Connections: How They Impact Our World

by Randy Bretz

I’d like to tell you about Steve, and Ruta, and Phil, and Ana . . . four people who have become kindred spirits, fellow TEDx curators who have become friends, just four among a crowd of many TEDx curators scattered across the globe. They’re among the many I’ve met who have had an impact on my desire to share TEDx with my city and region. Their stories will paint a picture that will illustrate the value of the TEDx community, people who are part of what TED curator Chris Anderson calls the secret sauce of the impact that TED and TEDx have had around the world.

Steve Gargulio at TEDxJNJ 2015

Steve and I met in 2012 when we were attending TEDActive in California. During that week we walked together on a field trip to explore the California desert, we sat together and shared meals, we talked throughout the week about TEDx related topics and as a result we’ve established a friendship that has impacted both of us. Steve works with Johnson & Johnson, an international company providing health and personal products. I attended TEDx JNJ in 2015 and Steve attended TEDxLincoln later that year.

On the left is Ruta, Curator of TEDxVilnius

Then there’s Ruta. I first met her on the TEDxHub when she was named coordinator of s special TEDx project. Then we Skyped, became friends on Facebook and exchanged a number of emails. Ruta is curator of TEDxVilnius in Lithuania which she coordinates long distance from New York while she’s attending graduate school. We still haven’t met in person, but we share a love for TEDx, we connect as I interact with her when she posts about her classes and we Skype now and then.

And Phil, Curator of TEDxRanier in the Seattle, Washington area. We met briefly in California in 2012, and again that fall in Boston for TEDxBeaconStreet. We’ve been on dozens of hangouts together in groups and sometimes just the two of us. I consider Phil a friend, even though we have only connected a couple of times in person. Our relationship is primarily online.

That’s Ana holding the X

Finally, there’s Ana. She’s down in Brazil in South America. We’ve never met personally but our online connections have woven a web of friendship that has drawn us together. I’ve celebrated with Ana as she produced TEDxLaçador, an event on a farm in Brazil and I comforted her when her mother died earlier this year. Our friendship has been developed on the TEDxHub, on TEDx Hangouts, through Facebook and often online drop-in visits just to say hi.

There are others. Ellen Cheng in Beijing; Ana Romero in Lima, Peru; Kat Haber in Alaska, Sara Harkins in Australia (well she’s moved to Bangladesh), Konstantina in Greece, Brian Doyle and Amanda Ellis in the TEDx office just to name a few.

So, why am I talking about the friends I’ve made through my work with TEDx? It’s to illustrate what I see is a shift in the way we connect, a shift in my world view, a shift in where I place my devotion. Let me explain.

I’ll begin nearly 400 years ago, with a series of events that shaped the way people connected, the way they viewed the world and the way they placed their devotion. In the 1600’s after people mostly in what we now call Europe had been battling one another time after time for many years, delegates gathered in what we now call Germany and as a result of what some called a peace treaty, they agreed on what we now call borders . . . they defined the geography of Europe, they agreed on a way to interact with one another and they established a number of co-existing sovereign states. This was called the Westphalian Sovereignty and it impacted how people in the world interacted with one another.

Now, keep in mind that in the 1600’s, connecting with fellow citizens was primarily limited to a very closely defined geographic area, a person’s world view was confined by their ability to travel because travel and trade was by foot or pack animal or river boat, and an individual’s devotion was primarily dedicated to the community in which they lived and the surrounding area.

Or, to look at it in a different way, a person’s sense of community and shared identity was closely defined by the place where they were born, grew up and lived . . . usually a relatively small geographic area. This intimate relationship between identity and borders defined our world including our political structure, our grasp of the arts (some may say the humanities) and our understanding of one another or what we may call the social sciences. For centuries this border or geography orientation has been the primary lens through which we view the world.

Zoom forward to today and we see a more mobile, connected and fluid world. We’re no longer confined to a relatively small piece of geography and our focus is more on our identity with one or more groups which may be scattered across the globe. Academics call this the identity / borders nexus. True, our place of birth may still hold an important place in our heart, the place where we live may still receive significant devotion, but our overall identity, our overall community is more and more defined by things and ideas other than geography.

So, we’ve talked about geography or borders, a way we divide ourselves, how we identify ourselves, how we organize ourselves. Keep that in mind, it’s a way we divide our world.

Here in the USA we’re divided into 50 states, and each state has its own government and way of doing things. It’s a way we divide ourselves. Yet, as a citizen of Nebraska, one of the 50 states, I can travel to any other state easily, crossing borders, driving on highways or flying with ease. If I had a business, I could put my products on a truck and take them anywhere in the USA and sell them, no questions asked.

Why is that? Because even thought we have divided the USA into individual states, we’re connected . . . connected in many ways. We have rivers that run through multiple states, we have a highway system that criss-crosses the United States, we have railroads that connect our country and of course we have airplanes that connect airports throughout the United States. From the beginning, we made it easy to transport products and people without requiring visas, special permits or government review. Not only is it easy to move people and goods throughout the United States, but it’s easy to communicate, and it’s gotten far easier and less expensive. Any time night or day, I can call anyone in the United States using my mobile phone at no extra charge. And, now with high speed Internet in nearly very location across the country, I can easily exchange emails, files and even conduct Skype or other types of video meetings.

We live in a connected world.

While the borders of our states have divided us in a geographical sense, our connections for transportation including highways and railroads, our connections for communication including the telephone and internet, our connections as people who know one another across the USA have given us a different way of organizing.

Not long ago I came across a book, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna. In his book, Khanna makes several points that I feel relate to us as TEDx curators. First, he notes that connectivity has replaced division as the new paradigm of global organizing. Think about that for a moment. We’re organized around the concept of sharing ideas at TEDx events rather than being divided into people from Sri Lanka, from India, from China, Nepal or wherever.

Second, Khanna points out that “devolution” is the most powerful political force of our age. That’s devolution not evolution. While we may still identify as being from a state, province or country, it’s more important to think of the financial and political interactions that cross the geographic borders we’ve established. The best example I can give is in the Northeastern United States where we have a huge economic gathering of metropolitan areas stretching from New Jersey, through Eastern New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and up into New Hampshire and Maine. It includes New York City, Providence, Boston and a host of other cities.

A third point Khanna points out is the nature of geopolitical competition. We don’t argue and fight over territory, rather our challenges are more related to connectivity. Pipelines, highways, railroads and even online connectivity is considered more valuable than a piece of ground.

So, I’ve noted three points that Khanna makes, connecting to a concept or an idea is becoming more important to us than where we live, the economics and political interactions are more important to us than a border on the map and we value our connections more than our geography. Our world has evolved from vertically integrated empires to horizontally connected functioning regions or groups. Those of us who are involved with TEDx have a community, we value our connections, we’re horizontally connected.

To help illustrate these points, let me ask how many of you live outside your country of origin. Just 50 years ago the number of people living outside their country of origin was an estimated 73 million. Today, the number of expatriates is 300 million.

Let’s look at connectivity in another way. In the past, strategic importance has been measured by geographic size and military power of a country. A large country like Russia with a large military was seen as very powerful in the world. But, today importance is being measured by connectivity and the connecting reach we have. The TEDx organization has a significant impact on our world, yet TEDx has no geography to claim and we certainly don’t have military power. Instead, TEDx has a widely scattered group of people who are connected to the concept of sharing ideas as a way to make our world better. So, the importance of TEDx illustrates a new way of looking at world order . . . and TEDx is just one of many connected organizations.

As TEDx organizers, we’re devoted to sharing ideas, some of us are as devoted to this concept as we are the place where we were born or where we live at the moment. Our connection to one another around this concept is aided by our capability to connect online. My friends that I described are an illustration of the value of our connection. Our online connection through the Internet has grown significantly in recent years. One indication of that is that cross-border internet traffic has grown 20 fold since the turn of the century. We all have friends on Facebook who live in other countries. In fact, the number of international friends people have on Facebook has more than doubled since 2011.

I want to conclude my comments by considering what our connected world offers. Just a couple of years ago, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms published an article titled “Understanding New Power” in the Harvard Business Review. The best way to help you understand this new power is to discuss the values of old power versus the values of new power.

Concepts from “Understanding New Power” in the Harvard Business Review

Old power was represented by representative governance, institutions, and management. New power is informal, self organizing, networked governance.

Old power had authority, exclusivity, resource consolidation. New power is focused on collaboration, crowd wisdom and sharing.

Old power had separation between public and private operations, keeping things confidential. New power is based on transparency.

Old power featured professionalism and specialization. New power is oriented toward doing things ourselves, on making things together.

And finally, old power was about long-term affiliation and loyalty. In the new power way of doing things, we’re more likely to have short-term affiliation and broader participation.

Let me illustrate this by discussing conferences and comparing how they have been produced under the old power paradigm and how they’re organized under new power thinking.

In the old power system, conferences were organized by institutions, they featured imported “experts” for presentations, we attended by sitting and listening and they were centralized under existing organizations.

In the new power system, conferences such as TEDx events are organized by groups of people who come together for that purpose, we feature local people who may not be considered “experts” sharing their ideas, our audiences get involved and interact, and our events are widely disbursed around the world rather than taking place in locations associated with expertise.

So, let’s return to my opening comments about the friends I’ve made around the world through my connection with TEDx. Some of us will never meet face-to-face but we’re friends and we’re committed to each other. Not too long ago, most friends had a geographic connection . . . the person living next door or across the street, people we went to school with, work related friends living in the same city. But, because of our connections to TEDx, we are part of a much different community, one that’s horizontal and based on connections rather than geography.

As TEDx curators, not only are we doing good work by providing TEDx events in your community, but we’re doing good work because we’re connected by a similar philosophy . . . one that believes in the values of good ideas and one that is driven by the desire to help one another, rather than protect our own piece of geography.