Tyler Haoulette asking why at the 02013 What If…? Conference

On TED

Why we ask What If…? instead

One of my frustrations with TED & TEDx is its lack of participation and audience-presenter disconnect. To some extent this is up to the local organizers, but the whole thing is framed wrong.

I’m not to saying TED hasn’t been great, it really has. They’re gearing up for their 30th anniversary this spring. They’ve built up a grand brand, spanning from the big conference, to independent events, to books, to education ventures, to fellows, to more.

What is lacking?

Answer: the “hey, I can do that too” feeling

TED is (largely) a one way medium. Look at the TEDx events. While there is room for organizers to innovate on the TED platform, it is largely constrained to presenters* (many who speak for way too long) talking at the audience.

It is a place for experts to enlighten the rest of us. Which, in some cases is really great. I started watching TEDtalks in high school. From then, and through college, the most important things I’ve learned, I’ve learned from TEDtalks. I owe a lot to them, but could TED do more?

Brainstorming group at WI?13

While TED inspires and enlightens its audience, it is structurally limited. Take the presentations: a person on stage (literally in the light) preaching to the audience (literally in the dark). Literally, how does this make people feel included? Do you think this makes them inspired to do the work required for their own talk? I don’t.

How do you get to be a TED speaker? The normal ways anyone gets to be a speaker, either (1) become well known for something in your field, (2) get to know the curators, or (3) apply with (1) already true. But what if I am interested in a new question, something I haven’t done 20 years of research on and something most people don’t know about me? For instance, most of my acquaintances don’t know about my passion for philosophy of technology or complexity science.

Talking about a hidden passion of mine: urban design and the potential of carfree cities at WI?12

How do we get those people on stage? Maybe we can ask the question differently: How do we explore what the future TED speakers are thinking about now? Furthermore, how do you spur a community into action — to ask a question, then go and do something about it? How do you teach a group that the world is read and write?

We take a different approach: intimacy — a small stage, close to a well-lit audience.

We start by asking What If…?

You can too

Innovation starts with a question. What if things were different? What if we’ve misinterpreted our limitations? What if communities intentionally asked questions rather than passively listening to a speaker?

It is a question that allows one to explore the unknown across disciplines. Everyone has something to bare on a conversation. It requires research, yes, but it is a more open platform. Our project is framed as accessible. We help presenters research, connect, and tell their story.Our audience is really a group of off-stage-presenters, interacting, mingling, thinking a little differently, and getting their hands dirty.

If we really want to engage communities, it is important for everyone to feel valued while at the same time giving them the tools to create valuable input.We’re not just pushing content out, but inspiring everyone to be content creators.TED did so many things right, but it’s time for a new method.

There’s a difference between a showcase and a curiosity engine.


We co-create an experience that is hard to beat. Consider following us, joining us at our next conference, or better yet, ask a question.

*We use presenter loosely. Presentations can be anything from a talk, to a performance, to a film, to an anything that is eight minutes and asks a question.

Problem solver at the 02013 What If…? Conference