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Have ideas conferences like TED jumped the shark?

Posting in Design

It's no fun being an ideas conference if you are running out of ideas.

And that's what a recent article in the Financial Times implied of the biggest, hippest, most emulated of all ideas conferences: TED.

For the last few years, TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design seemed to be the ultimate in ideas: It has speakers from the world over in fields as far-ranging as Third World hunger and cerebral anatomy. YouTube views of its videos equal two-thirds the number of movie tickets sold last year across all North America, and the series has offshoots as varied as spots on NPR, an e-book reader and app, fellowships and more.

But a recent Financial Times profile on the founder of TED, Richard Saul Wurman, who is largely estranged from TED now, claims that the storied conference is running out of ideas.

And the article's description of Wurman's new foray into a new type of ideas conference makes it seems that ideas conferences are, in general, a tired idea.

A few examples:

  • TED, which normally charges $7,500 for a ticket to its main conference, held auditions for speakers this year. Anyone could apply. (Well, except for previous TED speakers.)
  • TED is scrounging for speakers, which is the same as hurting for ideas: As the FT says when noting that few of the speakers at another conference are women, "All the competing conferences ask the same women at the top of their fields to speak, and often the same men for that matter. Even TED is running out of speakers to invite and, therefore, running out of big ideas."
  • Wurman just launched his own conference, called WWW, that functioned like an anti-TED: He charged $16,000 for 40 high-profile speakers, including David Blaine, Frank Gehry and Quincy Jones to "engage in one-on-one conversations in 'an energetic exploration of the lost art of conversing.'" But the assessment by attendee and philanthropist Lee Larson was that "the conference was 'a lost opportunity'" and had "more 'haphazard ramblings' than real conversations." Ouch.
  • Finally, there is such a huge proliferation of ideas conferences, ranging from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, to TED wannabes and offshoots like TEDMED and PopTech. Is it really possible for all of these to consistently produce scintillating talks that are each unique?

What do you think? Can ideas conferences continue to find and produce talks that are each genuinely new and interesting? Or are they stretching for new material in order to feed the huge business they've become, and, in the process, diluting quality?

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: The Financial Times, The New Yorker

photo: Gabriella Coleman, digital anthropologist, at TEDGlobal 2012 (TED Conference/Flickr)

— By on October 10, 2012, 3:25 PM PST

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure