citizen-powered quest for alien life.

Wrapping up the day, chef-activist Jamie Oliver, winner of the latest TEDPrize, delivered some expected but still shocking stats: Today’s child will live 10 years less than his parent because of the food landscape we’ve created; obesity costs Americans 10% of healthcare bill — $150 billion a year, set to double in three years.

While I do this talk, four Americans will be dead by what they eat.

Jamie Oliver: 'Meet my friend Britney. She's 16 years old, she's got 6 years to live. She's eating her liver to death.'

Oliver addressed the tragic state of school lunches, where French fries are considered vegetables and the absence of utensils implicitly endorses fast finger-food. He showed a rather disheartening video, in which he asks elementary school children to name different vegetables; they call beets broccoli and tomatoes potatoes.

Jamie Oliver pours a cartful of sugar on the stage, the amount an average school child will consume in five years just from sweetened milk beverages.

Finally, Oliver shares his inspired and, we think, urgently important TED wish:

In a wonderful last session, the ever-amazing Sheryl Crow took the stage for some of her unmistakable magic.

This concluded a riveting first day, beautifully curated to ever-so-subtly-yet-powerfully illuminate the intricate connection between food, health and social policy. Tomorrow, we’re returning with complete live coverage on Twitter — so stay tuned.

Major thanks to Kent of TEDxLex for tech support today

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10 FEBRUARY, 2010

10 More Great Cross-Disciplinary Conferences


More ways to get stimulated in public, or how to fit a wealth of innovation into a plenary session.

After the fantastic response to the 10 Contemporary Cross-Disciplinary Conferences post last year, we decide do a follow-up, highlighting — both ones that didn’t make our cut the first time around and ones suggested by readers.

So here are 10 more such boundary-spanning, silo-busting events. The kind of occasion that encourages lateral-brain connections and odd-couple lunchmates. Though many of the conferences this time around are closely tied to specific locations or institutions, they share the same fundamental mission — to provide a broadly curated experience for the curious.


Kicking off our list is a conference that actually seemed too obvious to feature in our round-one writeup. PopTech convenes 700 innovation-minded individuals each fall in Camden, Maine for a three-day idea blitz. With an emphasis on futurist thinking and technology, PopTech lineups are an eclectic affair; this past year’s event featured musician John Forté, activist-economist Esther Duflo, and architect Laura Kurgan. (And yes, PopTech even has the obligatory Malcolm Gladwell talk from 2004 — he’s on the organization’s board).

Much as TED has its vaunted TED Fellows program, PopTech chooses a new roster of Social Innovation Fellows each year; we featured 2009 Fellow Emily Pilloton on Brain Pickings not too long ago. To experience what TIME calls “Davos for cool people” (and what the less generous call “TED for people who can’t get into TED”), check out more videos from the PopTech archive.


The Business Innovation Factory summit — or BIF for short — is an under-the-radar annual event in Providence, Rhode Island, which has been gaining ground since its inaugural year in 2004. As its name suggests, BIF focuses on transformative enterprise, looking at disruptive deliverables and design in areas like education, energy independence, and healthcare. A good number of our intellectual idols have spoken at BIF, among them Paola Antonelli and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman. We were particularly inspired by social entrepreneur Cat Lainé’s talk about bringing sustainable infrastructure to the developing world, made all the more poignant by recent events in Haiti.

You can catch up on videos from the past five BIF summits, or even join the recently launched BIF reading group.


Since 2005, DLD — which stands for “Digital/Life/Design” — has brought together the world’s cultural creatives, entrepreneurs, investors, and techies for three days of cross-disciplinary discussion in Munich. A veritable who’s-who list of 21st-century changemakers has passed through its panels on topics ranging from China to user-centric experiences. Highlights for us include TEDster (and Brain Pickings favorite) Jonathan Harris talking about his most recent work, and hacker-inventors Pablos Holman and 3ric Johnson on the advantages of approaching life with a hacker’s phenomenological stance.

Last year, we featured highlights from the 2009 event, and this year’s confernce just wrapped up. The next DLD isn’t until January 2011, but in the meantime you can see videos from the past five conferences online.


The BIL Conference — which stands, alternately, for “Business, Impromptu, Levity,” “Brilliance, Ingenious, Learning,” “Booze, Intellectuals, Logic” and similar acronymic summations — traces its roots directly back to TED. In fact the founders’ original plan, hatched in 2007, was to go to Long Beach, California and crash TED’s annual flagship conference. From this dream of subterfuge, BIL’s “open, self-organizing, emergent, arts, science, society and technology unconference” model was born. With titles like “Rethinking the Modern GUI” and “What’s Funny About the Interwebs,” talks at BIL often reflect their origins in tech circles; however, some of the unconferences take specific themes, such as the upcoming BIL:PIL in October of this year which will look at the future of healthcare. While several BIL events have since been held on the heels of TED, the general non-profit BIL model has also been used in Boston, Phoenix, and San Diego for a total of nine events held or scheduled to date.Check out Architecture for Humanity founder (and TEDster) Cameron Sinclair, TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoski, and other videos from BIL events here.


The PICNIC festival is an artsy gathering that takes place in venues across Amsterdam. Held annually in September since 2006, the three-day-long PICNIC describes itself as a conference where creatives come together for “inspiration, networking, and dealmaking,” and indeed, professional development takes its place on the agenda alongside formally scheduled networking sessions. Past speakers include Second Life founder Philip Rosedale, AREA/Code founder Dennis Crowley, and design consultant Chee Pearlman. Last year, Sir Richard Branson chaired a jury for the PICNIC Green Challenge to award the best carbon-reducing idea, and sponsors such as Microsoft held design camps and other interactive workshops for attendees.

Watch selected videos from PICNIC 2009 here or check out its Vimeo channel.


Hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Conference on World Affairs marks its 62nd year in 2010. For a week in April, 100 attendees take part in more than 200 panels, performances, and plenaries on various topics, all of which are free and open to the public.

The event was founded in an era of classic internationalism with an emphasis on foreign relations, but today sessions are held around “arts, media, science, diplomacy, technology, environment, spirituality, politics, business, medicine, human rights, and so on.” (If that isn’t interdisciplinary, we don’t know what is.) The university setting brings an academic bent to the whole affair — an orientation unfortunately reflected by the conference’s old-school approach to recordings, available by check or money order. (What is this, PBS?) If you happen to be in the area, however, it looks like there’s plenty of inspiration and reflection on hand.

Thanks @slainson!


Bearing the burnished pedigree of its hosts, The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the Aspen Ideas Festival is entering its sixth year of wide-ranging, high-minded discussion in the tony enclave of Aspen, Colorado. Each April heavy hitters from academia, business, media, and politics ascend the mountains for a week of seminars, panels, and presentations; however, we hear the real scene takes place as much after the official events as during. The theme of this year’s festival is “Ideas in Action” with an emphasis on Latin America and the region’s educational, environmental, and health challenges. (While we’re not sure whither the southern hemisphere focus, we suspect it has something to do with wanting to differentiate the festival from last year’s PopTech theme, “America Reimagined.”)

If you want to play with the big boys (and the occasional big girl — that’s right Arianna Huffington, we’re talking about you) without leaving home, check out the Aspen Institute’s archive of A/V resources.


If you like The New Yorker in print, you’ll be in heaven experiencing it live. In the fall the annual New Yorker Festival assembles a rich lineup of culturally oriented talks and tours in (where else?) Manhattan and the occasional outer-NYC bureau. Like a pop-up version of the magazine, glossy profiles take the form of in-person interviews with editors and writers from the mag’s masthead serving as interviewers. Attendees can purchase tickets to individual events or passes to the three-day shebang, making this one of the more economically efficient options on the conference circuit.

If you’re still jonesing for more Gladwell, you can see videos from past New Yorker Festivals or catch up on dispatches from the various events’ blog coverage.


Winning the prize for most unlikely location, BIG Omaha held its inaugural 2009 conference away from the standard loafer-beaten conference path, placing it smack in the middle of the United States. “Come to the heart of the midwest,” the event enticed potential attendees. “And let’s rebuild this country from the inside out.” The brains behind BIG Omaha started the Silicon Prairie News, a webzine dedicated to featuring midwestern creatives and entrepreneurs. The conference extends both the brand and an invitation for skeptics to come and view innovation in the heartland for themselves. Speakers from BIG Omaha’s first year included Crush It! author Gary Vaynerchuk, 37 Signals founder Jason Fried, and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg.

This year’s event is scheduled for May 13-15th; you can sign up to get the BIG Omaha newsletter for more details or check in with the conference blog to view videos of past presentations.


Finally, in the city we like to think of as the Brooklyn of the west, the Portland Creative Conference was held in 2008 and then again last year after a seven-year hiatus. Four hundred attendees gathered to hear perspectives on the creative process from Wieden+Kennedy co-founder Dan Wieden, The Simpsons writer Bill Oakley, and pitcher-turned-stockbroker Larry Brooks, among others. All signs indicate that the conference will happen again in fall of this year, and you can stay in-the-know by following the Portland Creative Conference website or watch a few videos from last year’s event.

This concludes our second roundup of alternative conferences to satisfy your infinite intellectual appetites. Once again, if we’ve left any big ones out — particularly non-English-language events — please let us know. And in the meantime, catch up on Part One and follow editor Maria Popova on Twitter for live coverage of this year’s TED, running today through Saturday.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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