TEDxTokyo co-founder Patrick Newell explains, “What’s TED?”

Patrick NewellAs the Bob Dylan song goes − “You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is….” Most of us have heard about TED. Do we really understand it? Beacon Reports met with thought leader and TEDxTokyo co-founder Patrick Newell to find out what it is.

Beacon Reports: What is TED?

Patrick: TED is about bringing people together, spreading ideas, inspiring people and creating something new. It started in 1984 as a single live event that brought together some of the world’s most fascinating thinkers, doers and changemakers.

Beacon Reports: How and when did you get involved?

Patrick: The institution I co-founded, the Tokyo International School, was one of ten lighthouse schools embracing technology in learning environments with Apple. I had been partnering with Apple and through the process met a man who suggested I attend TED. I had never heard of TED, so I asked him, “What’s TED?”

The first year I applied, I wasn’t accepted. The second year, I got invited as a participant.

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When I first started going to TED, in 2008, there were about 700 participants. It was just amazing. I was like a kid in a candy store. On your left was Robin Williams and Quincy Jones. On my right was Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Bill Gates. It was an insane group of people getting together for five days, each sharing ideas from three to eighteen minutes onstage and offstage.

One of the beauties of TED is that pretty much everyone in the audience could be a speaker. Not every participant presents at TED, but almost everyone there has an idea worth sharing. All the speakers and participants are hand-picked.

At the time, TED was a private conference and was not available online. The conference was videotaped and we were given a set of DVDs as our takeaway. Then they decided to open TED up fully to the world about five years ago. They just passed four billion views.

Beacon Reports: How did you come to co-found TEDxTokyo?

Patrick: I presented the idea of bringing TED to Japan with my partner Todd Porter. We wanted to bring TED’s energy to Japan, a somewhat sleepy country that has been resting on its past. In Japan, there are silos of different groups, but no force bringing them all together under the spirit of sharing ideas or being innovative and creative. We thought, even though nobody knew what TED was at the time, it would become one of the most powerful global brands to ignite Japan. We wanted to nurture Japan’s creative confidence and share Japan’s ideas worth spreading throughout Japan and the rest of the world.

At first they were not open to the idea. They said, “No. You might ruin our brand by giving it away. It potentially could get diluted.” Everyone wanted TED to come to their city. But Chris Anderson, the curator and current owner of TED, knew there was no way they could organize events all over. It was too difficult. So they tried to create a program where local communities could host their own events. They sponsored “salons” where people could view TED’s videotapes and talk about it afterwards. There weren’t any live speakers.

Eventually we were allowed to push the envelope. The University of Southern California and Tokyo were the first to hold independently organized TED events with live speakers.

At the time, in 2009, nobody knew about TED. People were saying, “Who’s TED; What’s TED; Where’s TED?” People couldn’t get their heads around it. Even today people have a hard time understanding what TED is.

Now, three and one-half years later, TEDxTokyo has become a phenomenon. Last year we held the event at Shibuya Hikarie. We had close to 100,000 unique viewers online. The event was broadcast live on the Qfront screen at Shibuya crossing, and now NHK has a weekly show based on TED Talks.

Beacon Reports: Why do you think TED/TEDx has become so successful?

Patrick: TED and TEDxTokyo’s lineup combines the most disconnected, good ideas together. When this happens, your brain tries to make sense and connect the disconnected, which then generates aha moments. Aha moments are really what TED is all about.

Also, TED aligns our spiritual needs with learning and sharing. People are hungry to be inspired, laugh and learn in a short time frame. TED provides this better than traditional videos.

Beacon Reports: What does TED stand for?

Patrick: TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. More and more the “E” is becoming associated with education, as it has become a powerful learning tool.

Beacon Reports: What’s the significance of the “x” in TEDx?

Patrick: The “x” stands for independent organization. As long as an organizer works within the branding framework established by TED, anyone can organize a TEDx event with up to 100 participants. If you want to have more than 100 participants, you would have to have attended TED, TEDActive or TEDGlobal.

There are five TEDx events happening around the globe every day now and TEDx has spread throughout all of Japan. Over 20 different licenses have been issued in Japan alone. For more information, visit TEDxTokyo.com.


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