Here we are again. As we did last year, MIT Sloan Management Review is in Long Beach, Calif., to cover the TED conference. If you’re not familiar with TED, a high-end event that aims to bring together the world’s leaders in technology, entertainment, and design and share ideas worth spreading, see our introductory post from last year. We’ll be sending daily posts through the end of the event on Saturday.
Last year, we aimed to cover TED from a management point of view. In retrospect, that seems too narrow. Sure, there are talks here that are not explicitly about management that have direct management implications. But many of the provocative talks here have nothing to do with management or business, yet are fascinating. For example, during this morning’s TED-U session (that’s “TED University,” a series of low-key peer talks rather than full presentations from the mainstage luminaries), filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy spoke eloquently and ominously of the suicide bomber recruiting techniques she learned about in Pakistan. No one is going to become a better manager based on her talk. But managers have lives outside their careers; they’re interested in plenty of things in addition to being better managers. So, in the spirit of trying to capture the breadth of the event (and because this is the last TED your correspondent will be covering for MIT Sloan Management Review), we’ll try to cover all we experience at our seventh TED, from the most management-relevant to how dozens in the crowd started checking their email on iPhones and BlackBerrys while Sheryl Crow sang a painfully earnest ballad about compassion. We won’t mention every talk or try to capture every second of this packed event — there are many bloggers and twitterers doing that . Rather, we aim to give, at reasonable length for busy readers, a feel of what it’s like here.
Before we move on to the main event, let’s quickly note some of the other highlights from the too-early-in-the-day TED-U session. Robert Cook, vice president of advanced technology at Pixar, took aim at one of the technorati’s favorite constructs, the singularity, provoking a few mild boo’s from around me, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan showed what was wrong with Bill Gates’ website — with the Microsoft chairman in the audience — and Tom Wujec of Autodesk showed how kindergarten students are better at some creative tasks than CEOs.
The first session of the full TED kicked off with the conference’s musical director, Thomas Dolby (you know him for “She Blinded Me With Science,” but much of his work is more diverse and challenging), dressed like Snoopy ready to take on the Red Baron, leading a string quartet through a spirited version of Verve’s “Street Corner Symphony.” That first session, called “Mindshift,” offered two speakers worth remembering. Daniel Kahneman, founder of behavioral economics (he won a Nobel for it) gave basically the same sort of talk we’ve seen the more famous behavioral economists — most notably Dan Ariely and the Freakonomics twins — give in recent years. Kahneman has much to say about how individuals think about happiness and memory, but his talk, so similar to that of his disciples, reminds one how early on in its existence behavioral economics is. There’s a lot more to learn.
More modest about what we still have to learn — and more compelling for it — was Esther Duflo, a development economist and founder of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. She gave a version of her usual talk, updated to include some references to Haiti, showing how randomized control trials can have an enormous impact on helping aid agencies determine what works and what doesn’t work.
After a lunch in which your correspondent listened to an editor from The Economist hype his own, decidedly sub-TED conference about innovation, came the second session,called “Discovery.” We learned more about how spiders spin silk than we ever wanted to know, a promising report from William Li about how angiogenesis research may deal a death blow to some cancers (Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing has good coverage of this talk), and others, among them former failed pornographer Philip “Pud” Kaplan. Most impressive of the lot was Dan Barber, a chef who loves fish but is having trouble keeping fish on his menu because so many stocks are gone or almost there. His tale of finding a remarkably sustainable fish farm in Spain is too detailed to summarize briefly (at least at the late hour at which I’m writing); we’ll point to the clip when TED posts it.
The final session for the day before the evening’s social activities, called “Action,” revolved around the awarding of this year’s TED Prize, the conference’s attempt to celebrate and support the work of one person whose ideas the organizers believe can change the world. The prize has gotten somewhat more pop in recent years, to the point at which today’s awardee, the formidable British chef , activist and writer Jamie Oliver, is the star of an upcoming American network TV reality series. But the battle he wants to fight — against American obesity — is an important one, and he has smart, unexpected plans for that fight. Dressed in a flannel shirt, black jeans, and white sneakers, pacing the stage furiously, his carefully out-of-control hair making him look like a member of The Alarm, he wants, most of all, to act. “Ideas are very well but what the world needs now is action,” TED curator Chris Anderson said early in the final session, right after Dolby and the string quartet assayed a majestic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” He’s right. Later this morning, though, we’ll be back to ideas.
It was a full, full day. And I didn’t even get to mention the African nuclear physicist who said “education is the husband that will never let you down” or the fellow who played “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his ukulele. Onward …