(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Session six – TED Prize)
Every year at TED, three exceptional people are awarded the TED Prize. They each receive US$ 100’000, but that’s not the real prize: they also are granted a wish — no restrictions — that they can express in front of the TED audience, asking for help to turn it into reality.
Last year, former president Bill Clinton, photographer James Nachtwey and biologist EO Wilson received the TED Prize. What happened since:
- Clinton asked for help in developing a "high quality rural health system for the whole country" of Rwanda: teams have been sent to the country, technology is being developed, and funds have been raised.
- Nachtwey solicited help for reporting and spreading "a story that the world needs to know about", related to public health: many partners have given a hand, and the story will be released in September in "Time" magazine, on billboards, through public events and communication campaigns, etc.
- EO Wilson wanted help in creating the Encyclopedia of Life, an online resource with an indefinitely expandable page for each species, contributed to by scientists and amateurs: the EOL is now under development and the first version of the site is live.
The three wishes still need support to be completed. See a detailed update here.
This year’s TED Prize winners are writer David Eggers, physicist Neil Turok, and religious scholar Karen Armstrong.
Eggers is an author of many bestselling books, including the recent "What is the what" about a Sudanese refugee, a publisher of books and literary magazines, and a teacher-at large: In 1998 he founded in San Francisco 826Valencia, a very successful writing and tutoring lab for young people from the neighborhood, which has since been cloned in five other American cities.
He tells in a very funny way and with great pictures the story of 826Valencia, of the adjoining store (a mad trove of delightful things), of the chapters in other cities, and — his TED Prize wish — he wants now to go farther than that, because "empowering a child with writing is the essence of democracy". He asks the conference’s attendees — and anyone else who’s in a position to help — to "find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area" and then share the story of their involvement on the OnceUponASchool website, hoping in their inspirational effect to start a virtuous cycle, "so that within a year we have 1000 examples of transformative partnerships".
The site went live minutes ago, offering guidelines for partnering with schools and providing a space for receiving people’s pledges and stories of involvement (there are already several telling stories of literacy and writing programs). Many things are needed to make Dave’s inspiring wish a reality: personal engagement by the largest possible number of people, of course, but also very practical things such as funding and web hosting.
Interested in supporting Eggers’ wish? See an implementation plan and a list of needs here and a discussion board here.
Neil Turok is a South-African born physicist at Cambridge, and a close collaborator of Stephen Hawking, with whom he speculated that the Big Bang wasn’t the beginning, that the universe existed before the Bang and that there may be Bangs in the future, and that we may live in an endless universe.
In his spare time, Turok is the founder of the African institute for mathematical sciences (AIMS), hosted in a converted hotel in Cape Town, minutes from the beach (which helps in attracting top lecturers…). "If you don’t have math, you are not going to enter the modern age, he says. We emphasize problem-solving, working in groups. Everyone lives together in the hotel, lecturers and students, so it’s not surprising to find impromptu tutorials at 1am. We specially emphasize areas of great relevance to African development." Turok tells stories of AIMS students (who come from three dozen countries) who went on to Masters and PhDs, and brings two of them up on stage.
Rarely a TED wish has been expressed more unequivocally than Turok’s:
Help me, he says, make sure that the next Einstein will be African, by "unlocking and nurturing scientific talent" across
the continent, because The only people who can fix Africa are talented young Africans".
His wish is a crisp, yet very ambitious vision, and to realize it he has a plan: building 15 centres of excellence across Africa, possibly modeled on AIMS but specialized in different areas of science, recruiting outstanding students and teachers, developing fellowship and entrepreneurship programs, attracting both private and public support, etc. Turok plans to start with Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda and Madagascar; he has already obtained political support, and local scientists will be leading the way. "The institutes have to be relevant, innovative, cost-effective, and high quality, because we want Africa to be rich."
Interested in helping out? At this point, everything is needed, from building a website for what Turok named the "Next Einstein From Africa" program to teaching equipment and more. Plan and list of needs here, discussion board here.
Religious thinker Karen Armstrong is a former nun and has written more than 20 books on faith and the major religions, and is a powerful voice for ecumenical understanding.
She tells how she "encountered" Judaism and Islam while reporting a story for British TV in Jerusalem. In that tortured city, where the three faiths jostle so closely, you understand what religion can be. It led me, she says, to look at my own religion in a different way, and found things that were incredible: unproven, abstract doctrines. Belief, which we make such a fuss about today, is actually a recent enthusiasm, it surfaced in the 17th century in the West. Previously, belief only meant love. "Credo" didn’t mean to accept certain acts of faith: it meant I commit myself, I engage myself.
If religion is not about believing things, what is it about? It’s about behaving differently, in a committed way — and then you begin to understand the truths of religions. You understand religious doctrines only when you put them into practice. In each of the major world’s faiths, compassion is not only the test of any true religiosity, also the way to get into the presence of the divinity. In compassion we remove ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. Every major tradition has put at its core a "golden rule": do not do to others what you do not want be done to you.
But look at our world. We are living in a world where religion has been hijacked, where terrorist sing Koranic verses to justify their atrocities, where we have Christians judging other people. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things.
The traditions also insisted that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group. You must have concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. We formed you into tribes and nations so that you may know one another, says the Koran.
There is also a great deal of religious illiteracy. People seem to equate faith with "believing things", and very often secondary goals get pushed into first place instead of the golden rule, compassion, because the golden rule is difficult. A lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate.
Since 9/11 I’ve travelled all over the world and found everywhere a desire for change. Recently in Pakistan hundreds of people came to my lectures, especially young people, asking what they can do to create change.
It seems to me that our current situation is so serious that any ideology that doesn’t promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of the time. The golden rule should be applied globally, we should not treat other nations in ways that we would not like to be treated ourselves. It’s time that we move beyond the idea of toleration, and towards appreciation of the other.
Armstrong’s TED Prize wish sits right in the middle of some of today’s most profound global tensions: help me, she asked, "with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion", to be crafted by a group of twelve inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and "based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect".
Bridging the divide among the three prevalent monotheistic faiths, which all claim Abraham as part of their religious history, using the lens of compassion, will require more than scholarly preeminence and good will. It will call for the creation of a totally new narrative, stepping beyond hatred and defensiveness and, in Armstrong’s own words, "making the authentic voice of religion a power in the world that is conducive to peace". It will demand a subtle effort that engages everybody. It will necessitate operational support (which will come from the UN Alliance of Civilizations, but also from individuals). Mostly, it will depend on the participation of many and on finding the right answer to the key question: Who are the spiritual leaders of these three religions who should be solicited to participate in the group of twelve?
Interested in supporting Karen to turn her very ambitious and very necessary vision into reality? Plan and list of needs, and discussion board.
A performance by South African singer Wusi Mahlasela closes the session.
The videos of today’s three TED Prize speeches will be released on TED.com in a couple of weeks.