EDINBURGH, United Kingdom — With the gloomy backdrop of a huge political, business and police scandal engulfing the UK, a famine spreading in the Horn of Africa, a second major terrorist act targeting Bombay, a potentially catastrophic debt crisis creeping up in Europe, and political brinksmanship being played out amongst American political parties, 800 people from more than 70 countries gathered last week in Edinburgh to discuss the world’s biggest ideas.
Technology Entertainment & Design, otherwise known as TED, started as a one-off conference in California in 1984 and has since grown into a global movement focused on “ideas worth spreading,” with annual twin conferences held in Long Beach (TED) and now Edinburgh, the new home of TEDGlobal.
But TED is no ordinary gathering. Unlike so many fashion and luxury conferences, where we seem to be obsessively focused on our own industry, there are no drawn out, self-congratulatory speeches or panel discussions. Instead, TED does talks, each one by a global expert in his or her field, about one big idea. Each talk lasts only 18 minutes, or less. A large clock stares back at the speakers and starts counting down as soon as they hit the stage.
In the best TED talks, a speaker’s life’s work and defining moments are explained in a carefully-crafted narrative, with equal parts passion, logic and personality. Consider the pleas from Rebecca MacKinnon and Mikko Hypponen for global policing, freedom and security of the Internet, and the inspiring story of Islamist-turned-anti-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz, whose provocative talk had the conference buzzing for days after he hit the TED stage on Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Nawaz says “there is no equivalent of al-Qaeda, without the terrorism, for democracy across Muslim majority societies.” Ms. MacKinnon evoked Orwell, showing the Apple television commercial broadcast during the 1984 Superbowl and highlighting the increasing power of private companies in the global governance of the internet.
If TED is any indication, then it seems that humanity is still obsessed with flying. We met Yves ‘Jetman’ Rossy, a Swiss man who jumps out of planes and flies with jet-powered wings for up to 8 minutes, as he did earlier this year, 8,000 feet above the Grand Canyon. Pilot Anna Mracek Dietrich told us about the first airplane that converts into a car, which can then be driven on regular streets and parked in a standard car garage. And Smartbird, the first ultralight artificial bird capable of flying like a real bird, which was flown around the conference room as hundreds of attendees raised their smartphones to digitally capture the moment.
Big-name speakers and authors were there too. The writer Malcolm Gladwell, historian and economist Niall Ferguson, and philosopher Alain de Botton each gave TED talks. The Financial Times’ Undercover Economist Tim Harford spoke eloquently about the issue with the God Complex and the power of trial and error in solving problems.
My favourite talk was from Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, the founder of Barefoot College, which trained illiterate grandmothers to become solar engineers who were then able to bring electricity to their remote villages in rural India and Africa.
But while the talks are the carefully curated part of the TED experience, there are also the completely random interactions with other people at TED which make for an energising experience. Indeed, a popular pink button pin available at the conference said, “My ideas had sex with other TEDster’s.”
TED encourages attendees to mingle and network actively between sessions and during evening events held at landmark buildings around the Scottish capital, creating a culture where it felt impolite (if not downright rude) to not introduce yourself to the person sat next to you, or to not smile at anyone with whom you made eye contact.
Can you imagine that kind of etiquette at Fashion Week?
Imran Amed is founder and editor of The Business of Fashion