555 Conference: TED creator Richard Saul Wurman discusses his latest gathering

July 30, 2013

Author and TED conference founder Richard Saul Wurman has a new plan for a conference. It’s called the 555 Conference, and it’s slated to he held in 2014.

The conference would be held in five different cities worldwide. Each city would host a one-day gathering of five “exceptional global experts.” The gatherings would be held on five consecutive Mondays. Wurman, who plans to attend all five days, would choose three of the experts and call on the host city to provide him with a list of 10 nominees, from which he would pick two. Each of the 25 total experts would be called on to make “narrowly constructed, focused & superbly communicated, constructed predictions for the next 10 years.” The Monday conference would be followed on Tuesday by a smaller, closed gathering with the attendees and special guests. The goal, said Wurman, is to make a truly global conference.


Richard Saul Wurman (@Radical.media)

The predictions would address 11 different topic areas, including energy, space and travel, food, water, urban development, entertainment and sports, and computers, visual display and transmission. Wurman said he released the details of the conference on his Web site about a week ago, but made no formal announcement about the conference. The documentation publicly available, so far, is little more than a Web page and a two-page handout.

“I just try to struggle through scamming everybody to do something once a year — one big project,” said Wurman during a phone call Tuesday. “I’m trying to reinvent what gatherings are.”

Wurman, an architect and graphic designer, launched the Urban Observatory installation this month during the ESI International User Conference. He hosted the WWW conference in September 2012 — a series of improvised conversations over three days.

“It was the most amazing conference I ever ran … and ever went to,” he said of the gathering. That’s no minor assessment considering the massive popularity of TED, which Wurman first convened in 1984 and worked on until 2002.

A total of 180 people were in attendance at WWW, said Wurman, including world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, musician and producer Quincy Jones, recording artist Will.i.am and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry among other notable attendees. The event was hosted by ESRI President Jack Dangermond at the company’s conference center in Redlands, Calif.

“I was terrified,” said Wurman of the lead-up to the WWW Conference, “I wasn’t sure it was going to work at all. And then it worked better than I thought. So  that was a surprise. But it was scary.”

Videos of the WWW conference were made available on Fora.TV this week, but an iOS app featuring additional multimedia elements around the conversations held there will also be made available Aug. 15. These would include Pulitzer Prize-winning poet CK Williams’s hand-edited drafts as well as other more intimate materials, according to a release. The app will include 18 hours of what Wurman says is “astonishing” video of the conversations.

Now, for the 555 Conference, Wurman said he was attracted to the concept of “finding the future first” — what he sees as the tagline for the conference. Each of the 25 speakers would give roughly an hour-long, highly structured talk. They would also be given access to a leading information architect, video designer and app maker. On top of that, they would also get Wurman’s help in orchestrating their talk. Each speech, said Wurman, would ultimately be “a piece of theater.”

Audience invitations would be extended by the host city, not by Wurman or his team.

“If the city wanted to have a thousand people free, fine. If they want to have a thousand people and charge them ten thousand dollars each, fine. They can keep all of that. All I wanted was the media that came out of the conference,” he said. “I don’t care about the audience.”

But Wurman said he would want some funds from the host city to put on the event, since the city would benefit from the public relations, being cast as a city that’s “looking at innovation” and associated with the “finding the future first” tagline.

Wurman has five rules of innovation, which go by the acronym “A NOSE”: addition, need, opposite, subtraction, epiphany. The WWW conference was about subtraction — where Wurman stripped away the traditional conference structure. When asked which rule the 555 Conference abided by, Wurman said he didn’t have a good answer, but saw it as incorporating both epiphany and opposite, since it was a new idea for an event that, unlike a traditional conference, could be held regardless of the number of tickets sold.

At the end of the five weeks, all 25 speakers would be brought together in New York City for a WWW2 conference where they would be placed in pairs or groups of three and called on, as with the first WWW conference, to engage in an improvised conversation — or “intellectual jazz.” The conversation would be a critique of the predictions, and provide an opportunity to discuss what the world should do to prepare.

“I think everybody every day is going to wait for the new prediction. Because these are going to be by eminent people,” said Wurman. He hasn’t reached out to anyone yet regarding distribution, he says, but hopes to turn the conversations  into a television show, magazine articles, a book or perhaps even distribute them via a streaming video platform such as Netflix.

“This is all based in the art of the possible,” he said during the call. In other words, the specifics are subject to change.

He is collaborating with noted events producer Richard Attias, whose credentials include the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative. are Also listed as advisers are: ESRI’s Dangermond; ocean explorer Dave Gallo; physician, author and USC professor David Agus; X Prize Foundation founder and chairman Peter Diamandis; Harpervision president and founder Greg Harper; @radical.media founder Jon Kamen; and video translations and captions company Dotsub founder and chairman Michael Smolens.

Wurman said he would probably start reaching out to cities this fall.

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