Elon Musk speaks with Chris Anderson at TED2013 – The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered, Long Beach, California, February 25 – March 1, 2013. (Photo Credit: James Duncan Davidson/TED)
Politics reporter

In 2017, it would be impossible to bring the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators together to discuss bold ideas for the future without addressing the political phenomenons of Donald Trump, Brexit and now, France’s Marine Le Pen.

So at the TED2017 conference in Vancouver this week they won’t try to avoid the topic, but rather aim to show that there’s a way forward for humanity that is outside the political vitriol and discord that frames so much of public debate.

“We won’t escape politics altogether in the week ahead nor should we, but I hope to frame it in a more compelling way,” Chris Anderson, TED owner, told reporters on a conference call, “and also come back to the fact that with so much focus on politics we’re in danger of forgetting that so much of what really changes the future happens outside politics, it’s happens inside the minds of dreamers. Politicians come and go, but ideas are forever.”

It’s been more than a decade since Anderson decided to gauge interest in the once-exclusive lecture series by uploading six talks online in the early days of YouTube and viral videos. The Internet absolutely devoured them. Now thought leaders in their fields can have their research and ideas seen by millions, a reach most of them could never have dreamed of before TED.

While TED is now accessible to all online, the organization still holds its annual event, an elite gathering of academics, scientists, inventors, social entrepreneurs, artists as well as several marquee names, who this year include businessman Elon Musk and tennis star Serena Williams. The week-long event is a veritable smorgasbord of self improvement, innovation and social solutions designed to educate, inspire and entertain.  A description of the event promises an exploration of “the most pressing questions of our time.”

Traditionally, the TED organization has wanted its speakers to avoid taking overt political positions. But these days it seems every topic is tinged with politics. Even having Musk speak has political undertones — he’s been criticized by the left for accepting and staying on the Trump White House’s business advisory council.

There will be talks by climate scientists and public health experts and refugee advocates; each whose work is directly affected by the divisive politics of today. Current events will be a part of the conversation, though not in the way we’ve grown accustomed to hearing politics and policy discussed in social media echo chambers and in cable news shouting matches.

“What you’ll hear is not that people are hashing it out over history and their different views of what has happened in the past, they are dreaming of the future, they are tapping in to what our species is uniquely able to do — which is to reimagine the world and then act with intent towards it, to create that world,” Anderson said. “When you do that, it lets go of so much of the angst of what troubles people, because if you look at what could be if we were to do x, y, z, people start to get excited and the world moves from a zero-sum … to boy, we could both be in a more exciting world if we did this together.”

What has always set TED apart from other public speeches is its ability to engage the audience on almost any topic. Devin Marks, who coaches TED speakers in Boston, said it’s all in how little distractions there are on stage. It’s usually just the speaker and the audience, creating an authentic sense of intimacy. And the listeners remain enthralled because major points are woven around narratives in 18 minutes or less. “It’s 80 percent story and 20 percent logic and data, and what they’ve found is people begin to physically lean in to the story,” Marks said.

This is another reason why the conference can’t just ignore the serious concerns and fears that are on people’s minds related to politics. It would be hard to create that genuine sense of connection without acknowledging what issues weigh on the audience.

But in Anderson’s view, it’s the type of idea sharing found at TED that can be the ultimate bridge builder.

“We double down on it, ideas have never mattered more,” he said. “Ideas change how people act, it changes their long-term perspective. If people have stopped listening to each other, there’s a very dangerous situation. I think it’s really important to get back on the table reasoned discourse and to let people understand how powerful and inspiring ideas can be. If the world operates on the basis of disputes about the past, we’re in trouble; if it operates about ideas for the future, then there is hope and that’s the conversation we’re hoping to have.”

The Washington Post is in Vancouver this week for the TED conference, and will be sharing insights, ideas and interviews with speakers here on Inspired Life. 

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