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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July 2005, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Big thinkers show the way forward
By Jo Twist and Kevin Anderson
BBC News website

X-Prize winner SpaceShipOne, AP
The X-Prize founder is turning his attention to education
The BBC News website reporters attending the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in Oxford sum up their impressions as the gathering ends.

The brains of delegates at the conference were left buzzing with shared ideas about how to use science, design and technology for sustainable development, environmental regeneration and ending global poverty.

But what was evident by the close of the conference was how the smallest ideas can sometimes have the greatest impact.

It was an experiment to hold such a top-drawer event in the UK but it worked, TED chairman Chris Anderson told the BBC News website.

Brits, he said were usually suspicious of lofty ideas that claim to change the world, he said. But that reputation has turned out to be inaccurate.

"What has really excited me is the conversations that have happened outside [the sessions].

"People have taken what they have heard to a new level and have come up with real ideas," he said. "It has inspired people."

Big ideas

TED is famed for attracting the smartest folks that like to think "out of the box".

For instance, Jay Walker, founder of Priceline, challenged the audience to come up with an idea that could harness the power of people and mobile phones in the developing world.

Two ideas would in essence outsource conversations and human contact to the developing world.

The philosophy of TED is that governments come and go, but ideas last forever.
Chris Anderson
Basically, not only would you now receive your customer service from a call centre in India, but if you were an elderly person with little social contact in a care home you could have a few conversations a day with someone in Bangladesh.

This group of big thinkers can be forgiven for what some might consider irrational exuberance. The impressive part of such a gathering is the number of real projects, making real differences to people.

Sasa Vucinic and his Media Development Loan Fund has helped independent media businesses in 17 countries flourish.

Iqbal Quadir launched the Grameen Phone service in Bangladesh and used an entrepreneurial project to drive development and empower people through communication.

Peter Diamandis wants to expand his space X-Prize contests to push the development of education, clean water technologies and nanotechnology.

This is a hugely optimistic group of people. They are problem solvers, entrepreneurs, artists, designers and scientists.

They are doers, risk takers, contrarians and iconoclasts, and this has served them well.

How else would they be able to afford the 2,000 ticket price to attend TED?

Foundation course

Cynicism was in short supply amongst these entrepreneurs, but it was clear that the optimism of the speakers was fuelled by their own successes.

The best speakers were the ones who showed practical examples.

Aid worker looking for landmines, AFP/Getty
Flowers could help find landmines
Sustainable designer Bill McDonough told the audience of his plans for green cities in China, and Alex Steffen showed flowers that bloom red petals if they are growing above mines.

How do we put ourselves in other peoples shoes and feel what they feel? asked Paul Bennett, top design thinker from Ideo, during the closing sessions.

Many of the ideas on how to get better at what humans do echoed the mantra about picking battles that are big enough to matter, but small enough to win.

The clear message about technologies was that they can be used as a level playing field and as new distribution channels.

Others put the future of humanity into stark context, warning that our rate of urban growth is unsustainable and destructive to communities and to the environment.

There seemed to be a few assumptions underlying a lot of the ideas at TED such as:

  • despite terrorism, environmental destruction and poverty, the future could be bright
  • technology can solve more problems than it creates
  • entrepreneurs are good and governments are inflexible

Too often these underlying assumptions were not questioned.

What was also conspicuously absent was the voice of those in power who can turn these ideas into policy in nations that need the solutions most.

TED chairman Anderson said that changes have taken place in the way ideas work in the 21st Century, which have meant the policy makers are perhaps not the ones who hold the power strings.

"Because we live in such a connected world, the right ideas can take on a life of their own and take off hugely," he said.

"The philosophy of TED is that governments come and go, but ideas last forever. It is about nurturing those ideas and taking them to a new level, effecting change form the ground up," he added.

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