Thursday, March 20, 2014

Yogurt spheres, 3D holograms, and the subtle charms of TEDActive

By on Thu, Mar 20, 2014 at 1:18 PM

click to enlarge A group of TEDActive attendees during a brainstorming session March 19 at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. - PHOTO BY SARAH NICKERSON
  • Photo by Sarah Nickerson
  • A group of TEDActive attendees during a brainstorming session March 19 at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.

It’s no secret that the most direct way to a journalist’s heart is through the stomach. We’re a simple folk, us reporters, and we enjoy our simple pleasures, which consist mostly of free food. 

So it was much to my delight and surprise that I walked into TedActive’s Community Meals room at the Fairmont Thursday, with its promise of “epic noms ahead,” to find a spread of delicious treats. After gorging on my third gelatinous sphere of yogourt and granola clusters (“Even the food is innovative at TED!” I exclaimed to no one in particular), I realized: You don’t need to work so hard to impress me TED, but I certainly appreciate the effort.

You see, for journalists, the prospect of a free muffin or two can make even the most mind-numbingly dull municipal budget meeting seem tolerable. Give us a full-on meal and we’ll be like putty in your hands. But when you’re armed with a media pass to one of the most engaging meetings of the minds in the Western World, well, free eats are not necessarily the primary motivating factor to attend.

But the charms of TEDActive don’t end with the multiple Hydration Stations dotting the hotel, where you can grab a frosty soda or have one of the conference’s many peppy volunteers whip you up the perfect latte, or the snack bar stocked with organic banana chips and chewy cookies.

Of course, if you were, unlike me, one of the guests who forked out nearly $4,000 to attend the five-day conference, you’d probably expect to have a few perks thrown in along the way. But what I loved most about my brief sojourn at the Whistler conference wasn’t the swag, or even the flaky spinach and feta pinwheels, but the atmosphere cultivated by organizers that underlined TED’s philosophy of creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Shortly after my arrival, my diligent media liaison gave me the full tour of the grounds. This fact alone took me slightly off-guard: It’s not often that a reporter from a small-town paper attending a global conference gets the same personalized treatment as the 60 Minutes camera crew that was on-hand filming the proceedings.

He took me to the Time Travel Studio sprawled over one wall, where attendees could scribble down their predictions for what the future holds until 2044. The forecasts ranged from the wishful, like 2027 marking the last war ever fought on Earth, to the science fictional, like 3D holography replacing verbal communication by 2034.

This wasn’t the only place at TEDActive where guests were given free range to let their creativity roam. In one room, a simple question was posed: How do we create college success? The result was white board after white board crammed, Good Will Hunting style, with the scribblings of leading designers, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs and mathematicians that make up TED’s eclectic guestlist, a rare opportunity for seemingly divergent sectors to join forces.

This is the collaborative vision underpinning TEDActive, the laidback little brother to Vancouver’s glitzier gathering. Here, the crowd skews a bit younger that the main conference, as I was told by one staffer who said Whistler’s powwow was split fairly evenly between newcomers and returnees.

“These are the people that will be speaking on the mainstage in five years,” he explained proudly, and, as my whirlwind tour was coming to a close, I was obliged to believe him.

Because as much as TED organizers have done everything in their power to pamper guests and give them as enjoyable an experience as possible, there’s an unspoken expectation that you will do your part to give back, contributing to the conference’s spirit of ingenuity in any way possible. 

It’s kind of like TED’s complimentary gift table that was tucked away near the Fairmont lobby. You’re free to take any gift you want, just as long as you make sure to leave one of your own behind.   

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