By Courtney E. Martin and John Cary
Curating the program for TEDCity2.0 — a one-day conference about the future of cities that takes place, gulp, today — was a true honor for us. The two of us come at cities from very different angles. John is trained as an architect, but has spent his career building the public interest design movement; for him, the City 2.0 is about creating a more equitable built environment. Meanwhile, Courtney is a journalist and strategist; for her, the City 2.0 is an exciting thematic lens from which real people’s stories and solutions to tough social problems spark to life.
You’ll find traces of both of our approaches and sensibilities in today’s program, plus, of course, a heavy dose of TED Curator Chris Anderson’s unquenchable passion for this subject and long-earned wisdom about events like these.
In the midst of the speaker prep and the onsite rehearsals, as well as the inevitable last minute tweaks and jitters, we took some time to articulate five of the learnings we’ve picked up in the process of co-curating this event. We hope they’re helpful to other organizers privileged enough to do fulfilling work like this.
1. Pick a simple theme, then promptly complicate it.
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a year of dynamic, diverse conferences about the future of our cities. Among others, PopTech! had one in June and early next month, The Aspen Institute will host another with The Atlantic and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
From our perspective, there can’t be too much conversation about what amounts to one of the most important demographic and geographic shifts in our century. However, it does put the pressure on to create something truly unique. For us, that meant integrating some unusual suspects into the mix with some of the most thoughtful and well-known contemporary urbanists. You’ll find Jeff Speck, author of the much-loved urbanist book Walkable City alongside Joshunda Sanders, who tells the story of growing up sometimes homeless, with a mentally ill mother in the Bronx. She’s a woman who has never before been included in the conversation about cities. You’ll find former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia — Enrique Penalosa — who spent his term carving out bike and bus lanes. You’ll also find Diébédo Francis Kéré, who builds breathtaking buildings in his native country of Burkina Faso. In other words, it’s a powerful mix orbiting a streamlined theme.
2. Beware the direct pursuit of inspiration.
We learned this directly from Chris. One of the liabilities of TED’s success is that it invokes a kind of awe and fear in people when they receive an invitation to speak. We, of course, appreciate when people take the opportunity seriously. On the other hand, when you take away the infamous round red rug on the stage and the multi-camera choreography, it’s just a talk. Like any other, it requires heartfelt storytelling, fresh, clear thinking and a genuine attempt to connect with an audience. As counterintuitive as it sounds, trying to “be inspirational” usually murders that actual connection. Instead we encouraged speakers to drop any kind of performance or public speaking techniques they learned once upon a time, and just make like they’re talking to a few friends at a pub or over a good home-cooked meal. What do they wish people they cared about understood more than anything else? What’s the most straightforward way to communicate that? That’s the best way to approach a talk, we think.
3. Get the fish out of the water.
One of the hardest things for speakers to do is to see their own subject matter anew — and yet that’s critical to make a talk transcend. We pushed academics to be less academic, politicians to be less political, designers to be less design-focused. Those nudges can be frustrating for everyone involved — after all, we’re asking speakers to diverge from the very thing from which they derive their expertise in the first place. But the talk that emerges on the other side of this perspective shift is, without fail, the one that both moves the audience and teaches the speaker something important along the way.
4. Look out for redundancy, while delighting in the echoes.
We were careful to curate a program where no two speakers occupy quite the same philosophical or demographic territory — particularly important since global cities are such a vast topic and we only had four sessions to play with. And yet, as we began seeing scripts and hearing rehearsals, we started to hear these wonderful synchronicities bubbling up. Felice Belle’s beautiful ode to Walt Whitman features moving lines about garbage, a topic that Robin Nagle brings to life in her talk about trash anthropology. (See also the profile and photoessay featuring Robin’s take on New York City.) Jason Sweeney asks urban dwellers to engage their auditory senses like never before with his unique project, Stereopublic, while Chris Downey talks about how going blind gave him an even richer multi-sensory experience of the city. Seeing themes and related ideas emerge organically instead of by design has been a treat.
5. In the end, story is still king.
There is no way around it: story just is king. In a conversation about cities, there are inevitably lots of statistics and pictures and well-drawn plans. All of these are critical, but it is the stories — simply and authentically told — that breathe life into these talks. Threaded together over the course of this one day, they tell a new, collective story about the future of cities as we move forward with ever-drifting time. This is a story about the possibility of realizing human potential at a scale and depth unseen before, but it must be intentionally told. It’s unfolding right now.
We hope you’ll be joining us today at TEDCity2.0 in New York City, or at one of the 138 TEDxCity2.0 events taking place in 48 countries across the globe this weekend. Barring that, we invite you to watch the livestream of the event and wonder, “What is the future of my city and how can I help shape it?”