Let's try to get the TED2006 summaries finished, shall we?
Burt Rutan kicked off Session 7, entitled, "Tales of Invention." Rutan is the aerospace engineer who won the X-Prize for private space flight in 2004. The first line of his talk, "Houston, we have a problem" has become a cliché for all sorts of speakers, but Rutan meant it literally: Houston (home of the NASA space program) we have a problem (we've made no progress in human space flight for two decades.) I know people who consider space research a waste of money. "Fix the problems here," they say. I don't agree. Rutan captured the spirit of my disagreement in his talk: we are losing the ability to inspire our young people, and space exploration has always been a source of inspiration. Rutan traced three significant 20th century innovation cycles (cars, prop airplanes and jets) and showed the inspirational impact of each on future innovators, including himself. Using computers as his example, Rutan also demonstrated that despite governments spending billions of dollars, private companies, not government agencies, produce innovation. This pattern will continue in space exploration, where he sees the beginnings of a "capitalist space race." To date, approximately $1.5 billion has been invested woldwide, with successful commercial space flight becoming a reality by 2020. This is half of what NASA will spend, with an efficiency of 10-15x NASA's. Not bad. Big idea: finding ways to engage our children in our dreams is harder than we think.
The quirky, talented, Jill Sobule (accompanied by Ethel) then sang a wonderful little song called, "Like There Is No Tomorrow." Great to see Jill again.
Many of us come to TED to see the big name speakers and get wowed by someone we'd never heard of before. That happened to me again this year when Amy Smith spoke. I'd done some pre-conference "due diligence," so I knew Smith was a MacArthur fellow and, therefore, had to be a heavy hitter. But I was taken back by wonderful presentation: her unassuming demeanor and passionate description of her research was a truly winning combination. Smith began by asking a simple question: what's the number one casue of death among children worldwide? We all mumbled something, but very few of us came up with the correct answer: over 2 million children die each year due to respiratory problems caused by breathing the smoke of indoor cooking fires. Smith told of the work she and her MIT colleagues are doing in Haiti, a country that has been 98% deforested for charcoal (with grave consequences). The trick to finding a substituted is to create a fuel that cooks hot enough and lasts long enough to replace heavy carborn-producers. Early experiments with paper briquettes led to work with sugar cane waste in the Caribbean, cow dung in India and corn cobs in Ghana. Not only will the corn cobs (which she passed around) address the main problem, but people will also be able to earn money selling them in local markets. Smith believes her group's work could save up to 1 million lives a year, a figure she could barely utter because of being choked up with emotion. Big idea: right this minute, dedicated people are working on "hidden" problems everywhere.
Peter Skillman next made a three-minute presentation, describing a task he'd assigned to many different groups: take 20 pieces of spaghetti and build a structure than can support a marshmallow. Know who did the best? Kindergarteners. Worst? Business school students. Here's what the winners did best:
- learn by doing
- work in parallel (b-school students didn't do too well in this one; they wasted time seeking personal power instead!)
- 1st to market is bad; learn from others
- conduct multiple iterations
- all projects have resource constraints, but you don't get more unless you ask
- kids don't accept rules; adult do
Best lesson for innovation: prototype, test and repeat until you're forced to stop.
After a short film that dramatically demonstrated that shaking hands spreads more germs than kissing, Joshua Prince-Ramus took the stage. Prince-Ramus is a member of Rem Koolhaas's architectural firm and led the team that built the new Seattle Public Library. He described the "hyperrational" process that was used to come up with a structure that, "challenges the modernist notion of flexibility" by devoting specific locations to specific functions (e.g., reading, book storage, research). Prince-Ramus said his team did not follow the "master architect" model, but I would have liked to have heard more about the mindset, culture and processes they used to produce this remarkable building. Big idea: use constraints to energize.
Charles Fleischer finished off the session with another of his amazing "humorous" presentations. I place humorous in quotes because there is a kernel of deep wisdom in Fleischer's work that is easy to overlook. He showed and commented on scores of images of oddball performers (reminiscent of Ricky Jay's work) illustrating the following point: every moment the past gets bigger and so too does the future because there are more possibilities than there were a minute ago. Excellent. Big idea: all design inadvertently creates radiating possibilities.