TEDxManchester: On the hunt for new ideas…

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go along to TEDxManchester – an independently organised TED event where Manchester’s great and good joined together in BBC Philhamonic studio hall to hear and share some new ideas worth spreading. 

You can’t argue with the concept, and this being Europe’s largest TEDx event, it brought with it some good speakers and interesting discussions. But as I walked into the hall for the third session after 4 hours of talks to listen to Hugh Garry’s presentation on mobile filming and Paul Coulton’s presentation on online gaming (both of which were enjoyable), two things suddenly struck me, keeping me awake until the small hours last night as I mulled them over in my jumbled and exhausted head. I’m going to try and deal with the first of these thoughts in this blog post. It goes like this.

Bar Phil Griffin’s brilliant talk on urban spaces and architecture, virtually every live presentation at TEDxManchester had been in some way about technology and social media. While in part this is likely to be down to the fact this is the main interest area of most of the organisers and attendees (demonstrated by the fact that the event was primarily promoted through twitter), it does raise a question about whether the digital space has become the primary home for ideas and innovation.

After all, throughout the world entrepreneurs, academics, creatives and social commentators are flocking to digital and social channels as their main means of doing what they do. And as a result, we think that this is where the innovators live. The assumption is that if someone has something worth saying or doing, they’re probably saying or doing it online.

And more than that, the unbridled development of the internet has had and is having a profound effect on almost every area of our society, from how we manage our lives, businesses and relationships to what we expect from governments, corporations and media giants. You would struggle to talk about creativity, innovation and social change without mentioning the digital world, which is probably why the digital world featured so prominently in yesterday’s programme.

But it would be really, really dangerous for innovators to look only to the digital space for inspiration. The very basis of TED is that good ideas – ideas that inspire you and change the way you think – can and do come from anywhere. History, philosophy, politics, international development, economics, literature, nature, quantum physics, health research, psychology…it’s a massive world out there and it’s filled with people taking routes to try and understand it that are not purely digital. Or (shockingly!) are not in any way digital!  

Think about the people in your life and world that inspire you and make you think about things differently. Or even think of those people in the public eye who challenge the way you think about the world. For me, it’s been statesmen like Al Gore, writers like Liz Gilbert, explorers like David Attenborough, not to mention all the musicians, artists, campaigners and journalists out there. And while some of them might have a blog, their ideas are usually about people, nature and what it means to be human, and have absolutely nothing to do with technology.

‘So what?’, you might say. Let’s face it – a lot of the innovation happening out there is happening online. Does it matter if this is the main place we go to when seeking new ideas? Well…yes! If people in the digital space are only hearing ideas from the digital space, then the sphere of inspiration narrows and you end up with the same ideas churning and repeating, putting them in danger of becoming stale. Without external stimulus, progress and innovation grinds to a halt pretty quickly.

The beauty of TED is that it reaches into virtually every field and craft on the hunt for ideas, oiling the wheels of global innovation by giving you access to the minds and thoughts of people you would never ever come across otherwise. TEDx has a massive opportunity to take this philosophy and bring  it into our local towns and cities, and while yesterday was great, I really hope that a) it happens again next year and b) it throws the speaker net wider to bring us ideas and perspectives from fields we wouldn’t have thought to look in ourselves.

13 thoughts on “TEDxManchester: On the hunt for new ideas…

  1. Hi Kim,

    First off genuine thanks for making the time to come to TEDx Manchester and now for writing up some thoughts in your blog.

    Completely agree that innovation (obviously) goes well beyond digital. In the conference we produce up in the NE – Thinking Digital – our closing section was actually called Thinking Post-Digital.

    We’ve also had speakers on perfume, the science of love & romance, Slow Food, poker, African microfinance, right/left brain thinking, anti-ageing research, overfishing, toymaking, demographics behind the Obama campaign & population statistics among all the usual digital tech/media/content talks.

    The kind of curation that you’ll see at a main TED takes tremendous resources. Chris Anderson claims they’ve whittled their “short list” for the Feb Long Beach conference down to 2000! How big was the long list?! Lord knows how many people TED have got as employees or volunteers doing all the research, background checks & approaches not to mention scheduling diaries, arranging flights, hotels, ground transfers, biogs, slides, etc.

    For TEDx we obviously had much less time & resource and so I think we reached out to the people we already had strong links into and perhaps not surprisingly this meant the day was dominated by digital.

    Having said all that – a point very well taken.

    I need to reiterate though the Herculean efforts made in particular by Ian Forrester, Julian Tait, Shirley Hunt-Benson and Andy Mace among many others to produce the event. If you could have seen before & after pictures of the orchestra studio you would really have been impressed by the conversion of that room with so little time to turn it around into what became a spectacular venue.

    I think it’s fair to say though that your comments on the event programming is already along the lines of what we were thinking for a future TEDx Manchester 🙂

    Thanks again for coming & your blogpost.


  2. Hi Kim

    Thanks from me too for some great comments.

    At FutureEverything too we dont focus just on digital, in fact we stopped using ‘digital’ when talking about what we do many years ago, and now just say we are a “festival of art, music & ideas.”

    I had a conversation with Matthew Postgate from BBC on exactly the point you raise so well.

    I think you can see this in two ways.

    On the one hand, drawing on speakers from “anywhere” means that we can listen to, say, an astrophysicist amaze us with insights, many of which would be mundane to an audience of astrophysicists. This gives speakers the freedom to really let rip, and deliver something profound and inspiring, that draws on the full wealth of their specialist wisdom.

    On the other hand, focusing on one specific area, say digital culture, means that you can have many different perspectives, and because the speakers are speaking to an audience of their peers, you tend to get more nuanced contributions. You are less likely to get “this is the one insight that motivates me” but more likely to genuinely break new ground, and raise the bar in understanding on a particular topic.

    A danger in conferences that _only_ take the first approach is that you get these really inspirational moments, but at the cost of ending up with something like a highlights package, never having the opportunity to drill in deeper.

    I am a bit of an event nerd, I love both types, and at FutureEverything we try to combine the two approaches.


  3. Herb and Drew – first of all thanks so much for taking the time to read my comments and give such considered responses. And please let me say what I didn’t in the post, which is thanks to you and the team of volunteers for putting in the time and effort to create this event in the first place – it is a massive undertaking which I think was appreciated by all that attended.

    Very pleased to hear that there are plans afoot for more TEDx’s, and that they are likely to invite a wider range of specialists to the stage. I love the digitally focused stuff too, but as I said in the last paragraph, what’s amazing about TED is that it encourages you to take a much broader view. With so many great creative and intellectual minds in Manchester, I’m sure it could be a really exciting line-up 🙂

    Until then, hopefully see you at FutureEverything and ThinkingDigital next year!

  4. So thanks for coming to the event first up. I would have commented earlier but having that post-event blues (aka a good night sleep).

    I agree with pretty all of you. Actually me and Adrian Woolard of the NW R&D Lab have been thinking a lot about the internet everywhere (like drew & herb said). We take our inspiration for the line up from both TD and FE plus events like Interestingness and BarCamps. BarCamp for example is very good for those non-digital talks. (more about this soon)

    We had planned have more speakers outside the digital relm including Adam Greenfield, Ania the Fashion Model and others but it didn’t work out. I would also add 3 out of 8 isn’t bad? We were also were going to look at some of the extremes of the digital space like Hacker Commerce but once again it just didn’t work out.

    From the BBC Backstage view, our focus is now on BarCampManchester2 (7-8th Nov) which I highly suggest you check out. The sessions won’t all be profound but they will be varied and interesting.

  5. Thanks very much for your comments Ian. As I said in the post, I think it’s really important to look for inspiration from outside the technology realm sometimes – from science, art, politics, etc. The BBC has amazing access here so it will be great to see how BBC backstage might be able to facilitate this kind of thing in the future.

    Hoping to make it to BarCampManchester so hopefully see you there!

  6. Hello Kim,

    Thanks for writing this post – I enjoyed it cos it’s right up my street.

    Soz for statin’ the bleedin’ obvious but there are so many amazing things happening on our planet, so many pressing issues and concerns, so many rapid changes.

    We have an opportunity like never before to come together through global digital technology and talk about meaningful and important things, about ideas that can start movements, create action, and change the world. I reckon these are the ideas that need to be reflected in conferences like TEDx. These things don’t require big budgets or fancy tech, but an openness to discovering what is truly of value to those they’re intending to serve.

    It seems at the moment though, the newness of this tech enabled experience of connectedness is the thing that many people seem to enjoy discussing and learning about – they’re interested in the medium, as well as the message (and at so-called digital conferences it’s the medium people have come to explore).

    Having said that, I’ve also observed lots of offline, non-digital possibilities opening up to us which would have perhaps been impossible to facilitate without our new tech tools.

    So it’s inevitable (since social media is not a little bit of drizzle, more a raging storm that impacts everything it touches, and it will touch everything to some degree or other) that the conversation, once we begin to get used to these possibilities, we’ll not just be focused on talking about the tools and how to use them.

    Hopefully it will shift from the medium to the message and any tech tools should to a large extent fade into the background. This will allow us to get on with conversations, relationships, and actions around things that matter and that give us meaning.

    Conferences like Ted Global are amazing because of the rich content. That content may be technology focused or not.

    What I’d like to see, and I want to work with all kinds of people who want the same, is all kinds of human interaction, tech enabled or face to face, including conferences, beginning to focus on the big questions of meaning, purpose, and how humans should live in the world, in relation to each other, our planet, and beyond.

    Bloomin’ ek! that was a bit of a long comment! IAnyway, enjoyed you post and it is great to read your thoughts.

    Much love,



  7. The mere fact that the tedx got you thinking is a sign that it was successful…
    …what everyone seems to miss is that ‘t’internet is bringing the world to everyone’s home, phone or workplace. Spreading the knowledge and innovation. TEDx is happening because of the ether, and that bit is always going to be the bigger picture. The days of learning stuff via the monks or dead trees is over. Nothing can ever take the place of people, but for sharing stuff the internet is the place to be. Many of us can’t get IT. Many in digitalbritain still don’t have connectivity. Be grateful if you have, and watch Korea et al be the leaders in this global digital revolution.
    Just my fourpennorth.

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