Recharging at TED

Reprinted from the February 2009 Cooney Center Bits Newsletter:

I had the pleasure of attending my first TED conference earlier this month in its new Long Beach, CA venue. I have watched TED talks over the years, but before founding the Cooney Center had not thought much about participating in the meeting, which seemed more about invention and technology design than education or children.

Technological, Educational, Design wonders from TED’09:


I was totally recharged by the proceedings, which were brilliantly orchestrated by Chris Anderson, June Cohen, and their crack team. TED is a tightly knit community with the largest percentage of optimists west of the economic tsunami. The creative group of “can do” types and breakthrough leaders I met there seemed to be nearly oblivious to the depressed set of job figures and other indicators that have taken the wind out of the sails of most of the people we spend time with these days. Or maybe they are just trying to shake their depression!

TED is also a place where intellectual ferment, social networking, and celebrity sightings co-mingle in a delicious way. I met with economists, research scientists, entertainers, and game developers, riffed with personalities such as Robin Williams, and worked out with Meg Ryan (well, sort of…). Mr. Williams has been coming to TED for many years because, as he put it: “It’s the only place I can find crazy nut jobs such as me who are actually changing the world in a positive way.”

So where does the TED “audacity of hope” vibe spring from? A simple but elegant formulation: powerful ideas that need to spread. From the remarkable presentations on the sustainability of creative genius in tough times shared by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, to the breakthrough work of Bill Gates and his foundation in eradicating dreaded diseases (Mr. Gates even “let out” a handful of mosquitoes on the audience to make his point), to the scintillating yet scary campaign launched by activist/explorer Sylvia Earle to protect our oceans and sea life, this conference pushes big ideas that truly matter. And TED also takes the arts and cultural dimension of creative life seriously. TEDsters were introduced to two young performers — Eric Lewis and Regina Spektor — who will likely be standouts for many years, as well as the newly announced 2009 TED prize winner José Antonio Abreu. This Venezuelan maestro’s new initiative is to promote the growth of more than 50 youth orchestras globally.

On the education side, I found TED a bit less provocative notwithstanding the really cool technology projects that may influence what children will know and be able to do by 2015. MIT Media Lab’s Siftables project, led by David Merrill, was especially interesting, with its focus on interactive digital blocks that combine in wonderfully imaginative ways. Equally fascinating was new work on “empathic intelligence” introduced with a robotic rendering of Einstein’s face that can mimic facial expressions with remarkable fidelity. I saw several important game developer presentations: Austin Hill with the Akoha “pay it forward” civic engagement game and the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio of Health Games, led by Ben Sawyer. Despite these important contributions, I’d like to see even more energy towards promoting inventions that transform learning in the future.

In that regard, several of the TEDsters I met, including Google’s special advisor on education, Esther Wojcicki, Unboundary‘s CEO Tod Martin, and several young TED fellows, including Juliette LaMontagne of Asia Society, are determined to take TED’s commitment to breakthrough ideas as a new challenge for educational leaders. Our small crew will share more about our plans to work together in the months ahead to identify and spread ideas that will transform the world.

You can also view Michael’s TEDxAtlanta speech from May 18, 2010. 


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