“THE DUMBEST PERSON IN THE ROOM”
RICHARD SAUL WURMAN is the mastermind behind TED conferences – but don’t remind him of that.
Mr. Wurman, a lot of visionary ideas that shape our lives today were first introduced and discussed at your TED conferences. Even the first event back in 1984 was legendary. Do you remember?
I don't actually like talking about my past.
Would you make an exception for us, please?
Alright. At the first conference, the President of Sony USA came and distributed little discs that looked like round mirrors. Those were the first CDS – but nobody knew what to do with them or even had a player. Then Nicholas Negroponte announced the founding of the MIT Media Lab [editor’s note: now one of the world’s leading interdisciplinary institutes in technology and media]. Benoît Mandelbrot talked about fractal geometry – but nobody understood it, so his assistant had to come on stage and explain it. Steve Jobs first presented the Macintosh computer at the conference, and Lucasfilm presented 3D graphics, which later became Pixar [editor’s note: a film animation studio that has won 12 Academy Awards so far]. And things continued in a similar vein.
You’ve recognized countless trends early on and invited the relevant personalities. How do you do it?
I have the gift of recognizing patterns and predicting what will become of them a few years down the road. But for me it was never just about finding something better than what's already out there. Tesla wouldn't be my cup of tea: It's a very well-made car with an electric motor, but it's not a revolutionary idea. Even self-driving cars aren't really much more than horses with wheels strapped on.
What is revolutionary enough for you?
Google, for example – that was also announced at a TED conference. I once did a “Geeks & Geezers” event. Only those under 30 or over 70 were allowed on stage. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were in the geeks category, and they presented Google. Incidentally, the two of them also met John Hanke at my conference. Google subsequently bought his company and developed Google Earth from it. Another guy named James Gosling also spoke at this conference and introduced his new programming language. It was called Oak, and later became Java [editor’s note: one of the most important programming languages].
We’re getting off track – what distinguishes true innovation?
In my opinion, there are five ways of doing something new. I call it the “ANOSE” model, named after the nose that people scratch when they're searching for an idea.
A stands for …?
… Addition. The iphone is a classic example of this. Apple didn't invent anything new, but found an innovative way of putting existing things together. They combine 100 or even 200 technologies in a single device.
N is …?
… a need. Innovation often originates where people need something.
… stands for opposite. Niels Bohr, the famous Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner, engaged in legendary disputes with Einstein. He once said: “The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Many great things have come from this attitude. When people discovered the first “black smokers” [editor’s note: hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor] in the Pacific, people were astonished at how much life was there. Entirely without sunlight! That fundamentally changed biologists' understanding of life.
What does S stand for?
… subtraction. My TED conferences were innovation through limitation: no long introductions, no long presentations, no dress codes, no speaker's podium, no required speeches. And most importantly, no silo thinking, just a broad range of interdisciplinary topics. I chose the topics that interested me. Technology, entertainment and design, these are the initials that make up TED. It was intellectual jazz.
How did you know that 18 minutes was the right length for a speech?
I didn't know – and some guests spoke for longer than that. If there aren't any scientific studies on the topic, then you just decide. But if someone was really boring, I just pulled the speaker off the stage.
E is left. That stands for...?
... epiphany, a revelation.
Was the TED conference the best idea you ever had?
Oh my God, absolutely not. We're just talking about it because you're asking me about it. I'm only interested in what my next idea is. I always hope that it will be the best one. As soon as I've done something, I get bored with it and look for the next thing.
That’s why you sold TED in 2002?
My goal was to make the conference better each time, and after 18 years and 12 events, it was simply enough. Look, I've written around 90 books in my life, but I don't have a single copy of most of them on my bookshelf. I don't believe in legacies. I don't do any advertising,
no PR, no one books appearances for me, I don't even have a publisher.
You studied architecture and graphic design. What are you truly best at?
Our world operates on the idea that people are very interested in one area and immerse themselves in it – most people's repertoire is small, but deep. I, by contrast, am an ignoramus without any expertise, but my repertoire is unlimited. I'm usually the dumbest person in the room. That has the advantage of making me the one who learns the most. That was also the idea behind TED. It was great for the audience, but it was actually just about me.
You chose everything on your own?
Exactly – there was no selection committee. The speakers were the dinner guests that I always wanted to invite, but I couldn't host them at my house.
Do you watch the current TEDS that are available online to all?
No, never. My past doesn't interest me. I've written 30 travel guides and a book about the 1984 Olympic Games that sold 3.3 million copies. But none of that matters to me!
What does success mean to you?
I live very well. Having money makes life pleasant. But I haven't been interested in accumulating more of it for some time now. That takes too much time that I would rather use for other things.
You’ve never posted a single tweet in your life. Why not?
Why should I do that? I have a Facebook account, but someone in my office manages it for me. I look at other people's profiles occasionally and leave a comment sometimes, but it all takes too much time. I'm not on Instagram or Twitter.
But social media is revolutionary!
It will be around for a while, then it will suddenly vanish. When I go to a nice restaurant and see all the guests glued to their smartphones, I think it's more of a catastrophe.
On a final note: Can you give us a hint about your next project?
It's called Aisle, and it's about that empty space between spouses or parties in a parliament. I only want to ask questions in the project, not give any answers. It's about the major topics such as health, wealth, education and environment. I'm still scared stiff about how I should manage it.
But you have so much experience with these kinds of projects!
At the risk of repeating myself: I don't like experience. If I knew how something was going to go, I wouldn't do it.
Richard Saul Wurman, 83, is an American architect and graphic designer. He has founded a variety of conferences, including the TED series, one of the world's most important technology symposiums. In addition, he has written around 90 books. Wurman has received a wide range of awards and honorary doctorates. He lives with his wife in Florida in a huge 19th century French-style chateau. The couple has four children.