Jon, for people who live under a rock, can you explain what TED is?
TED began 28 years ago as a conference of people who were interested in ‘ideas worth spreading’. It became known later on for its famous 18-minute talks, most notably from people like the Dalai Lama and Al Gore, to name a few. With TEDxMelbourne, what the ‘x’ stands for is ‘individually organised event’. We are a not-for-profit run by volunteers to create TED live experiences in Melbourne. We do that with TEDxGlobal via a license.
You’re the licence holder. How did that come about?
It’s an interesting one. I had a friend of mine who was the previous license holder. She decided one year to spend her time organising the next TEDxMelbourne… or her wedding. She obviously chose the wedding. I put my hand up [to take over], not really knowing what was involved in terms of the event running, but I soon felt that TED would be an interesting opportunity. And the rest, as they say, is history. It’s a part-time job that sometimes turns into a full-time job, but it really gives me an opportunity to use TED to explore and prototype the ideas that I have in a controlled way to see how they work. The average TED committee has 30 people; we run it with six.
How did you first get introduced to TED? What was the first video you saw?
That’s very difficult [to say]. When it first came online, which was around 2005, it was so viral that I got possibly dozens of people telling me [about it] simultaneously. I’m not 100 percent sure which person was the first. But what I do remember is the first talk I saw was by Jill Bolte Taylor, which was just launched at the time and which has become one of the most famous TED talks. It was about her experience as a brain scientist, documenting her stroke as she was actually experiencing it. Parts of her brain were switching on and off at random times. She was documenting everything that was coming to her at the time.
TED’s tagline, which you already mentioned, is ‘ideas worth spreading’. What are the ideas in TED and TEDxMelbourne that really stick out for you?
From the TED point of view, way back when, CDs and Apple’s Mac were all launched at TED before they were well-known household names. If you want to build a history timeline, pretty much everything that’s been oriented to future possibility has had some roots potentially in a TED talk somewhere. From a TEDxMelbourne point of view, what’s been most remarkable is that when I took this on, we had a speaker who raised money to rejuvenate derelict spaces in Africa – she created playgrounds for children using recycled material. There were some students at that event who leapt at the idea so much that they went to the city of Moreland, got them to identify derelict spaces, and raised money and now create working bees to rejuvenate derelict spaces in Moreland, which is very cool. They then did a talk in August on our stage talking about how they were inspired by a previous talk. Now they’ve got their own TED talk, which gave some history of what they were doing and what came out of their experiences. [This] has evolved into an action group, who, with a little bit of support from us – but largely from their community and their interests – actually meet once a week to do something outside of the event.
That was my next question. You created these action groups at the last TED event, and you’ve thrown an event that didn’t even involve talks but was a social gathering. Why are you doing this, what impact does it have, and do other TEDs around the world do this?
I’m not aware of many other TED groups doing it. There are a handful, but very, very few. There are over 1,500 TEDx events running globally, and very few do what we do. The original reason was to really encourage the talent, energy, and passion for attendees at our events to continue to interact and to create a tangible impact in Melbourne. It was born partly out of the desire to help people do that, and partly because our most common question we’ve had is, ‘When’s your next event?’ Even before we’ve run our events, people are asking ‘When’s your next one? Now there’s this one, when’s the next one afterwards?’ How do we support that energy and passion, and how do we maintain that momentum into direction? One of the primary reasons that I keep involved in TED and TEDxMelbourne is that I’ve never had a dud conversation with anyone at TED. If I can be in that space as long as possible, as often as possible, then I’ll choose to.
Let’s talk about the other TEDs that are happening around Australia.
TEDxs are independently organised events, so you can pretty much guarantee there’s an event running somewhere in a major capital. They’re in Darwin, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, etc. But also in smaller spaces – Geelong ran one, Freemantle’s run one, in universities it’s quite common. They are all as different as the people who run them. There’s a common thread, obviously, but fundamentally – which I applaud TED for – they’ve taken what’s currently their primary asset and brand, and have lifted the community to really build what they believe in. You know, within certain constraints, but they’ve been bold enough and willing enough to embrace that diversity and that passion.
Is the goal for you to go to TED (in Long Beach, California)?
I already have, in 2010. They run events like no other organisation. One of my goals is to bring that experience back to Melbourne. I don’t think anyone else runs events quite like TED. When you you’re accepted into a TED event – because there’s an application – once a month you get a big box of DVDs from future and current TED talks. You’re encouraged to interact online in their version of action groups, in a kind of ‘we think you should interact with these people’. Then when you get there, it’s not just a T-shirt and a show bag, there’s a wall of technology which is a ‘choose which gadget you want in your show bag’. And then, you know, if you want to sit by the pool and watch TED in a cabana, they can arrange that. If you want to lie down and watch TED, they have screen hubs. If you want to have private space not in the auditorium, where you can interact with people and talk about what’s going on while it’s happening, they’ve got space for that. And then partners have even arranged special marquees where you can actually go in and interact with their future technology. You can share your ideas about whether you like their technology, and they’re very open to that. It’s a highly interactive four days, to the point where you actually do get burnt out. There’s a core vernacular at TED which oddly doesn’t seem to go online – words like 'TEDache': "the inability to absorb any more information at a TED conference". Those types of things are all part of the TED experience which cause people to want to stay involved. And, you know, the community is very well-connected. We have people who come from New York, or out of town, and say, "Who’s from TED? Who wants to show us around town when we’re there?", and often as not, they stay with TED attendees.
Getting back to the Melbourne experience, how do you go about finding people to speak at TEDxMelbourne?
It’s a mish-mash of who’s doing interesting things online that I find out about, or networks I have. There’s a very heavy leverage of six degrees of separation. I do actively pursue my networks to find people who are doing interesting things that potentially might not have hit mainstream or even general media, to give them an opportunity to have a platform. We prefer, but it’s not explicit to, have local-based ideas. My goal for the speakers is to have a globalised, international stage from which their ideas can be shared. Hopefully I’m exploring and discovering little nuggets and gems of ideas from people that we can then take global.