Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2747: TED

by Andrew Boyd

Today, ideas worth spreading. The University of Houstonís College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Iíve attended, and given, many presentations in my life. But I recently participated in an event unlike anything Iíve ever experienced.

TEDx venue

The event was TEDx the Woodlands, a regional conference emulating the international TED conferences. When I first received an invitation to speak, Iíd never heard of TED, so I of course did my homework. And I came away intrigued.

The first TED conference was held in 1984. Reflecting its Silicon Valley roots, TED began as an acronym for Technology Entertainment and Design. But thatís history. TED is now just TED, with the slogan ďideas worth spreading.Ē That pretty well captures its essence. Talks range from artistic to cultural to scientific.

Jennifer Myers speaking

What makes the presentations especially compelling is the focus on grabbing the listenersí attention and driving home an idea. TED talks are videotaped, and the best are available on-line. Speakers have just eighteen minutes to make their case — whether that speaker is Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, or Al Gore. TED organizers recently embraced even shorter talks — some as brief as two or three minutes. (Engines episodes, by comparison, run three minutes twenty-seven seconds, plus or minus a second.) TED talks that find their way onto the Web are professionally screened and edited, and they can be mesmerizing. A New York Times writer confesses to occasionally bingeing on them.

audience interacting

The Woodlands event offered titles like: Serendipity, You Donít have to be Creative to be Creative, and Artfully Shaping Our Studentís Minds. Presenters included a woman who at age eighteen formed an educational program for poor children in India; a bio-chemist from Berkeley who, among other things, works on bio-fuels; and a middle school student who started the organization Inventors Without Borders. In keeping with the approved TED format, the presentations were interspersed with occasional music or dance.

Fabian Fernandez-Han, Ritika Arya, Javier Fernandez-Han

I admit I was initially hesitant about participating. It all seemed a bit new-age — certainly nothing like academic or business conferences, where music is reserved for cocktails and dancing for late nights on the town. But Iím glad I overcame my trepidation. It allowed me to connect with a group of creative, thoughtful, energetic people — and thatís always a day well spent.

For my part, I tried to provide some insight on the conference theme: the Kaleidoscope Mind. Iím frequently asked, ďwhere do you come up with those ideas for Engines episodes?Ē Well, hereís the secret: Iím always on the lookout, and if I think of something, I write it down. Thatís because over the years Iíve learned an important lesson: A kaleidoscope creates its images with reflection, but it all starts with shiny things at the bottom of the can.

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Peter Fernandez-Han

Notes and references:

Iíd like to express my appreciation to the volunteers, sponsors, and participants of TEDx the Woodlands for such an enjoyable day. Special thanks to Peter and Fabian Fernandez-Han who organized the conference.

V. Heffernan. Confessions of a TED Addict. The New York Times. January 23, 2009. See also: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25wwln-medium-t.html. Accessed October 4, 2011.

TED. From the Web site: http://www.ted.com/. Accessed October 4, 2011.

TEDx the Woodlands. From the Web site: http://tedxthewoodlands.com/. Accessed October 4, 2011.

All pictures are by Javier Fernandez-Han and can be found at the flickr Web site http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxthewoodlands/. Accessed October 4, 2011.

This episode was first aired on October 5th, 2011

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.