TEDGlobal 2010

Re-Framing: The TEDSalon in London

What does it take to make an everyday object — say, a toaster — from scratch? And does anyone know how to make it, all the way from mining for iron ore to plugging it into the electric grid?

Those are the questions designer Thomas Thwaites sought to answer when he engaged in the Toaster Project. Last Tuesday, November 2, he shared his hilarious and insightful story with about 250 TEDsters who attended the third TED Salon, at the Unicorn Theatre in London.

Organized with the support of frog design — which is also a key TEDGlobal partner — and hosted by TED’s European director Bruno Giussani, the Salon featured twelve speakers.

Introducing Thwaites, Giussani reminded the audience of Matt Ridley‘s talk at TEDGlobal in July. Ridley showed photos of a stone ax and a computer mouse, and explained a key cultural difference between the two objects: one person knew how to make the stone ax, but there is no one who knows how to make a mouse from scratch: mining for the wide variety of raw materials, designing it, engineering it, etc. “To make a complex modern object, we need the unprecedented implicit collaboration of hundreds, or thousands of people,” said Giussani.

Thwaites’ toaster adventure offers an interesting illustration of Ridley’s point. He bought a cheap toaster, tore it apart and discovered that it was made of over 100 components and dozens of materials. He focused on four: iron, copper, mica and plastics. And went looking for them, hauling home a suitcase of iron ore, bottles of water from a copper mine, pieces of mica from a Scottish hill, and raw scraps of plastics (having been denied a visit to an oil platform where he could have gathered crude oil, the base of all plastics) which he melted in his backyard before gobbing the batch onto a wooden mold to make the exterior toaster housing. Thwaites did come up with a finished product (image below) — but when he plugged it in, it lasted for only five seconds.

The theme of the TEDSalon was “Re-Framing,” and looking at things differently and doing them differently (or attempting to, like Thwaites) was the common thread.

Opening speaker Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company and an outspoken champion of disadvantaged kids, spoke poignantly and convincingly about the failure of Britain’s welfare system (1.4 million kids abused each year, and 1.1 million living with drug-using parents, but only 38,000 children placed on the child protection register). She pointed at recent neuroscience and other research indicating that sustained child abuse and neglect have devastating impacts on a child’s brain, “often creating a lifetime of vulnerability.” Kids who live through regular traumatic events such as abuse, she said, “need a re-parenting opportunity” and the ability to re-experience love. With her organization, she’s developing a model for daylong street-level “sustained and loving care.” “Love always surprises the disturbed child,” she added.

Jon Kolko, a principal designer at frog, talked about the role of personality in creativity. He believes that people and products (even software) can have personality, individuality, and character — and that’s what makes them interesting and useful to us, what makes them “special.” Where does the personality in a product come from? From the capacity of the designers to be playful and take risks: “Does your organization let employees ask ridiculous questions and give them the runway to pursue answers?” he asked.

Exploration Architecture‘s Michael Pawlyn doesn’t shy away from risk. He thinks big — among theinitiatives he’s worked on, the Eden and the Sahara projects — and looks at natural systems for inspiration in solving problems. He discussed “three big transformations” that need to happen, he contended, in order for architecture to achieve long-term sustainability: a radical increase in resource efficiency; a move from linear approaches to close loops; and a shift towards a solar economy. “A world of beauty and efficiency awaits us if we use nature as a design tool,” he said.

Or it could be that the winning personality of an object comes from what isn’t there, “because often what isn’t there trumps what is,” said Matthew May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance. With brilliance and wit, he introduced the audience to the Japanese design concept of shibumi — which is the ability to achieve the maximum effect with the minimum of means.

JP Rangaswami, the chief scientist at Salesforce (until recently he held the same position at BT), then discussed his ideas on how companies ought to “design for the loss of control.” For 100 years “we sought to establish an illusion of control,” he told the audience. “Now, we have to start designing for community action and collaborative enterprise.” One way to do this, said Rangaswami, is to design for extremes and not just narrow ranges. Businesses also have to learn that failure is an integral part of success. (In fact, he said that “If one is designing for loss of control, there is no such thing as failure. There is only future profiling.”)

Opening the second session, economist Noreena Hertz addressed the influence of “experts” — like herself — and how we should view them with skepticism. “In an age of extreme complexity, we believe experts are more able to come to conclusions than we are,” she said. “I believe this is a big problem with potentially dangerous consequences for society, and for us as individuals.” She urged the crowd to rebel against this dynamic, by “being ready and willing to take on” the experts, by “embracing the notion that progress comes about not only in the creation of ideas but also in their destruction” (what she called “managed dissent”), and by “democratizing expertise,” which is “not only the domain of surgeons and CEOs, but also of shop staff.”

Hertz was followed by Martin Jacques, the author of When China Rules the World, a dense book on its way to becoming a global bestseller. By 2020, China will surpass the US to have the largest economy in the world: “Never before has a developing country had the world’s largest economy,” and never has a non-western country had that distinction. In other words, we have to understand China better, and according to Jacques we have to stop trying to view it through a westernized frame. “It’s a western illusion that when countries modernize, they westernize,” he said. “China is not like the west, and it will not become like the west.” He then offered three elements that can help to better understand China. First, China is a “civilization state,” not a nation state, which is what every country in the western world is. Second, Chinese have a much different conception of race than most other countries: Over 90 percent of Chinese think they belong to the same race (Han), “and while that helps in keeping the country together, it also promotes a lack of tolerance and cultural diversity.” Finally, the perception of the state is different. In the west, the state is constantly being challenged, but in China the state is “seen as the patriarch of the family, and is therefore embedded in society in a much different way”. Jacques closed his talk by pointing out that “The arrival of countries like China and India represents the most important single act of democratization in the last 200 years — the majority will be ruled by the majority. As humanists we must surely welcome this transformation.”

Michelle Gallen, a social media and technology expert from Ireland, recounted her story of having encephalitis and turning to technology to make up for her deficits. After many years of having to deal with insufficient tools, she embraced Web 2.0 (and now runs websites) but is frustrated by the way in which people “fritter away” the technology we do have, such as location-based applications wasted to “promote cafés and bars for crappy discounts and digital points” (Foursquare anyone?).

Literary critic Sarah Churchwell has been researching a book about 1922 and the cultural environment that produced Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby — and brought up amazing similarities between that season and modern-day celebrity culture. She made a convincing case for rejecting the idea that celebrity gossip is a measure of decline of society, “as if once upon a time humans were wonderfully high-minded and never told stories about each other.” In reality, she said, “Gossip is a measure of our interest in other people and therefore a measure of our humanity.”

Internet theorist Theresa Senft extended the theme into the idea of “famous for 15 people,”  the notion that we are in a culture of micro-celebrity in which everyone is known to many more people than they might think — and that this dynamic has serious and far-reaching implications.

Mike Dickson, author of a recent book on generosity as a guiding principle called Please Take One, extolled the virtues of living a more generous life. Suggestion: next time you’re in line at Starbucks, offer a cup of coffee to the stranger behind you.

No TED event is complete without a live performance. The Salon attendees could listen to the amazing voice of Norwegian singer Kate Havnevik (photo above, during her performance) – also known for having composed some of the soundtrack of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” — and watch a preview excerpt of the film “Love the Earth” by musician Imogen Heap and eco-entrepreneur Thomas Ermacora. The filmmakers crowdsourced images of nature through Youtube and Vimeo, and edited them into a remarkable piece of collective art. Heap composed the score, which premiered on November 5th at the Royal Albert Hall with a live orchestra. The Salon was also the occasion for frog’s director of content strategy Sam Martin to debut the special TEDGlobal edition of design mind magazine, which covers last July’s conference in Oxford and extends, with many original contribution, its theme, “And Now the Good News”.

(Photos by Robert Leslie)