In many ways, we are living through a golden age of ideas. Conferences such as TED have multiplied at a dizzying speed around the world, giving innovators the opportunity to spread their world-changing ideas to audiences of millions rather than hundreds. These conferences are creating a new way for academic rock stars to bring ideas from the research lab into the public spotlight, while simultaneously cross-pollinating other disciplines with their ideas. And it’s not just TED — there’s now a veritable cottage industry of innovation events and "ideas festivals" that promise to bring together the foremost innovators in the world to discuss world-changing ideas.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that, with every passing year, the “ideas industry” increasingly resembles the entertainment industry both in how it functions and in what types of content it produces. Just as the entertainment industry emphasizes blockbuster hits, celebrity stars, slickly produced content and formulaic plot lines, the ideas industry is also rapidly and inalterably changing to favor its own version of blockbuster hits and celebrity stars. It’s no longer enough for an innovator to have a remarkably good idea. You must now have a “platform” for that idea — books, Web sites, speaking gigs, radio shows and TV spots — as well as a way of sharing your ideas with the online crowd. In short, now that the “idea blockbuster” has eclipsed the “indie hit” as the primary way that people consume ideas, it’s changing the way we think about innovation.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. It's hard to argue with the phenomenal success of TED worldwide and the altruistic intentions of the event’s founders. But it does explain why there continues to be so much backlash against the modern “ideas festival” — as well as why there seems to be an insatiable need at the grassroots level to come up with a TED alternative or even the anti-TED.
Just think of the entertainment industry. While everyone loves the blockbuster hits produced by the big Hollywood studios, there’s also a real desire by many moviegoers to see the quirky, indie hits that never become box office successes. The same thing is true in the ideas industry, where many people prefer their ideas to be less pre-packaged and formulaic. They want ideas that can push forward the innovation debate, but are wary of solutions that seem too easy. Is it really possible that every big idea can be distilled down into a viral meme? What happens when we transform a complex idea like “educational opportunities for children in developing markets” into "the school in the cloud"?
TED may not have jumped the shark quite yet, but it did jump the dolphin this year with a fascinating talk about an "interspecies Internet" featuring — dolphins! (and Peter Gabriel! and Vint Cerf!) You also had a rockstar like Bono discussing the end of poverty in Africa. You had astonishing demos that could be transformed into animated GIFs. You had the same panoply of performers that you now see at every ideas festival, combined with new speakers giving their take on everything from the power of the crowd to the power of kindness.
In the innovation world, though, it’s still possible to consume the equivalent of “The Beasts of the Southern Wild” rather than the next superheroes blockbuster. There are still innovators without global ideas platforms who are the equivalent of all the quirky independent filmmakers making their own films without big-budget Hollywood bucks and without massive marketing budgets. They may not get the millions of video views of the idea blockbusters, but they get the attention of people who read the academic journals. That’s what happens, for example, when the MacArthur Foundation taps unrecognized innovators each year for its “genius” awards. Last year, for example, you had a mathematician recognized for graph theory and an optical physicist recognized for advances in astronomy. In time, this work may eventually be turned into memes for millions of people on the Internet, but for now, these ideas still need time to percolate, far from the maddening crowd.
What is the fate of the modern ideas festival? Most likely, there will continue to be efforts to tweak the format and structure of the ideas festival, letting the crowd vote on who should be presenting or even turning the whole event into some kind of "un-conference." Others will continue to push for more radical change, in which there is no stage and no performers — just people talking to each other, sharing their ideas in new conversational formats. At the end of the day, it may be the case that the innovation world, just like the entertainment world, still needs both — the idea blockbusters to pull in the crowds, and the indie hits to highlight a deep commitment to solving the world’s problems.
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