It’s all about the people!


Last Saturday, in an older but charming recital hall at Stanford University, TEDx Silicon Valley was born… and not without hours and hours of labor… It all started with a fabulous idea from the TED Conference leadership (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the annual TED conference is one of the world’s leading gatherings of global thought leaders) to share the ‘ideas worth spreading’ in local communities by granting a limited number of licenses to TEDsters around the world to create local independent TED events in the spirit of TED.

I had the privilege of receiving one of the first licenses granted, and one that came with a special responsibility because of its location — Silicon Valley. I was now a curator looking for the best human “art” spirit and inspiration to share with the world. In the process of putting together the amazing team that created TEDxSV, and later when the team worked together to shape and bring to life our chosen theme of ‘Innovation for Social Change’, I realized that TEDxSV evolved into a microcosm of the most important ingredients that make Silicon Valley such a unique place — its people, groups and networks.

Like in any other good open source project, my job as a curator mostly focused on how to “work myself out of the job” (quoting Prof. Clayborne Carson from his talk about Martin Luther King on grassroots community leadership). I put together a team of “self-reliant local leaders,” who took responsibility for various parts of the complex production and quickly learned on the fly how to execute like pros (Rocky Mullin, our amazing stage manager volunteer, was the only real conference/showbiz pro in our team). My job was to provide the ‘glue’ by designing a framework for working together, creating and communicating a clear vision for the conference and the team, and ensuring that folks were excited about the mission of sharing ideas worth spreading and our vision of innovation for social change.

We were the “search engines to our own solutions” as the four super talented kids from YouthSpeaks wrote in the poem that opened TEDx Silicon Valley after an upbeat video they created and aptly named:”Believe”Just like many other very successful Silicon Valley startups, we had a ton of fun working with one another, and although we didn’t know much about putting together complex productions, we really Believed in our mission, and we were determined to make our vision an inspiring reality.

And as Reid Hoffman mentioned in his opening talk about iMovements, “the future was much sooner and stranger” than what we had predicted it would be when we first started planning TEDxSV (aiming at 10 speakers, a 4-hour event, and perhaps a sandwich and coffee for lunch to keep the brain cells going…).

We started small, but very quickly, we built a closely knit, fast-moving “microgroup”, and much like Reid mentioned later in his talk, we used the power of the web to connect with millions in a very scalable way, and on a shoestring budget. We did not even imagine that in just a few short weeks we would be able to bring together 26 top speakers and performers, host 300 participants and thought leaders at Stanford for a whole day event, have more than 100,000 people from more than 45 countries tune in to watch our real-time livestream, and engage millions of people around the world in a very vibrant conversation (our social media team estimated close to 12 million social media impressions during and around the event!).

One of the most fascinating aspects of curating a TED event was interviewing potential speakers. Everyone knows that Silicon Valley is chock full of fabulous people who ‘do good while doing well’. What I didn’t expect was how much their personal stories, which are rarely told in the media, in the blogosphere or in conferences, would stir and inspire us.

In the first session of the day, called “Social,” Leila Jana, the CEO of Samasource, shared with us personal stories from her experiences in Africa while introducing us to a pragmatic, refreshing approach to reducing poverty. In my own travels to the poorest parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, India, and South America, I was always struck by the contrast between the deep poverty young people lived in, and their raw intelligence, ambition and clear potential.

Armed with increased access to computers, the ubiquity of the Internet, expanded bandwidth and easy, inexpensive access to cellular phones, ‘contractors’ in developing countries can make a living by working with employers remotely, even on the other side of the planet. It was once again about the people. It’s still the AAi (Artificial artificial-intelligence) that can bridge the computational/observational/artistic gaps that computers are not capable of solving alone (yet).

And not only can Internet connectivity bridge the divide among people, but as we’ve learned from Drue Kataoka (herself a member of the TEDxSV team) art can be a bridge too. A bridge between “us” and “them”, “you” and “me” as well as within ourselves. In what seemed a bit counterintuitive at first, Drue told us about the power of negative space and how filling the gaps between the artists’ brush strokes with our imagination can empower us to think differently and innovate.

And it was there, between the inspiring powerful brush strokes of Drue’s portrait of Martin Luther King where Clayborne Carson helped us discover Bob Moses and his soft spoken humility. Clay, himself one of the most fascinating scholars and professors at Stanford, took us through his personal life journey to help us understand the essence of the civil rights movement in the US through the lens of two of these very different leaders.

And when Clay concluded his talk with the powerful ending of King’s “I have a dream” speech, we were ready to let our voices rise up. This was a perfect moment to introduce Eoin Harrington — our resident musician for the day. In one of our chats before the event, I told Eoin about the TED conference and how Jill Sobule writes beautiful songs for TED. He got fired up about the idea, and offered to write a song especially for TEDxSV…and he surprised me with a love song for TED … a love song between the speakers and the audience: “you see what other’s miss…let me speak your love…heart…mind.”

Together with Eoin, who is originally from Ireland, we had a very cosmopolitan lineup of speakers from the UK, Germany, Venezuela, Israel and India… And despite that, we never really paused to think about it, but it’s interesting how naturally they all spoke perfect English… Jay Walker, a long time TEDster, shared with us in a classic Long Beach TED talk, his view on an evolving global “mania” for learning and speaking English…and yes, according to Jay, next year China will become the largest English speaking county in the world… Innovation for Social Change…

And just as language helps us bridge the gaps between people from difference cultures and continents, so does art, especially digital and social art. By visualizing virtual human connections, interactions, and creation, art can help us make sense of tremendous amounts of information and data. Josette Melchor and Peter Hirshberg from the Gray Area Foundation for the arts introduced us to new collaborative efforts and to an open source-like approach in the art community that opens new frontiers and possibilities for artists and art lovers. Not only did we discover in the data-visualization art that Peter and Josette introduced that “junkies don’t like hills,” (visualized data can tell many unexpected stories…), but we also realized that data, visualized artistically, can be beautiful and useful at the same time.

To connect between the main theme of our first part of TEDxSV (Social), and the spotlight of the second part (Change) — we played a video exemplifying the power of social play in motivating people to live a healthier happier lives. In the video, Jane McGonigal from the Institute for the Future, and Kristy Miller from American Heart Association, offered us a real path to change and a fresh perspective on how to engage people in healthy living. In their real world, multi-participant experiment, Jane and Kristi were able to demonstrate how an online/social/real life game — CryptoZoo, can make health fun, and highly engaging.

And fun was indeed the fuel that kept us going in the weeks before TEDx Silicon Valley, when we worked nights and weekends to bring our multi-faceted production together. We also experienced first hand, as Nancy Lublin stated in her talk later, that “great movements are led from the middle by great people.” These inspiring wonderful hard working people take on themselves the hardest of tasks, and execute on the vision — but get very little recognition for it. So we’re joining Nancy by recognizing the TEDxSV fabulous team and by shouting: Viva la Doer!

But in order to get from vision to execution, we needed a road map. As we learned from Di Ann Eisner in the second part of TEDxSV — “we shape our maps and then our maps shape us…” So together we embarked on a social quest to let our participants draw their own maps… But wait a moment… Is it possible that by drawing the maps we actually risk creating the walls that then could separate us? Could this be the main reason that (according to Di Ann) “only 10% of people in the world actually crossed ANY boarder?” Could this have been a possible explanation on why people fear the “different” and the “other,” and perhaps even embark on deadly wars?

Or perhaps we should leave room to a more radical view that the instinct of killing and getting killed in fights and wars is actually innate in us or too frequently taught to our children at a very young age? Yvonne Lee Schultz shocked us and the audience by sharing a difficult, yet fascinating video she created that filmed children spontaneously playing with chocolate guns she sculpted… Her video made us laugh in embarrassment and cry in shame simultaneously. It was thought provoking and uncomfortable — but perhaps that was the whole point…

And if that was not enough to invoke real fear in most of us, then Alberto Vollmer took the stage to tell us about life in Venezuela, his home country. According to Alberto, Venezuela has been cursed with the world’s highest rate of homicide. With Di Ann’s borders and Yvonne’s guns still fresh in our minds, we dove into a fascinating, yet scary story of a young visionary businessman, who decided that tomorrow is not yesterday and that: “hope” is much stronger than fear.” Armed with a Powerpoint presentation and a portable projector, he went into one of the most dangerous slums in Venezuela to convince the local gangs to put down their arms and start building together a better future. By offering them to engage in productive work and fun play rather than kill one another, Alberto was able to portray a clear inspiring path for a tangible, better and brighter future.

Alberto was successful in convincing the most dangerous gangsters from the most difficult slums, where even the local police did not dare entering, that they were not a perpetual “problem” (like many in the past told them they were) but rather that they have an opportunity to become “the solution”. He encouraged them to dream… dream big and dream small about a better future. On the one hand, Alberto chose to interact with the older leaders of the gangs, giving them hope for a better future for their people. But on the other hand, he also challenged the younger more assertive members of the gangs by teasing them and saying: “It’s clear that you are courageous enough to kill…but are you courageous enough to make peace?”

And now we all needed to breathe in and breathe out for a moment… Eoin Harrington was the right person with the right soul at the right time to help us do it. Eoin helped us relax, just a bit and, and reduce some tension that had built up after the great block of real stories on much needed “change.” But Eoin and all of us were still hungry for a bit more human energy. He made us enthusiastically sing along: “Take us to the limit one more time”… Everyone loved his singing and participated enthusiastically and creatively by turning on their iPhones, and waving them to the music to what became the “Silicon Valley iCandle.” Innovation for Social Change

As we progressed through the TED day, it became clearer and clearer that it’s all about the people. “It is our humanity and all the potential within us that makes us beautiful” said Amy Mullins in a classic talk she gave at TED “University” on Long Beach and we aired at TEDxSV just before we started discussing the notion of Dis/Abilities. Amy is SO beautiful in so many ways! Amy, a friend I met at TEDMED and a truly amazing woman who was able to build an unbelievable career as an actress, model and an athlete despite not having legs, inspired us in her TED U talk. Once again, it was all about the people… and about “how the heck we allowed ourselves to call her “disabled” when “Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than Amy does… but nobody calls Pamela disabled.”

Victor Tsaran, who followed Aimee on stage, was definitely “super-abled”! A blind-born, warm and bright guy, Victor inspired us with his remarkable achievements. A talented musician, a brilliant computer scientist, and UX expert, he offered us a very different definition of Dis/Ablity. Victor also told us that Brail was invented by the French Army in order to communicate in the dark. He used this example and how profound its impact was on the lives of blind people to inspire the Silicon Valley community. He made us all think outside of the box about useful technologies that can be as disruptive and life changing for not only the “rest of us” but also to 650 million now abled people around the world.

To conclude the “change” session of TEDxSV, James Kass, the founder of YouthSpeaks who recently took his youth poets to perform to the President at the White House, opened by saying that the voices of young people truly matter. “When talking about the future” said Kass, “we really need to have young people in the conversation.” Marc Bamouthi Joseph, James’ fellow educator at YouthSpeaks, joined him and urged us to allow not only children, but adults too, to freely tell their own personal stories, and listen to what they say carefully…which we did,.. And learned… a lot…”Voice = Empowerment = Change.”

If the first two parts of the day concentrated on the past and the present, the third and last session of TEDxSV was all about the future and innovation. The discussion started in a big (somehow worrisome) question: “Would children and adults in the future control their lives and their world, or would computers take over in a doomsday Singularity? I invited Peter Thiel to open the final session of TEDxSV on Innovation to raise the question and offer his view.

Peter was pretty concerned, and he was not alone; many in the audience were concerned too. Surprisingly, he was not that concerned about possible Singularity (the fear that soon enough computers smarter than we are will take over and eliminate us). Rather, Peter was quite worried about the possibility that singularity will occur much slower than we think — or perhaps even not occur at all. The projected exponential compounded growth that many of us enjoy so much to hear about from Ray Kurtzweil and other optimistic futurists, depends in Peter’s view on our ability to escalate our current rate of technology innovation. “We don’t innovate fast enough and it’s dangerous!” said Thiel. “Of the 538 people in the House + Senate, 11 have engineering and/or science degrees.” Are science and technology innovation being marginalized as the driving forces of growth? Are we taking for granted that innovation, which is much needed for growth, will continue and accelerate even if we don’t make sure we catalyze it appropriately? Can we do something before it’s too late?

It seems that we need to change our collective behavior and take a top-down approach to promoting more innovation so we can become financially healthier, and at the same time, we need to change our collective view of healthcare and bring change by taking a bottom-up approach to become physically healthier…At least according to Thomas Goetz.

Thomas, the executive editor of Wired Magazine, has been a real trend-spotter. He has served for more than 15 years as a chronicler of the disruptive technologies that have become part of our lives. In his personal research in the field of public health, Thomas found that if we can engage and have more control over our health, we can significantly improve our lives.

On the TEDxSV stage, Thomas proposed a new strategy for making better health decisions. He shared with us powerful insights that can be borrowed form the Hawthorne Effect, quoted the Whitehall Street studies, and brought evidence from Framingham longitudinal studies (that followed people for over three generations to show that we still have hope to become healthier, happier individuals). In an age of proliferating medical information, direct-to-consumer genomics, health-focused social networks, and an abundance of personal data collection tools, Thomas showed how a strategy for making better choices — a Decision Tree — that can give individuals control over their health, and can significantly improve their lives.

But is it only our healthcare system that is really sick? David de Rothschild suggested that our environment — or rather how we see it and treat it — is not that well either… In his talk, he tried to determine which of our current conditions is worse: “Nature Deficiency Disorder” or “Nature Defiancy Disorder?” David asked us how come we pay hundreds of dollars more for a hotel room with ocean views, but most of us don’t even take a few minutes to just step outside and swim in the ocean… How come we build resource depleting ocean-like artificial pools (like the one in Japan that David showed a picture of) only a few hundred feet from the real ocean?

We should all be “out there”, David suggested, “Follow our curiosity and fight the urge to take the path of least resistance.” And perhaps we should just use the simple-to-remember easy-to-use formula he suggested: D+A^S = I. {D=Dream, A=Adventure, S=Stories, I=Inspiration.}

And, maybe, just maybe we will then be able to create REAL change that will make the old existing model on how we treat our environment completely obsolete.

Perhaps what we really need is a real paradigm shift. Perhaps we need to leap forward in our thinking and execution, like Andrew Hessel suggested we do… In his TEDxSV talk, Andrew showed how our current drug creation systems and methods have significantly slowed down in the past few years, and explained that they’re fading out as viable feasible ways to beat cancer, or any other major disease.

As a possible alternative, Andrew passionately explained how human cells can be thought of as ‘mini computers,’ and how DNA can be thought of as “the software operating systems and applications that run these ‘mini computers’.” He challenged us to ask whether we could start using this tested framework and collaboratively focus on creating “therapies of one.” In other words, Andrew suggested creating a tailored personalized medication for every individual in need. In a completely innovative way of thinking, Andrew offered to inspire scientists to work very closely with terminal patients who approve it (after all other well known meds and treatments fail). He also suggested to use reprogrammable viruses, to engineer for these patients personalized therapeutics of one. And in the spirit of innovation for social change – Andrew chose to establish a non-profit cooperative (i.e., the ‘business model’) called Pink Army, with which he hopes to make his vision a reality.

Innovation + Social + Change was not only Andrew’s recipe… For “desert” we had Sekou Andrews preparing for us a trilogy that summarized an unforgettable day of talks, music art and… more than anything else… people.

In his poetry jam, Sekou reminded us that if we really want to bring about change in the world, we must create change within ourselves first.

To do so, Sekou took us on a fascinating journey from “business as usual” to “business as mutual” so we can reexamine how we live our lives in the digital age. His poetry drew a picture of the day-to-day reality familiar to many of us in Silicon Valley: “You probably know my email by heart — but you forgot my name…but that’s fine — because I’ve probably done the same”… “We Twit news-online, we Skype calls-online, we Paypal foreign aid-online, and we fight for human rights-online… we order global access like Pizza … so how come we’re still alone??

Sekou provoked us to think how we can move away from “Here’s my need, here’s your role, here’s my card… call me” to “Let’s listen, let’s rediscover each other, let’s work together… call me.”

And thinking about Sekou’s poetry, what if we really took a second to look closer and find what we share and who we are… What if we shared what we really care about rather than what we want…

“Because the challenge is not to win — but rather WIN WIN.”

And, because (as Eoin said) “the greatest wisdom not applied to actions or behaviors is worthless data”… it’s now time to take what we learned, spice it with the inspiration we got… and embark on a new journey to change the world

Ron Gutman
TEDx Silicon Valley Curator