TED@Cannes: Counter-programming the Festival of Creativity

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This week, the world’s advertising and communication agencies have sent their top executives and creativites to Cannes, on the French Riviera, for the annual Festival of Creativity and the Cannes Lions awards. In the scope of a partnership with Starcom MediaVest Group, TED was in Cannes and presented two sessions.

On Tuesday, on the main stage, in front of a packed audience of 1,200 (plus another 500 watching a live simulcast in a nearby theatre), TED’s European director Bruno Giussani curated and hosted a 45-minutes session on “Connectivity”. The session, Giussani explained (watch this short video), was an attempt to “counter-program” the classic speaker lineup of the Festival, which features discussions about major trends (smartphones, apps, Internet TV, connected cars, interactivity, etc) with big-name speakers (just before the TED session, for instance, Robert Redford was on stage) invited by media companies and advertising firms trying to outdo each other. TED@Cannes was instead a story of two brilliant but relatively unknown speakers discussing the impacts of a neglected piece of technology and the virtues of being offline, completed by a spectacular young performer.

Bill Barhydt opened the session. He runs mobile payments company M-Via, which barely featured in his talk. He spoke instead of Kenya and Afghanistan and Latin America. His short talk centered on the old Nokia 1100 phone and the impact SMS is having around the world, where this very simple — and incredibly ubiquitous, with 4.5 billion people using cell phones — piece of technology is creating radical change. Among the many telling examples he brought, this one: A short while back, the government of Afghanistan started paying some 20’000 police officers their salaries via a mobile payment system (cell-phone based) run by operator Roshan and similar to the well-known M-Pesa mechanism developed by African operator Safaricom. “On receiving their money in this way for the first time”, Barhydt said, “all assumed that they had been given a salary increase. In fact, they had simply received their pay in full for the first time, with the money transferred directly to their mobile bank account, eliminating therefore the usual “skimming” of 20-30% of their salaries by corrupt bureaucrats and middlemen.”

Tom Chatfield (watch his TEDTalk) followed, with a talk on the meaning of our always-on life, the increasingly rare time we spend offline, and the value of these two different “states”. He flashed an image of a “quiet carriage” sign on trains, “which tells us that being online or on the phone is now considered the default state, while the other, the disconnected one, is special and has to be specially requested” — and then proceeded to discuss how to make the better use of these “two different set of tools and possibilities”: the wired and the unwired.

Giussani took the opportunity of the session to announce that TED’s Ads Worth Spreading initiative will be repeated in 2012 (information will be available in Autumn).

The session was closed by performance poet Sarah Kay. As a blogger wrote, “she affected the audience unlike any other speaker at Cannes”, she “performs poetry of the sort that doesn’t rhyme, but there is a rhythm to her words that pick you up and holds you in”. We couldn’t agree more — watch Sarah’s performance at TED2011 here.

On Wednesday morning, in a smaller and more informal setting inundated by the Riviera’s sun, TED’s Giussani hosted a breakfast session with “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz (watch her TEDtalk), engaging in a conversation with the audience about why we don’t seem to be able to learn from past mistakes, how organizations can lower the risk of mistakes (and how to react when they happen), and why our wrongness is part of our brilliance and vital to creativity and invention.