Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My Favourite TED talks

In my course on Innovation, I use various TED videos as thought-provokers on different topics.  Those  deliver powerful lessons, and it's also a nice break from hearing me talk for three and a half hours straight.

I urge them to acquire the habit of watching TED videos that are not about business or their own industry.  Those are the talks that will be most mind-expanding for this extremely focused group who are being immersed in a program of disciplined business study.  One of the students this year asked me for a list of my all-time favourite TED talks.  That's a tough question, but it got me thinking.  I decided to try for a Top Ten list.  I'll cover five talks in this post and five more in a subsequent post.

Hans Rosling
This brilliant Swedish academic could have quietly taught global health cloistered at the Karolinska Institutet in Stocklhom.  He would have wowed his students and he would have been in demand as a dinner guest.  But TED changed all that.  He gave his first TED talk in 2006 and electrified the conference.  His talk fused long-term global health trends, amazing dynamic data presentation techniques, incredible energy, and great wit.

"See this corner?  Watch per capita incomes rising!  And over here, watch world health improving at the same time!  There goes Asia taking off!"  It has all the panache of a sports announcer shouting "He shoots!  He scores!"  But it's not all performance art.  He has a substantive and encouraging message about the world's progress toward better quality of life; what could have been boring statistics illuminates those underlying and connected trends.

TED.com has brought this man with his big ideas to the world.  Rosling's  talks are the most viewed of all TED.com talks.  He looks totally spontaneous but he is the most diligent in preparation, according to Nancy Duarte who coaches many of the TED speakers.  I chose Rosling's first TED talk in 2006 as my favourite here. It was my first TED conference and I spent the whole conference reeling with euphoria, with Rosling being a huge contributor.  However, I've watched many of his other talks since, from various TEDs and TEDx's; I could watch him forever and I would recommend you watch any and all of his talks.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates gets a mention here for a different reason than Rosling.  One couldn't claim that he's exactly charismatic, although he's developed a certain charm and warmth as a speaker now that he's a philanthropist rather than a business person.  I wrote in a previous post about Bill Gates' TED Talk on Innovating to Zero, a well-reasoned plea for getting carbon emissions to zero.  It was perhaps the best organized and persuasive presentation I'd ever seen.  He laid out the arguments clearly as to why we should care about climate, and why, when you examine all the alternatives, 'safe' nuclear energy is the only way to go.  Then he unveils such a new technology for safe nuclear energy (while transparently admitted it was developed by long-time friend and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's company).

 Derek Sivers
This is a short talk, less than three minutes.  But what a powerful message Sivers packs into that short time.

One of my firm convictions is that a prerequisite to great innovation is to be able to let go of what you know.  In this talk Sivers brilliantly exposes how we can get locked into one way of thinking, with a great story comparing address conventions in Japan and the US. 

William McDonough
William McDonough's talk wowed me at my first TED conference with 'his manifesto for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design'  (his words on the Cradle to Cradle website

McDonough believes that when you manufacture something, you should know the characteristics of all ingredients and components and ensure that these are environmentally benign.  Moreover, you must ensure that the waste product, as well as your actual product must be environmentally benign.  And you should build products that can come back into the system to be used again.

Isabel Allende
Why is Isabel Allende's talk on my favourites list?   Because she was vibrant, inspiring, and funny.  She was totally feminine and totally feminist

When invited to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremonies of the Turin Winter Olympics, Allende's first concern was what she'd have to wear.  Her second concern was how she'd be dwarfed by the statuesque and gorgeous Sophia Loren.  How totally feminine! 

Her feminism was even more strongly represented.  She fervently disagreed with the thesis that feminism is passé.  Firstly, women and children still suffer incredible hardships and mistreatment.  The world needs to address these disadvantages.  Secondly, Allende believes that helping women helps the world.  This theme is often echoed in such movements as the microfinance movement.  Lend to men, they say, and the men improve their lives.  Lend to women and the whole family thrives. 

Allende is, after all, a well-known and prolific writer.  So it's not surprising that her talk centred around stories and was titled Tales of Passion

Friday, January 27, 2012

Latest TED Book Club Selections - January 2012

The latest TED Book Club selections are out.  As always, it's an interesting bunch.

Steven Pinker has given several talks at TED, including his 2007 talk which made a deep impression on me.  He argued that, despite today's news overload focused on bad news, the level of violence and wars has actually been declining in the world.  You can find that talk here.  Apparently the talk sparked further research and analysis and culminated in the publication of a book. 

The Better Angels of our Nature elaborates on that theme, arguing that violence between humans is in long term decline. I remember Pinker showed a graph showing the incidence of wars and numbers of deaths in those wars. I imagine I'll find that one in the book when I get around to it.

A friend recently pointed me to a counterargument presented in a TEDx talk by Jonas Gahr Store, the Norwegian foreign minister, which you can view here.  (Thanks Scott).  Store focuses on a shorter time frame - just since 1946 - and he s argues that violence hasn't really declined overall: the increase in intrastate violence has grown faster than the decline in interstate violence.

I'm really looking forward to reading Pinker's book, to understand more clearly his proposition and the his evidence to support it, and to compare it with Store's point of view.

Also in this batch was Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain.  Shermer is another TED speaker that I enjoyed.  He characterizes himself as a professional skeptic and is the founder of Skeptic Magazine.  His 2006 TED talk was hilarious as he mocked various outrageous beliefs held my many people.  He did a reprise in 2010, unveiling more hoaxes and gimmicks, but also argued that we have a belief engine in our brains which makes us want to believe. The Believing Brain explores further why we believe the weird things we do.  On his web site, Shermer describes the books as "a comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished."  Again, I'm looking forward to reading this book.  Maybe it will explain to this puzzled Canadian why so many Americans believe in creationism over evolution!

The last book in the mailing was The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  This illustrated collection of fairy tales was printed in time for the 200th anniversary of the Brothers Grimm's tales.  A quick glance through the book revealed some tales that I was not familiar with. This should be an eminently skimmable book!

For those interested, there are several other posts about TED Book Club Selections:

Also there are a few reviews of books from the book club:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Defining Innovation

I've just finished teaching a course called Managing Innovation at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto.  It's a second year MBA course and I always start the course with a discussion of the real meaning of Innovation.  Most students arrive at the class with a pretty narrow definition of innovation - and for most it centres on technological invention.

My definition is much broader than that and we had an extended discussion about our different views of innovation.  Perhaps it has something to do with me being the professor, but we ended converging on my favourite definition, namely.

I like this definition for several reasons.  I like the use of the word value.  Value doesn't just relate to profit.  The value can arise from cost reduction, or social value, or even a new way of thinking about the world.  So the definition holds for corporations, governments, or non-profits.  If we're going to solve the world's social problems, we're going to need a lot of innovation, so it's important that our thinking about innovation extends to social situations, not just profit-seeking enterprises.

The definition requires you to have more than just a great idea; you have to implement something to create value.  I like that concept of creating value.  An invention alone might not create value, and that's why I would argue an invention is not by itself enough to qualify as an innovation.

I like the use of the word fresh instead of new.  Taking an idea that's been used in one area and applying it to another fits in my definition of innovation.  Fresh captures that idea of taking an idea from one arena to another; I would classify that as innovation too.

This year, we had a particularly spirited discussion about value, and whether something had to have significant and immediate impact to qualify as an innovation.  We concluded that something had to have a measurable impact in order to be considered to deliver value.  It was an thought-provoking discussion.  You always learn from students!