“THE DUMBEST PER­SON IN THE ROOM”

RICHARD SAUL WURMAN is the master­mind be­hind TED con­fer­ences – but don’t re­mind him of that.

Bulletin - - Contents - By Si­mon Brun­ner

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.

O …?

… 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.

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