‘Nerd festival’ of great minds tries to change world

An international conference of the world's brightest and most exciting thinkers has met in Edinburgh – a gathering devoted to the extraordinary power of good ideas.

For three days, the grey halls of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre were transformed. There were dancing robots, flesh-eating mushrooms and living chairs; singers, dancers and Hollywood stars. Most of all, there was the buzz of excited conversation, as hundreds of the world's most inspiring thinkers gathered for the 2011 meeting of TED Global.

It has been described as a sort of music festival for high-powered nerds. In many ways the atmosphere is the same, celebratory and a little wild. Audiences break out in whoops and applause and standing ovations.

But the acts are very different. Instead of pop stars, TED attendees pay thousands of pounds to see scientists, tech wizards and intellectual pioneers making speeches on their latest thoughts and discoveries.

The talks are astonishingly diverse. Some speakers arrive with concrete proposals and practical advice: an entrepreneur outlined plans for cheap water testing in disaster zones. An epidemiologist described the links between heart disease and social injustice.

Other speeches were more unusual: the audience heard about grandmothers being trained as solar engineers and how to build new life forms out of chemicals. There was a presentation about interactive children's books, where readers can decide whether characters will be straight or gay. The dancing robot astonished the crowd, wobbling gracefully back and forth on a single rubber ball.

Then there were those who plunged headlong into the realms of the abstract. Philosopher Alain de Botton spoke about the strengths of religion in an increasingly atheist world. Psychologist Alison Gopnik explained what it's like to be a baby (apparently 'like being in love in Paris after three double espressos'). A former videogame designer described how the global economy is dominated by hyper-complex automatic algorithms, which operate invisibly and which no one any longer understands.

Hot air?

The TED conference was an amazing feast of interesting thoughts but what did it all amount to in the end? Words, after all, are cheap. Why pay thousands of pounds to listen to them? It's all very well knowing how babies think, for example, but is it much practical use? You can't eat ideas. They don't pay the bills or keep out the rain.

Such doubts, of course, are the opposite of the TED spirit. In the idealistic vision of TED boss Chris Anderson, ideas are more useful than any material possession. They can be shared and spread. They grow and gather pace. And when these ideas take on lives of their own, they really can change the world.

You Decide

  1. Are so-called 'nerds' actually quite impressive?
  2. Would you rather have a million pounds or one really brilliant idea? Why?

Activities

  1. Which idea in history do you think has changed the world the most. Propose a suggestion to your class, then hold a vote to see which idea wins.
  2. Spend a little time watching TED talks online, then write a short article explaining one of the ideas you find.

Some People Say...

“TED is just a playground for grown up geeks. They need to talk less and do more.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would you train grandmothers to be solar engineers?
It turns out that if you're trying to teach poor communities useful development skills, you should teach the grandmothers first. Men, apparently, are 'untrainable', but grandmothers have the time, ability and dedication to make a real difference.
And that thing about babies?
It turns out, babies are geniuses. They think creatively, process incredible amounts of information and can even do complicated maths problems in their heads (by instinct rather than by doing sums). The closest normal people come to that condition is when we're excited by a love affair, a change of scene or a stimulant like caffeine.
I'm scared to even ask about the flesh eating mushooms!
They're not so bad really – they only eat you after you're dead.

Word Watch

TED Global
TED Global is an annual conference held by TED (the letters stand for Technology, Entertainment, Design). The non-profit organisation organises events and puts speeches online. The motto? 'Ideas worth spreading.'
Entrepreneur
Someone who starts businesses from scratch.
Epidemiologist
A scientist who studies the way diseases spread.
Algorithm
A set of mathematical rules or procedures, used by computers to choose between different actions.

Subjects

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