Is This The Future Of TED?

Apr 30 2014, 9:17pm CDT | by

The high-powered TED conference, which extended its reach in 2006 by posting videos of its TED talks online, has dramatically reshaped the public’s ideas about what a great event looks like. Many conferences now embrace TED’s format of well-choreographed 18 minute talks, which often mix professional research with heartfelt personal experience – including thousands of TEDx gatherings, which are independently organized TED-like events that have been held around the world since 2009.

But TEDx serves another role, in addition to spreading the TED brand and allowing massive numbers of attendees to participate who could never afford TED’s elite pricetag ($8500 for the 2015 offering). TEDx is also a type of laboratory, and one event – TEDxBeaconStreet in Massachusetts – has spawned an entirely new concept that may reshape how we experience TED around the world: TEDx Adventures.

The concept involves participants signing up for free, hands-on experiences in their local communities, led by an expert and usually lasting 1 ½ to 3 hours. The leaders may be TEDx speakers themselves, or others who have volunteered. John Werner, the curator of TEDxBeaconStreet and the originator of TEDx Adventures (working at the time with TEDxBoston), views them as a crucial way to engage the audience even beyond the day’s events at TEDx. “I’d go to the speakers and say, ‘Who wants to put on an adventure?’” he says. “Instead of the talks being the end goal, the speeches are the beginning.”

Given the extensive database he’s accumulated, “When I say, ‘Who wants to meet the Michael Jordan of Swiss cheese or hang out with a NASCAR driver?,’ we get a lot of cool people.” Indeed, more than 10,000 people have participated in over 100 Adventures to date. Past Adventures include “the physics of sailing”; a tour of an MIT professor’s brain-mapping lab; the opportunity to ride on a lobster boat, help with the haul, and eat a lobster dinner; a glass-blowing workshop for youth; the chance to try out Google Glass at the MIT Media Lab; and the opportunity to practice laparoscopic techniques with a top surgeon.

TEDx Adventures began in 2010, and more than 100 TEDx leaders from 18 countries have subsequently come to Boston to be trained on how to conduct Adventures – so you may be likely to be experience one in your own community soon. Werner’s vision is bold: “My goal is that a third of TEDx events will do Adventures, and that three-minute documentaries [about the adventures] will become as important as TED talks. This would challenge conference organizers to think a little more about getting out into the community.”

Indeed, TED has become a pervasive cultural force, encouraging the public to watch videos of its talks and attend local events. But Werner wants to turn the excitement of a one or two-day conference into an ongoing, year-round appreciation of the innovations and thinkers in our own backyards – perhaps the boldest way yet to share “ideas worth spreading.”

Learn more about Dorie Clark’s new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and subscribe to her monthly e-newsletter.


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