The Talk of TED

The California conference of entrepreneurs, scientists, celebs, and politicians highlights the environment, Rwanda, and war photos, among other topics

In recent years, the TED conference has gained a reputation for blissfully big ideas buoyed by unrelenting optimism. So few conference goers were prepared for venture capitalist John Doerr to choke up with emotion as he kicked off the second day of talks on Mar. 9.

"I'm scared," he told the audience, looking down at his 15-year-old daughter in the front row. "I don't think we're going to make it."

Doerr issued a passionate call to action for everyone to make environmental concerns their "next big thing." As one of several positive examples, he praised Wal-Mart for making great moves to address what he called the three largest energy drains in business—heating and cooling systems, lighting, and refrigeration. The giant's initiative forced its 60,000 suppliers to focus on environmental issues as well, he said.

"Going green is the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century," said Doerr, who through his venture firm's Greentech initiative is investing in the sector. Although much attention has been focused on fighting global warming, Doerr offered a bleak assessment of these efforts. "I'm afraid it's not enough," he said.

Going green is the most prominent of the themes that has emerged at TED this year, and it has taken on a newfound urgency. But if Doerr seemed depressed, the audience was energized.

And if anyone can do anything about this global warming crisis, surely they're here, where the entrepreneurial nature of investors like Doerr and Vinod Khosla meets the celebrity power of Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker or singer Paul Simon. Pepper in heavyweight academics like Nobel prize winner Murray Gell-Mann and a few politicians like the 42nd President of the U.S., Bill Clinton, and you have a promising team for social change.

Prized Participants

At least that's the hope within the community of TED loyalists, many of whom have been tromping to the Monterey Conference Center for this yearly ritual since 1984, when founder Richard Saul Wurman first convened a group of polymaths for an eclectic days-long dinner party-like event designed to trace the convergence of technology, entertainment, and design. British publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson used his Sapling Foundation to purchase the conference in 2002 and has added a heavy dose of social entrepreneurship and philanthropy into the mix.

In recent years this has been played up with the TED Prize. Three winners are each given $100,000—and, more important, the support of the TED community—to carry out one wish each. This year's winners were President Clinton, the naturalist E.O. Wilson, and war photographer James Nachtwey.

Clinton will use the resource to augment his efforts to build a functioning health-care system in Rwanda. Wilson will launch a project, on the scale of the mapping of the human genome, to build an "Encyclopedia of Life"—a digital catalog of the 1.8 million known species of living things.

And with arguably the most moving talk of the trio, Nachtwey asked for help with diplomatic contacts to help him photograph a story he couldn't mention for political reasons but says the world needs to know about, and said the resources will help him display his work in new ways using the Internet. "I became a photographer to be a war photographer," he told the audience. "A picture that revealed the true face of war would almost by definition be an antiwar photograph."

Onstage Inspiration

As the conference nears its end, the skies are clear in Monterey. Rumor has it the aquarium is not to be missed, but few TEDsters are willing to give up couch space in the simulcast room where more than a dozen high-definition flat screens broadcast the talks to pockets of mesmerized conference goers.

Google founder Sergey Brin ushers his parents into the room. Cameron Diaz is leaning back on a couch. Two floors up, the several hundred people with main hall passes are squeezed into the intimate auditorium.

From the small stage with dramatic, blue-spotted backlighting and a floor-to-ceiling screen for visual aids, an eclectic group of speakers have offered rousing thoughts and opinions. We've seen two rounds of DNA strands and photos of Saturn, an Internet art project and animated data.

Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco began the conference by showing photographs of Saturn and its moons, walking the audience across the pictorial coastline of another planet. "If we can demonstrate that Genesis has happened not once [on Earth] but twice [including Saturn] in the solar system, then by inference that means it has occurred a staggering number of times across the universe in its 13.7 billion year history."

After the kinetic professor Hans Rosling, a veteran speaker, showed how his data animations bring statistics to life (viewable at, he ripped off his button-down shirt to reveal a black tank top with gold sparkles and, in a single motion, slid two feet of metal—a Swedish sword from the early 1800s—down his throat. He had to do something to top last year's presentation.

Side Talks

Founder of Intellectual Venture and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold managed to hit everything from penguin poop to intelligent life on other planets to whale sex in his 18-minute talk. He followed Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, who used the platform to drive home the difference technology has made for children. "Kids are different from us," he told the audience. "We watch TV, they make TV."

As usual, much of TED's magic happens in the all-too-brief windows of time between sessions. That's when investors and mentors approached NYU grad student Jeff Han after he presented his interactive touch-screen technology last year. He has now started his own company.

It's also when architect Cameron Sinclair, having won the TED Prize, met Dan Shine, director of AMD's 50x15 initiative. And it's why, despite the fact that TED's talks are now available over the Internet for free, and despite the fact that Anderson jacked the price to $6,000, next year's conference sold out just 10 days after registration opened.

Surely the conference isn't the only place to collect new ideas and build the relationships to put them into action, but amid a growing number of similar confabs—Pop!Tech, for example, or even Davos—it's still a hot ticket.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.