TED’s dinner party coming to India

TED’s dinner party coming to India

New Delhi: Fifty artists, writers, researchers—and perhaps even contortionists—will descend on the Mysore campus of Infosys Technologies Ltd in November for the first edition of TED India, where they would have 18 minutes each to speak or perform, as their art or science demands.

These will then be edited and webcast on www.ted.com, a hugely popular site for those who like to air interesting and innovating ideas and those who like to listen to them.

TED, short for technology, entertainment and design, was conceived by Richard Saul Wurman—whom Fortune magazine once profiled as the king of access and a master networker with an insatiable curiosity and an attention span of nanoseconds.

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Array Of Talent (Graphic)

The inspiration for his project was “typically Indian", Wurman told Mint. “I wanted to do something that was right. Something that made me feel good," he said over the phone from Newport, Rhode Island. “And I was inspired by my mentor."

Wurman’s mentor was celebrated architect Louis Kahn who, Wurman says, was almost “100% Indian" by the time he died. Kahn spent several years in India working on projects that include the campus of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

“Wurman called it (TED conferences), ‘the dinner party I always wanted to have,’" says Lakshmi Pratury, founder and chief executive of Ixoraa Media, an event organizer that is laying the groundwork for the Indian conference.

Pratury says many of the participants at Mysore will be Asians, but a final list will be only announced a few months before the event.

TED’s February edition in Long Beach, California, features Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, beatbox musicians Naturally 7, Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, jazz musicians Jamie Cullum and Harbie Hancock, and neurologist Oliver Sacks, besides many other luminaries and oddballs.

“Think of it as a dinner party conducted by a trusted host," Wurman said of a TED conference, the first edition of which began in the US in 1984. “You’ve never seen any of the other speakers before. But you trust the host to invite the right people."

In 2002, Wurman sold TED to the Sapling Foundation, a non-profit organization, and is no longer involved with the conference.

The conference, which quickly grew out of its focus on technology, entertainment and design, allowed thinkers from all walks of life the space to present their ideas, within a framework of rules that outlawed brand or product pitching or overshooting the clock.

The real action then happened in the hallways and meeting rooms where the hand-picked speakers powwowed with a set of hand-picked listeners—Pratury calls it “audience curation"—who paid top dollar for the privilege. An annual TED membership, which includes access to the conference, networking tools and newsletters, costs $6,000 (about Rs2.92 lakh).

It seems like a hefty price to pay for four days of lectures on topics ranging from how to use the controller of a Nintendo Wii gaming console to make a low-cost interactive whiteboard to neurologist V.S. Ramachandran’s 2007 TED lecture on using “delusions" to understand the connections between the brain and the mind.

But TED conferences usually sell out an entire year in advance and Pratury expects thousands of potential attendees from all over the world, and particularly Asia, to show interest in TED India.

What began as the information junkie’s ultimate long weekend—the conferences always start on a Wednesday and go up to Saturday afternoon—soon began to bring together its retinue of experts, chief executives and eccentrics in funny ways.

One of the more popular outcomes of TED-melded minds was Wired magazine, which came out of a meeting between founders Louis Rosetto and Jane Metcalfe and eventual funder Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wurman says that the conferences had quickly developed a huge party atmosphere. “People even got married during the conference."

When Nilekani takes the state in Long Beach he will be the first Indian to do so. “I will need to put my best foot forward," says Nilekani. It will be his first visit to TED and Nilekani admits that the 18-minute time limit will be a challenge. “Thankfully my book has exactly 18 points in it and I should be able to improvise something with that," Nilekani explains referring to his debut book Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century.

Pratury is a committed TED enthusiast—or TEDologist— having attended the conferences for the past 14 years. In 2007, at the same conference as Ramachandran, Pratury spoke on the lost art of letter-writing, illustrating her presentation with handwritten notes she got from her father before he died.

While the conferences themselves are limited by an attendee intake of 1,500—TED India will have just 800—TED has lately taken on a larger profile and reached out to an audience of millions via TED.com.

“We wanted to take the event out to much more people through the Internet. So we started posting TED talks on the website that anyone can view for free," says Pratury, referring to the tightly edited video clips of presentations that enthusiasts can stream or download.

In June 2008, TED announced that the 50 millionth video had been viewed, and almost half of them from outside the US.

It was the need to make TED more global that prompted Indian TEDologists such as Pratury to suggest that a conference be held in the country. “Even thought we are calling it TED India, the event is really for all of South-East Asia," Pratury clarifies. While plans are still tentative, Pratury expects the event to be held here every second year.

Wurman considers it symbolic that India will host TED: “It would have been easier to do it in Singapore or even Shanghai." It is India’s status as an emerging power, and its history of ideas that Wurman believes make it a perfect host for the conference.

Despite the online popularity and cult following, Pratury is careful about selling the concept to the right “curated" people in India.

“Most industry leaders here want to achieve something when they attend a conference. Win more business or get five ways to make wireless work or something like that. We need to convince them that attending TED is not about that. It’s about knowledge for knowledge’s sake," she says.

To help get this message across, TED will be conducting a couple of public outreach events in March and April and registrations will also open around that time.

Tickets will by no means be cheap—prices are still being finalized—and only 800 seats are available. A team from TED will sift through entries to ensure a good mix in terms of areas of specialization, country of origin and even gender.

Besides the intellectual curiosities on display, they also get to take home goodies, including the much-sought-after TED teddy bear. Pratury won’t divulge too much, but states that the teddy bears and other goodies given out will have a distinct regional flavour.

But the focus will always be on the meticulously produced presentations. “Ultimately", Pratury explains, “it is an opportunity to listen to brilliance."


Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint

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