A (Very Subjective) Guide to TED 2016
Attending the TED conference always feels like an exhilarating privilege. It feels like going back to a great liberal arts university, if only for a few days. Thankfully the conference shares most of the talks through videos published in the weeks and months that follow the live conference. Each year, I collect my notes and share them, hoping that I can in some small way help some of these ideas spread a bit further. This year, there were so many talks worthy of attention that I’ve created a short list of what I think are the “must-watch” talks, as well as an additional list of more great talks, depending on your appetite.
It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list of the talks shared at the conference. I’ve shared the ones that resonated the most with me personally, whether it’s because the subject matter was new and fascinating, the topic was timely, the delivery was stellar, or in some cases all three.
In looking at the talks that I have shared, I see themes of the environment, race in America, the refugee crisis, gun control, combating bias against Muslims, and the power that design and technology have to change the world. There are always a few talks about subjects new to me, like astrophysics and genetics, which capture my imagination. And lastly, there is great music and art, which always feeds my soul.
In each case, I’ve provided a short summary of why I loved the talk, a link to the video if it’s been published — many have not yet been shared — and any supplementary materials I could find about the speaker and his/her work. I’ve also included a links to some of the wonderful music acts at the end. I hope you enjoy my subjective guide.
Talks you can (and should!) watch right now….
Adam Foss — Prosecutor
One of my favorite talks of the conference. When we examine the broken US criminal justice system, we focus mostly on the role of the police, defense attorneys, and judges, but this ignores the extraordinary power of the prosecutor. Foss is part of a team in Boston that looks to focus on positive long term outcomes and not short term “tough on crime” stats which send the many, often poor people of color, down a spiral from which they cannot escape. Ross believes he’s kept more people out of jail by becoming a prosecutor than if he had become a public defender. If you are concerned about the state of our criminal justice system, this talk is a must-watch.
“I didn’t see a criminal. I saw a young person in need of intervention.”
“When we talk about criminal justice reform, we complain about three things: police, sentence laws, prison. We rarely, if ever, talk about the prosecutor.”
His Twitter: https://twitter.com/adamjohnfoss
Al Gore — Climate Advocate
An important talk filled with tough messages about our future as a planet and human race. Gore begins with an unexpected dose of humor, walks us through the reality of were we are, and ends by providing hope-inducing data that we can still turn things around, if we have the will to change.
“The sky is the open sewer for our civilization.”
“Every night on the TV news now is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.”
“The environmental crisis is the #1 threat to the global economy.”
Microburst video in Tuscon featured in Gore’s talk
Alexander Betts — Refugee Scholar
One of the most timely and important talks of the conference. Betts provides a sobering view of the humanitarian cost of not dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, and ample evidence of how these refugees can productivity contribute to their host communities.
“There’s nothing inevitable about refugees being a cost. They are human beings with skill, aspirations, talents and the ability to make contributions if we let them.”
“Our response, frankly, has been pathetic.”
His paper: Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions
Casey Gerald — American dreamer, social entrepreneur
A sobering talk about the inequities of our society and the importance of questioning the things we hold dear.
Choice Quote: “In America, even the second coming of Christ has a VIP section.”
Dalia Mogahed — Muslim Studies Scholar
This painfully timely talk stopped me in my tracks. A highly articulate, poignant, and important talk about discrimination, xenophobia, and backlash against cultural groups in the wake of terrorist attacks. Remarkably, it ends on a hopeful note. truly of of my favorite talks of the conference.
“I don’t mind questions. It’s the accusations that are tough.”
“ISIS has as much to do with Islam as the Klu Klux Klan has to do with Christianity.”
More info about Mogahed and her work
Dan Gross — Gun-control activist
Gross, who serves as President for The Brady Campaign, has a goal of cutting the number of gun deaths in half in the US by 2025 and to get Congress to finally take stronger action.
“If you tell a big enough lie enough times, eventually that lie becomes the truth.”
“Congress is almost always the last to wake up and realize it’s on the wrong side of history, and when they do, it’s always because the American public shakes them.”
The Brady Campaign website
Haley Van Dyck — Deputy Director of the United States Digital Design Service
A talk after my own heart! Van Dyck is the co-founder of the United States Digital Service, a new “start-up” inside the White House. She shares stories about creating positive change for America and saving significant tax dollars through good design. Hallelujah!
Choice Quote: “Government’s failure to deliver online services is disproportionally impacting the people who need it most.”
Linus Torvolds — Software Engineer
I adored this talk by the creator of the Linux operating system. He’s an extreme introvert and rarely speaks publicly, but on the TED stage he did it with humility, honestly and a bit of humor.
Choice Quote: “I’m not a visionary. I’m an engineer. I want to fix the pothole that’s right in front of me.”
Shonda Rhimes — Writer, Producer, Titan :)
One of the most powerful people in media and entertainment shares a very personal story of trying to be more present by saying “Yes”.
Choice Quote: “Work doesn’t work without play.”
Tim Urban — Blogger, Procrastination Expert
Truly one of my favorite talks of this years conference, and definitely the funniest. For all you procrastinators out there — and according to Urban, that means all of us — this is a must watch talk. It will make you laugh AND think.
“Procrastination makes people feel like spectators in our own lives.”
“It’s always been a dream of mine to have done a TED talk in the past.”
Tshering Tobgay — Prime Minister of Bhutan
Bhutan has made remarkable commitments to reducing global warming; it’s an inspiring model that hopefully other countries will follow.
Choice Quote: “My country has done nothing to contribute to global warming, but we are bearing the brunt of its effects.”
Bhutan for Life website
My other top picks, not yet published…
I’ll update these as the videos are published….
Ameera Ahmad — Fixer
Remarkable stories from a courageous woman who helps journalists cover breaking news in Gaza.
“We live in the biggest prison in the world.”
“I do it because I believe if I didn’t, a huge part of the story of Gaza would be missing.”
“When I hear the bullets and the bombs, I run towards it because these stories need to be told.”
“Don’t limit your challenge, but challenge your limit.”
Al Jazeera’s profiles of Palestinian fixers
Amit Sood — Technologist
I was blown away by the beauty and potential of the Google Art project. I’ve always been a fan of Google’s collaboration with museums around the world to provide global access to extraordinary collections of art. But I hadn’t been keeping up with the innovations in the design and overall experience of the project. Can’t wait to play around with it more myself. This was the best demo of the conference.
Choice Quote: “When we get to access [art], we’ve blown away; we fall in love.”
The Google Art Project
Brian Little — Personality Psychologist
I adored this talk because the content was fascinating and the delivery was hilariously dry-witted. He walks us through the “Big Five” personality traits, usefully acronymed as OCEAN: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism.
“We try to make sense of how each of us — each of you — is in some respects like all other people, like some other people and like no other person.”
“We need to be careful when we act protractedly out of character.”
Write-up from the Ted blog
Further info on the Big Five personality traits
Kenneth Lacovara — Paleontologist
Lacovara has unearthed some of the largest dinosaurs ever to walk the planet, including the super-massive Dreadnoughtus, which weighed more than seven T-rexes. His talk explores the Earth’s ancient past, but also its tenuous future.
“The Earth is a vast library with no librarian.”
“Why study ancient history? Because it gives us perspective and humility.”
“Unlike the dinosaurs, we can see [environmental disaster] coming.”
Lidia Yuknavitch — Author
A highly intimate, and poignant talk about one artist’s journey. I found her so compelling, authentic and unpretentious. He life has had many difficulties, and I find her story inspiring. The polar opposite of a big-ego artist, Yuknavitch is a gentle soul who brings us into her inner world. I’m excited to read her memoir, The Chronology of Water.
“I’m a card-carrying misfit.”
“Who was I to go to New York and pretend to be a writer?”
“Homeless people are some of our most heroic misfits.”
“Give voice to the story only you know how to tell.”
“[My memoir includes] the stories of how I’ve had to reinvent myself from the ruins of my choices.”
“You are so beautiful, your story deserves to be heard.”
Write-up from the Ted blog
Michael Murphy — Architect/Designer
An inspiring talk about the power that architecture have to change lives, hearts and minds through thoughtful design of spaces like schools, hospitals and clinics. He is now teaming up with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, who joined him on stage, to create a memorial to acknowledge the US’s history of racial injustice.
Choice Quotes from Murphy:
“Think of every detail as an opportunity to design with dignity.”
“Countries like Germany, South Africa and Rwanda have found it necessary to build memorials to reflect on the atrocities of their past,” Murphy says. “We have yet to do this in the United States.”
Choice Quotes from Stevenson:
“I don’t believe that slavery ended in 1865; it evolved.”
“I believe if we create spaces like this, where we resurrect the truth…we will get to something that feels more like freedom.”
The Equal Justice Initiative website
Noah Zandan — Data Scientist
One of the most useful talks of the conference. Zandan conducts quantitative analysis on communication. In studying the most effective communicators of our time, he and his team found three major themes which all leaders should internalize: speak in the present, not in the future; communicate with clear simple language; and use sensory language to help your audience truly experience the vision. One of my favorite findings, but not surprising to anyone who gets to work with her: Sheryl Sandberg communicates 85% more clearly than the average CEO :)
Choice Quote: “We all want to hear a vision, and we all want our vision to be heard.”
Rhiannon Giddens- Musician
I was transfixed by Giddens; for me, she was the musical highlight of the conference. A masterful vocalist and musician, she uses her art to explore the often painful history of America.
Choice quote: “Knowing your history is important as a musician, it’s important as a people.”
Rhiannon Giddens on Spotify
Her performance of “Julie”
Founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops
Riccardo Sabatini — Scientist, Entrepreneur
I think this was one of the most well-structured talks of the conference; Sabatini is a great story teller, and he makes the fascinating but sometimes opaque world of genetics come to life in a surprising and dramatic way.
Choice Quote: “The human genome prints to 262K pages, only 500 of which are unique.”
Sarah Parcak — Space Archeologist, TED Prize Winner
This year’s TED Prize winner combines the fields of archeology and satellite imaging to protect our human history. The rate of looting and destruction by terrorist organizations and those just looking to cash in is alarming. Parcak is looking to harness crowdsourcing to find hidden treasures before the bad guys find them.
“We’ve been posting on walls and obsessing about cats for thousands of years.”
“These symbols endure because when we look at them, we are looking at mirrors.”
Write-up from the Ted blog
Info about participating in the TED Prize efforts
Check out her talk on space archeology from TED 2012
Extended dance remix…
For those with more time on their hands, here are some more of my favorites from TED 2016…
Allan Adams — Theoretical Physicist
Wondering what all the hubbub was a few months back about the discover of something called gravitational waves? Adams explains it in ways that non-experts can understand, and with so much joy that you can’t help but get excited about it, too :)
Choice Quote: “Listening to changes in amplitude and frequency of those waves, we can hear the story. We can literally hear the universe speaking to us.”
If you like this talk, check out Adams’s talk from TED 2014 on the discovery of data that supports the theory of an inflationary universe, a critical clue to the Big Bang
Angélica Dass — Artist
Artist Angélica Dass spoke about her project “Humanae”; it’s a beautiful way to visualize how diverse we are as a human race.
Choice Quote: “What does it mean for us to be white, black, red or yellow?”
Joe Gebbia — Co-founder of Airbnb
A good overview of the importance of trust in design; the story of the founding of Airbnb is also fun to hear.
His Twitter: https://twitter.com/jgebbia
Parag Khanna — Global Strategist
Khanna shares beautiful and compelling visualizations of connections between cities to show that they are becoming more relevant than country borders. An inspiring talk about the potential for a new kind of global community.
“Cities are learning from each other.”
“North America doesn’t need more walls. It needs more connections.”
His website: http://www.paragkhanna.com/
Raffaello D’Andrea — Autonomous Systems Pioneer
D’Andrea demoed remarkable — and remarkably beautiful — drone technology. It was one of those moments when you realize, “This is what the future will be like.” When he shows a whole flock of drones in a kind of choreographed dance, I can only describe it as the merging of ballet and technology. Not sure it is as mesmerizing through video as it was in person, but wroth watching nonetheless.
Choice Quote: “Technology is a tool; it’s how we use it that matters.”
Tabetha Boyajian — Astronomer
Boyajian has discovered a mystery in space which cannot yet be explained. Is it a new phenomenon? Or an alien technology? It takes guts for a serious scientist to publicly entertain the latter option. Maybe we aren’t alone in the universe after all…
Choice Quote: “We’re in a situation that could unfold to be a natural phenomenon we don’t understand or an alien technology we don’t understand.”
Write-up from the Ted blog: http://blog.ted.com/extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence-tabetha-boyajian-at-ted2016/
The Atlantic’s write-up of the mystery star: http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/10/the-most-interesting-star-in-our-galaxy/410023/
Travis Kalanick — CEO of Uber
While Kalanick didn’t have a particularly polished delivery, I thought his historical view on ride-sharing put the Uber phenomenon in a new and interesting light.
Choice Quotes: “With the technology in our pockets, we can turn every car into a shared car and reclaim our cities today.”
His Twitter: https://twitter.com/travisk?lang=en
Not yet published:
Cédric Villani — Mathematician
Surely the most eccentric presenter at this year’s conference. I found his joy of math to be infectious and his over-the-top Frenchness to be completely charming!
Choice Quote: “Math is about replacing a beautiful coincidence with a beautiful explanation.”
Chris Milk — Immersive Storyteller
Milk’s explorations into VR working with the UN to break down the walls created by distance and misunderstanding. Everyone in the audience was given a Google Cardboard VR device and experienced the live demo simultaneously.
“VR is going to be the last medium.”
“I thought if I could involve you, the audience, more, I could make you feel more.”
His talk on VR from TED 2015
Dan Pallotta — Activist, Philanthropist
Pallotta shares his dream of an epoch in which we are as excited, curious and scientific about the development of our humanity as we are the development of our technology.
“We need more of the courage of drag queens and astronauts.”
“Human. Kind. Be both.”
His talk from TED 2013 about reforming charity financing
Holly Cohen — Occupational Therapist, Co-Founder of DIYAbility
An expert in assistive technology, Cohen’s organization encourages kids and their families to tweak toys, video games and other tech to help kids engage in their world and to have fun doing it. An inspiring look at the difference truly human-centered design can make to under-served populations.
Choice Quote: “We build for what someone can do, not for what they can’t do.”
Hugh Evans — Anti-Poverty Activist
Evan’s experiences traveling in the Philippines as a teenager had a profound effect on him, inspiring him to create a non-profit that helps people take action to end poverty.
“A global citizen is someone who doesn’t relate first as a member of a tribe, state, or race, but as a member of the human race.”
“It’s not that people don’t want to act, it’s that they don’t know how to take action or think it will take no effect.”
More info about Evans and his work
John Legend — Musician, Activist
Legend performed amazing, stripped down versions of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” He came to TED to talk about his organization Free America which looks to address mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, police violence, and other issues facing our nation. He also spoke about The Last Mile, a program that among other things is teaching prisoners to code in the hopes of giving them viable future after they serve their time.
Free America website
More info on The Last Mile program
John McWhorter — Linguist
The reasons it’s still important and valuable to learn a second language.
Check out his TED 2013 talk on how txtng is influencing language
Joseph Ravenell — Physician, Men’s Health Advocate
Ravenell tells the story of how he discovered the best place to reach the black community about critical health care issues; right at their corner barber shop. A great example of how community-based solutions often are the most effective.
Choice Quote: “[The barber shop is] a place where we don’t feel threatened — or threatening.”
Write-up from the Ted blog
The Men’s Health Initiative website
Linsey Pollak — Musician, Instrument Builder
A fun little talk about finding joy in the everyday, in this case by making music with food. After a week of heavy talks, Pollack’s demos of his homemade instruments was a breath of fresh air!
Choice Quote: “Let’s use a little bit of childlike curiosity.”
Mary Norris — Copy editor of the New Yorker
The long-time copy-editor of the New Yorker is exactly who you’d expect and want her to be; whip-smart, sassy, and the grammar hound to end all grammar hounds. A fun talk for anyone who loves — and obsesses — about the proper use of English.
Choice Quote: “I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to be invisible.”
Norman Lear — Television and Film Icon
Lear’s resume is hard to wrap your head around. His television credits include the creation of All in the Family (four Emmy Awards for Best Comedy series as well as the Peabody Award in 1977 as well as Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, to say nothing of Square Pegs, a critical show of my adolescence :) At one point, he created 7 of the 10 top-rated shows on air at the time. In this on-stage conversation, he drops the kind of knowledge that only a 93-year-old ground-breaking innovator can.
Choice quote: “I’m the peer of whoever I am talking to.”
Fun fact: Oldest male TED speaker of all time, but not the oldest overall; that title belongs to Eva Zeisel who spoke at age 95 in 2001; go Eva!
R. Luke DuBois — Artist, Composer
Dubois is a conceptual artist who combines data with art to help use see things differently. His projects have included using US census data to “see” cities in new ways, a live museum installation involving a gun that fires every time a shooting occurs, and more.
“Music is an algorithm designed to make us feel.”
“You call this data visualization…when you do it right, it’s illuminating. When you do it wrong, it’s anesthetizing.”
Stephen Wilkes — Narrative Photographer
If you are interested in photography and storytelling, Wilkes’s work will be of interest. He has developed a technique which captures the events of a whole day in a single image, and the results are thought-provoking and beautiful.
Choice Quote: “I am a relentless collector of magical moments.”
Wanda Diaz Merced — Sonic Astrophysicist
A great example of how sometimes set-backs — in this case, a physical disability — can drive those with perseverance and passion towards major breakthroughs. Merced lost her sight and instead of giving up her dream of exploring the stars, she learned to navigate them through sound. In the process, she discovering new insights that her sighted colleagues had missed. Inspiring.
Choice Quote: “I dream of a level scientific playing field.”
NASA article about Merced
The TED agenda always features a wide array of musical performances. Here are the ones which immediate made it into my Spotify rotation, in addition to Rhiannon Giddens (see above):