Brave ideas win: what I've learned from 10 years at TED

Harbour's Kevin Chesters reflects on a decade of attending TED and shares highlights from this year's conference.

This year was my 10th year of attending TED. Back in 2009, it was already quite famous, but nothing like it is now, with nearly 3,000 free talks available on in 100 languages and with more than one billion views. There are now 10 TEDx events worldwide every day.

So has attending TED for a decade made me a better person? Probably. Has it made me a better strategist? Definitely. It has taught me, for starters, the power of casting your net as wide as possible for inspiration: learning from specialists.

The main thing it has taught me for work (and life) is that it is always better to be a problem-solver than a problem-spotter. Cynicism and pessimism are easy cop-outs. The best thing that TED has going for it is still that the overwhelming spirit is "yes, we can" rather than "OMG". And I think that’s how you improve things, from our own industry to the world: get involved and try to change things for the better. 

The biggest change in those 10 years? It must be that, out of the three letters of the name, the "T" part, technology, has developed and proliferated in ways we could never have imagined. If you’d said to me in 2009 that Facebook/Twitter would be seriously discussed at TED 2019 as the single biggest threat to democracy and the future of the world, I would have laughed at you. 

So, what were the 10 best TED talks from this year?

Andrew Marantz 

A recurring theme of TED 2019 was the unintended consequences of the rise of social media and the inherent danger in a business model that rewards "attention". Marantz studied the worst of internet trolling for three years, finding patterns revealing high IQ and low EQ. We can no longer ignore the normalising/mainstreaming of hate speech. He has some useful advice on how to combat it – starting with "making decency cool again".

Matthew Walker

A sleep scientist talked us through the (literally) life-saving science of sleep. Whether it is your brain, body or DNA, it turns out sleep is the best way to make it, and keep it, healthy. As Walker said: "Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a non-negotiable biological necessity. A life support system." A slightly ironic (and worrying) message to hear with jetlag after two hours' kip.

Peter Beck

I love these glimpses of the future. Beck's company is all about democratising space travel from its base in New Zealand. It makes 3D-printed reusable space vehicles that can be used every 24 hours, with a licence to launch every 72 hours for the next 30 years. The key to frequent, affordable space travel is reusable vehicles. The company might have cracked it. 

Rahul Mehrotra 

Incredibly thought-provokingly counter-intuitive, based on the creation of an ephemeral "city" for seven million people (100 million visitors) created annually – for 10 days – for a festival in India. Mehrotra's central thesis was that, with climate change and societal shifts, perhaps we should be designing temporary solutions to permanent problems, rather than the other way around. 

Carole Cadwalladr 

The Pulitzer-nominated journalist gave the headline-grabbing talk of 2019 with her revelations on the Cambridge Analytica scandal surrounding the Brexit referendum. It was a wake-up call and a serious public challenge to the technology platforms to get better. Cadwalladr accused them of being the "handmaids to authoritarianism". It’s already up at, so worth watching today.

Yeonmi Park

A pin-drop, eye-opening, heart-breaking talk from a North Korean escapee about the reality of the North Korean regime. And a warning not to take anything for granted. As Park said, her country was turned into a real-life Nineteen Eighty-Four after three generations: "Freedom is fragile."

Jon Gray 

Definitely the coolest chef around and, hands down, the coolest man probably ever to speak at TED, Gray comes from the Bronx and escaped a bad start to set up Ghetto Gastro. It takes the culture and flavours from his neighbourhood and fuses them with world cookery – think caviar and cornbread. A serious message delivered with brilliant humour. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Another quasi-kicking for the tech platforms. The Batman actor talked about the difference in happiness between getting attention and paying attention. The former is what Facebook/Twitter/Instagram are designed for, but happiness comes from the latter. We gain true fulfilment when we lose ourselves in what we love.

Arnav Kapur

This was one of those "tech" moments that happens at this conference where science fiction suddenly becomes science fact. It's a piece of software that converts your thoughts into words via a patch worn on the skin. You think the words, it speaks them. Think Stephen Hawking’s voice box, but operated by your thoughts. Wow, right? 

Rob Reid 

Some talks you watch just scare the living daylights out of you. This one was about how the democratisation of technology might just lead to one of those US-style mass shootings turning into a mass extermination. It's a terrifying whirlwind trip through synthetic biology (engineered bird flu) and "apocalyptic dynamics". The good news is that we can keep an eye on it: "It’s productive to freak out. Fear is fuel."

It was another amazing year of having my brain blown. The world is in a scary place right now, but there are also a bunch of brilliant, inspirational, talented people working on ways to make it less so.

Here is what I take away from another year at TED: big ideas win. Brave ideas win. Marginal gains are bullshit. When we work together to solve issues, they always get solved quicker. Our industry could learn a great deal from the combination of optimism and collaboration that TED teaches. We’re in this together.

I’m going to take a break from TED next year. I’ve set myself a mission to find another conference that’s currently where this thing was a decade ago. It’s always good to look for the new and next; it’s kind of what TED is all about, after all.

Kevin Chesters is strategy partner at Harbour

Photo credit: TED

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