Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Morgan Spurlock, American documentary filmmaker best known for his movie Supersize Me, delighted the TED audience with his description of the making - and funding - of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.  The movie is designed to expose the extent of product placement in movies and it was funded entirely through product placement!  What irony.

In this movie, there's nothing subtle about the product placements - they're blatant and obvious. There were some hilarious videos of Spurlock pitching his idea to ad agencies, explaining how their clients would benefit from placement in a movie that satirized product placement in movies!   He eventually circumvented the ad agencies and went directly to the clients.  In my own experience in the advertising world, you really need to go to the clients directly, if you want to sell a new idea.  Ad agencies are very conservative.  Amazingly, Spurlock was able to convince several companies to go for product placement in the movie.

In contrast, Spurlock went to the Internet to sell the naming rights to his TED talk!  THey sold to data storage firm EMC2 for $7,100, in return for Spurlock mentioning the firm in his talk.

This movie is due to be released in April.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TED 2011 and the Theatre

‘Pieces of emotional engineering’ – that’s how the founders of Handspring describe their puppets.  Their magnificent puppet of a full size horse, designed for the London play War Horse, delighted the audience and made us suspend disbelief as the horse.  Some fabric draped over a bent cane frame snorted, pawed the ground, and 'galloped' across the stage.  Two people working under the horse, and a groom at the neck, manipulate the legs, neck, even the diaphragm to simulate breathing.  War Horse is the story of a horse drafted by the army in the First World War and the young boy who signed up to follow him to France.  There was a short video showing a troop of horses charging in the London production.  I had War Horse already on my reading list; now the play is also on my must-see list.

In a later session, we heard from Julie Taymor, the theatre director who brought us the mesmerizing Lion King production.  Her discussion of her personal career path through the theatre world was sprinkled with wonderful clips of some of her work, including Spider Man: Turn off the Dark, currently running on Broadway to resoundingly bad reviews.

For me, the highlight was reliving the rapt enjoyment I felt when I first saw Lion King.  However, Taymor was somewhat overshadowed by the previous presentation about War Horse, with the actual puppet on stage.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Conversation is the New Luxury

Susan Bird, CEO of wf360, is impassioned about the value of conversation.  “As we get more electronic, conversation is the new luxury”.  Her Inner Circle luncheons bring together eclectic groups for a free-ranging discussion around a particular topic.  The recent lunch in LA focused on purpose. (The meeting was hosted by Laurie Coots, Chief Marketing Officer of TBWA Worldwide, in their marvellously quirky offices, with the conference room table make of surfboards, and the bastetball court in the middle of the office).

Many corporations see maximizing shareholder value as their sole purpose.  The burning question was ‘is that a sufficient purpose for an organization?”  Most people said no.  Everyone agreed that a purpose, whether it be as lofty as changing the world, or as down-to-earth as serving their customers, was more engaging for employees.   People may pay lip service to caring about all their stakeholders, but as Linda Lore, CEO of Frederick’s of Hollywood put it, most corporations manage their behaviour to satisfy only one stakeholder – the shareholder.

What happens when an opportunity offers an immediate financial windfall, but undermines the company’s purpose?  Tena Clark, founder and CEO of private DMI Music and Media Solutions, described a situation where she’d turned down a significant piece of business in order to remain true to her purpose.    Being private is a huge buffer from the financial markets which demand short term returns; Tena’s decision may only pay off years in the future.  My question  "What would happen if all shareholders had to hold stock for a minimum of two years" generated considerable discussion about whether that would put a damper on market drivers for short-term results.

Western companies who think in the long term, usually justify such decisions in terms of the ‘protecting the brand’.  Jose Rueda, a Canadian now teaching business in a university in Hong Kong, argued that Chinese do not place much value on brand.  They are more purely money-driven than Western companies, feeling that the relationships had to endure, but not necessarily the brand.  Taking a short-term profit and exiting a business was more acceptable in that culture than in the West.  (To me, this is akin to day traders rather than value investors).  He argued that this cultural difference was a key source of misunderstandings and misperceptions of the Chinese by the West.

Another discussion emerged around how you could evolve purpose over time?  PRI’s CEO Alisa Miller described Public Radio International’s need to establish its purpose as connecting people with their interconnected world.  That purpose has already moved from radio to audio (including podcasts and so on) and must now move to pure storytelling.  This is a difficult move to sell to the board of directors.  Alisa described PRI as a ‘battleship in a tempest’.  In order to survive, she feels the organization has to move to a hybrid business model, combining for-profit and not-for-profit revenue in order to survive.  The challenge will be to remain true to their purpose during such significant change.  

Andy Hobsbaum, Co-Founder of Green Thing, and Niall Murphy, Founder and CEO of Evrythng shared a common theme, arguing that many companies have a purpose centred on endless growth, a proposition that is unsustainable. Kris Manos, former CEO of Hermann Miller returned to this thought at the end, musing about how persevering values can be.

The lunch ended by going around the table with everyone stating their biggest insight and offered a provocative what-if question.  What if China ruled the world?  Was China different from the West only because it was at a different stage of development?  What if women ruled every company and every country?  What if we understood the relationship between the economy and wellness?  What if brands were important in China (meaning that they would do business more like the West)?

It was a wonderful format for a discussion.  Susan was a magnificent hostess, guiding the discussion with a lovely light touch.  What a delightful group of people!  No concrete conclusions, but lots of food for thought.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Play Dough for Squishy Currents

Did you know that you can use play dough to do electrical experiments?  Batteries depend on a difference in conductivity between the anode and the cathode to generate electricity.   In the recipe for play dough, you can use either sugar or salt.  The salt recipe conducts more electricity whereas the sugar variant has more resistance.  Voila.  You can make a circuit.  Here's AnnMarie demonstrating some experiments you can do with the play dough circuit in her TED University talk.

Find out more at AnnMarie's web site.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A New Kind of Life

When scientists are looking for new life they know what to look for, because every living thing is made of the same elements, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur, with just small traces of everything else. 

So, when we look for life, in remote parts of the earth like thermal vents in the ocean, or in our dogged search for life outside earth, we look for all those elements, because we know they're necessary for life.  Or are they?

Maybe not, says Felisa Wolfe-Simon.  She and her team have discovered a microbe in Mono Lake in california, which can substitute arsenic where phosphorus sits in the biological framework of all other species.

This is pretty stunning information.  Maybe we've been looking for the wrong thing when we look for remote life.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Two Leaders - One Message

  • Ed Clark, CEO of TD Canada Trust, speaking at the Rotman Speaking Series. 
  • Stanley McChrystal, four-star US army general, speaking at TED 2011. 
 Leaders are not the most knowledgeable or 'perfect' individuals but those who can build strong teams with shared vision and culture.  The biggest challenge is molding a team comprised of individuals with vastly divergent backgrounds.  Leadership calls for  humility and the willingness to learn - and relearn - over the course of a varied career and varied conditions.

Clark, CEO of TD Canada Trust, a bank which emerged almost unscathed from the financial meltdown, is Canada's CEO of the Year.  McChrystal, author of many successes at the head of American forces in Afghanistan, is enjoying retirement after some, ah, blunt talk about Washington politicians.  Two highly regarded leaders from very different backgrounds, but delivering uncannily similar messages about what makes a great leader.
McChrystal described the imperatives in the military today, with increased speed, scrutiny and sensitivity around your actions.  He remembered the parachute jump he made on September 11; by the time he landed, everything was different, requiring totally different approaches in the military, and in his leadership style.

With the advent of modern technologies in war, there's an 'inversion in expertise', with people under you understanding those technologies better than you.  In fact, you often depend on reverse mentoring to understand those technologies.  So you don't become a great leader because you're always right, but because you listen and trust.

The army is dependent on trust -  trust that your fellows will not desert you in direst danger.  So the sinew of the military is built on relationships, transparency, and listening.  And as a senior leader, you must lead people whose life experience is totally different from your own and build a common vision despite that difference in background.  Moreover, with a highly dispersed force in 20 countries, and a need to communicate missions quickly, McChrystal often didn't have the luxury of face-to-face interaction.  He used everything possible - video, email, twitter - to build consensus, a contrast to his early career when leaders just issued orders.  

Clark sees himself as the custodian of a great Canadian financial institution, responsible for building a franchise that is sustainable in the long term for the benefit of the shareholder and the country.  He disdains financial leaders whose goal is to get as rich as possible as quickly as possible and exit while the going's good, using the excuse that they are looking after the shareholder's interests.

Clark, in almost an exact paraphrase of McChrystal, argued that a great leader is not the one who can answer all the questions.  Business today demands intensified product knowledge.  But one person cannot know everything; rather the great leader is transparent and builds great teams with a culture of pushback and challenge.

In his humble way, Clark stressed how much he'd had to learn - and how he was still learning, again mirroring McChrystal's explanation of the need to relearn things over his career.  Clark said that his biggest learning was the need to explicitly create an employee brand, because you want to attract great people who buy into the culture.  Cultural principles must be explicitly articulated, consistently over a long period of time.

In another echo of McChrystal, Clark described the challenge of integrating the very different cultures of TD and Canada Trust when they merged.  After external consultants had struggled and created a 'pablum' culture statement, he and one other colleague were more direct by simply writing down what would get people hired, fired and promoted at TD.  This is important mostly in terms of the signal it sends to employees, who want to know how they can contribute.  He has no time for people who 'manage' their careers - to him that smells of politics, and 'there's no room for politics' at TD.  Do your job well, and success and promotion will come to you.

Another topic touched on by both men was failure and how leaders respond to it.  McChrystal described a war game where the team he was leading was almost instantly captured by the simulated enemy.  He was totally deflated, but his commander told him "You did great", allowing him to get past the defeat to the learning from it.  When a mission he led was an utter failure in Afghanistan, this lesson was top of mind as he had to rebuild his troops' confidence.  Clark also talked about how TD's success in the US (7th largest bank in the US) had come about because they had the courage to go to the States and 'get bloodied and bruised' many times as they learned about the market.  (Parenthetically, he argued that the Canadian government was right to prohibit Canadian bank mergers, forcing them out into the world to learn and ultimately succeed.)

It was a fascinating juxtaposition to hear these two men speak.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Beatrice Coron - Paper Cutter

Beatrice Coron, an accomplished paper cutter artist, swept onto the TED stage in a paper cape.  Later she told me that it was her 'magic cape' giving her courage to address the TED audience.  It worked, because she gave a fascinating talk.

Born in France, Beatrice led an adventurous life wandering from Taiwan, to Mexico, to Egypt, before settling in New York.  She didn't start to do her paper-cutting art until she was 40!

Beatrice cuts intricate designs from paper, and combines her love of puns with her cuttings. I thought it would be more difficult to pun in a second language but Beatrice pointed out that English had lots of homophones and they really caught the attention of a person learning the language, making her more sensitive to puns.

I highly recommend visiting her web site, where you can see a series of cuttings on cities - Water City, Sun City, and then moving on to FeliCity, EgocentriCity, CurioCity, MultipliCity, and ElectriCity.  Above is the cut-out entitled All Good Soles Go to Heaven, and to the left is Dead Beats.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Enter the Corporations

Chris Anderson has a passion to transform TED from a conference celebrating Ideas Worth Spreading into a movement that will change the world.  And to do that, Chris argues, you have to involve corporations in the conversation.  They have the power and the reach to make a real difference.  This year saw a new 'species' of TED speaker - corporate executives (none from companies that were sponsors, by the way).

Bill Ford, Executive Chair of Ford Motor Co., talked of his long-time commitment to the environment and the imperative to build cars that are affordable, financially, environmentally and socially.  The number of cars is forecast to grow from 800M today to 4B by 2050.  But 4B cars are still 4B cars, and a green traffic jam is still a traffic jam.  Although Ford made a fleeting acknowledgement of public transportation and car sharing (initiatives that would reduce the number of cars), mainly he advocated that cars simply needed to get smart, which would allow more cars on existing road infrastructure.  In my opinion, there is a major power struggle coming here: clearly both cars and roads are going to have to get smarter, but where will the control be?  Ford obviously wants it in the car; many of us would want it to be in the roads.

Indra Nooyi, Chair and CEo of Pepsico, was an engaging and sympathetic person on the stage.  She is driving Pepsi to Performance with Purpose, maximizing human, environmental, and talent sustainability.  She described the Pepsi Refresh Project, where people submitted worthy projects.  Pepsi gave a total of $20M to the  projects earning the most votes.  It was nice that Pepsi funded 1000 different grantees, but the 'vote for donation' model is not new or interesting.  And besides, the talk was littered with Pepsi logos, totally inappropriate for TED.  This one also felt very commercial, even though there were no logos in it.

Another corporate speaker was Christina Lampe-Onnerud, giving a breathless account of how her company's battery technology could revolutionize the energy world.  The basic idea is Lego-sized batteries, that can be plugged together to give the battery size you need.  To be honest, I could see how this kind of battery would be extremely convenient for manufacturers, but I failed to make the leap that it would revolutionize power.

I do not consider the incursion of corporate executives to have been a great success at TED.  I'm sure TEDsters will react in their usual forthright way to this experiment.  There was an opportunity for people to deliver a 1 minute talk at the end of the conference, responding to one of talks they've heard.  Two of these 1-minute talks expressed distaste for Ford and Nooyi!  On the other hand, the TED team are fabulous at listening to and responding to criticism, so I wouldn't be surprised to see more corporate speakers next year - and for them to be better.

Sarah Kay - Spoken Word Poet at TED 2011

The session was called Beauty, Imagination and Enchantment.  And Sarah Kay enchanted the audience.  The youngest speaker at 22, Sarah has been doing spoken word poetry since she was 14.  I loved her expression that she showed up to each poem with a backpack full of experiences!  At 22, it was probably a relatively small backpack.

This camera angle shows the glorious backdrop on the stage, which had different images projected on it for each different session at TED2011.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

 Ads Worth Spreading

TED has always sprinkled the program with short videos; often they have been interesting and engaging advertising videos.  This year, TED formalized this interest with Ads Worth Spreading.  The 10 winners can be found here.  Check them out.

My favourites were The Infinite House and Selinah.  What were yours?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Salman Khan: Turning Education Upside Down

How about getting your Math lecture at home, and doing your homework at school?  That revolutionary idea is now a realistic possibility, because of Salman Khan's Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy is home to over 2000 instructional videos recorded by ever-so-engaging Khan.  It all started with Khan tutoring his cousins in person.  When he decided to record his tutorials and put them up on YouTube for convenience, he discovered that his cousins liked Khan on YouTube better than Khan in person.  They could proceed at their own pace, and didn't feel embarrassed at not understanding things. Even more surprising, others found the videos and they went viral. 

Khan decided to leave his job at a hedge fund, and dedicate himself full time to developing these educational materials.  The videos went from being an individual instructional tool to something with the potential to revolutionize education when the school district in Los Altos decided to explore if they could use the videos to improve math instruction in their school by using Khan Academy in half their classes in Grade Five to Seven.  And this is how they reversed the process.  The students watch the videos at home, instead of listening to the teacher lecture at school.  Each student proceeds at their own pace, never proceeding to the next type of problem until they get ten right answers.  Then they come to school to do their 'homework' with the teacher.  The teacher has a dashboard to see where every student is in the process and where they're getting stuck, so the teacher can deliver personalized instruction exactly where the student needs it.

Education is one of the priority investment categories of the Gates Foundation, and they have provided support to the Khan Academy.  Gates was beaming at the enthusiastic (FSOWSS) received by Khan.

While I enjoyed the talk, it was bittersweet for me, since I had put so much effort into reaching him to invite him to TEDxIBYork.  Sigh.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

TED 2011 Miracles

We TEDsters are always talking about how we feel inspired and uplifted at TED.  This conference has had many such moments for me.  But sometimes, TED goes beyond the marvellous to the miraculous.  Today, we saw the paralyzed walk, and the blind drive cars.  In our TEDx in the fall, we were introduced to deaf people hearing music.  Has TED reached a totally new level?

My friend Dennis Hong rocked the audience with his description of designing a car that blind people could drive.  Not a self-driving car that blind people could ride in - a car they could actively control.    There were sensors everywhere in the car - from the gloves the driver wore, to the seat they were sitting on, GPS, cameras.  There was powerful computing to process all this information and figure out the safest way to proceed.  The car was unveiled at Daytona, when a blind person drove the car around the track, avoiding various obstacles along the way.  He had tears in his eyes after the drive.  How liberating!

Eythor Bendor showed us 'exoskeletons', robotic appurtenances to attach non-invasively to the outside of bodies, to give people extra strength, speed and balance.  One application was to allow soldiers to carry 200-pound packs instead of 100-pound packs and yet avoid the chronic back pain that plagues soldiers.  Okay, so I didn't get that uplifted by that application.  Then Amanda walked on stage, with the aid of crutches, grinning from ear to ear.  She had been living in a wheelchair for 20 years after being paralyzed from the pelvis down.  She couldn't contain her joy at being able to walk!  That felt uplifting.

And of course our own Frank Russo at TEDxIBYork explained his EmotiChair which allows deaf people to hear music.  Where Dennis used vibration in the car seat to indicate speed to the blind driver, Frank was using similar vibration to convey music pitch and frequency.  I recently saw a fabulous documentary on neuroplasticity, where the brain can reprogram itself to compensate for parts that have been damaged or lost.  These researchers are providing cross-sensory stimuli even if your brain hasn't reprogrammed itself.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bill Gates - Curator Extraordinaire

The TED team is always looking for ways to make the TED experience richer and more interesting.  This year they invited Bill Gates to be curator and host.  He was a superlative curator, the only session so far where every speaker has received a standing ovation.  He was also a delightfully informal and engaging host.

I was particularly fortunate to be sitting on the stage for this session with other TEDx organizers, and it was a real thrill to feel part of the Main Stage experience.

There were 4 speakers:
  • David Christian with a fascinating professorial lecture on the history of the world in 18 minutes.  80%SO
  • Amina Az-Zubair from Nigeria describing that country’s progress toward achieving the Millenium Development Goals, and improving democracy and decreasing corruption along the way.  FSO
  • Bruce Aylward’s impassioned plea to keep up the fight to eliminate polio.  FSO.
  • Salman Khan describing the Khan Academy phenomenon, which just might revolutionize education.  SOWSS
  • Gates himself was a gracious and articulate host and asked great questions of each speaker. FSO
 I’ll describe each of these talks in more detail in future posts.

And I’m sure you’re curious about my rating scheme for the talks.  Here’s how to read the ratings:

  • FSO - Full Standing Ovation by everyone in the audience
  • X% SO - my entirely crude estimate of the percentage of the audience participating in the Standing O
  • SOWSS - Standing O with Sustained Shouting.  There had to be a category to capture those receptions that go well beyond a Full Standing O.

TED 2011

TED 2011 is off to a powerful start.  We've had two great sessions of TED University and three sessions on the Main Stage addressing the theme of Rediscovering Wonder.  It was fabulous. 

Although TED has always put considerable thought into stage design, it's not been a part of TED that has really made a huge impact on me personally.  That changed this year.  The whole background of the stage (and it's a vast area) is a rear projection area, with huge, unbelievably crisp images.  During the first session, called Monumental, the backdrop was a picture of a star-filled sky - very fitting since the conference opened with a message from Cady Coleman, pre-recorded a couple of days ago from the Space Station. The TED conference is being livestreamed up there.  The screen and speaking area are framed by two gigantic tree-shaped sculptures.  Cosmology and biology.  

The opening session was amazing.  The star (by my informal survey and my own personal vote) was Canadian Paul Nicklen, a National Geographic photographer with a passion for the Arctic and Antarctic (a bipolar photographer).  He showed us gorgeous photographs and explained his passion about saving the polar ice.  The host Chris Anderson had talked earlier about his concern that the TED Standing Ovation was being devalued because once a few people stood, everyone else felt shamed into standing.  He urged people to only stand up if they really felt moved.  He pointed out that there was no problem with a Partial Standing O, because talks are received differently by different people.  Even after this exhortation, Paul received a Full Standing O. The first of the conference.  I wanted to wave a Canadian flag!

Some of his gorgeous photos are here on the left and at the top.
Another talk that I really enjoyed was by Eric Whitacre, classical composer and conductor, and organizer of the famous Virtual Choir on YouTube, singing his composition Lux Aurumque.  Whitacre has movie-star good looks, and eloquently related how a Nebraska  boy with a yen to be a rock star was thunderstruck by his first experience of Bach in a choir at U of Nebraska.  Whitaker treated us to a premiere of the beginning of his next Virtual Choir performance, involving over 900 singers.  I guess everyone else liked him too, because he got a Full Standing O.

I don't know how long ago TED booked the Founder of Al Jazeera as a speaker, but Wadah Khanfa's talk was incredibly timely.  Khanfa's 43 years old, and the same rulers had been in power in the region for his whole life.  He was clearly exhilarated with the fact that educated youth were responsible for regime change, rather than outside forces as in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He was proud that Al Jazeera was playing a part by 'protecting' the protesters, who felt that the presence of TV cameras was a deterrent to bloody quelling of the protests.  He is full of optimism that the regime changes will happen without a descent into chaos as in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the revolutions were from within.  I'm sure many others in the audience joined me in a fervent hope that he is right, although the fact that he 'only' got about 60% SO means that there were skeptics in the room!  His talk was the first one up on here.

Session 2 and 3 summaries will have to wait for another day, since it's late at night, after a wonderful after-party jam session this evening.  They need to make a special concession on TED week, and extend the day to 36 hours!  Sigh.  But then the TED organizers would just fill it with more activities.