Tech confab with a conscience goes global

TED, the granddaddy of all tech summits, is on a path to becoming a global brand.

For most of its 25 years, TED (for "technology, entertainment and design") was an exclusive, seaside gathering of a few hundred of the globe's top techies and thinkers. Al Gore trotted out his speech on global warming at TED in 2006, shortly before the issue became a worldwide cause. This year, Bill Gates illustrated the dangers of malaria by unleashing mosquitoes on the crowd.

Now its organizers are building an international following by aggressively expanding the show. This week, a TED conference in Oxford, England, marks its expansion into Europe. A show in India is set for November. If all goes well, there will be some 300 smaller regional shows, called TEDx, in the U.S. this year. The first was at USC in March. TED organizers hope TEDIndia paves the way for similar regional events in India. Some 500 "TEDTalks" videos are available for free downloading or viewing on YouTube and Facebook.

"It's become more global, more philanthropic and riskier," says venture capitalist Roger McNamee, a TED attendee the past several years. "And it is now a 12-month enterprise."

The new shows build on changes that TED curator Chris Anderson has already instituted. A few years ago, he introduced the TED Prize, designed to motivate audience members to do something socially significant. Winners of the $100,000 prize include Bono, former president Bill Clinton and Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity. And in 2007 Anderson started making videos of TED sessions that can be downloaded free from the Net. The videos have been viewed nearly 145 million times, more than half from outside the U.S.

Fans say the downloadable talks can have a powerful influence. College student Sol Tran says a speech on poverty motivated him to learn more on the topic and write two papers. "TEDTalks make you think," says Tran, who is considering hosting a TEDx event at his school, Santa Clara University.

TED is the rare tech confab that has become an enduring worldwide brand — unlike trade-show casualties such as Comdex and PC Expo. Both shows were victims of sagging attendance and rising costs, say tech analysts such as Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"It is about faith in the power of a good idea," says Anderson, who acquired the show in 2001 and has extended its reach and scope. (Although he shares the same name, he is not the same Chris Anderson who is editor of Wired magazine and author of the book The Long Tail.)

"We're interested in the truth, or people on a journey to find the truth, and how different parts of knowledge fit together," he says. As curator of TED, Anderson oversees a staff of 45. The New York-based non-profit charges $2,000 to $6,000, depending on the conference, to attend a TED. Profits are invested in projects such as the free distribution of talks on ted.com and the TED Prize. TEDx events are free, although small contributions are accepted.

The first TEDx conference, on the USC campus in March, drew a capacity crowd of 1,200 students, faculty and business leaders. For half a day, they were entertained by talks such as the use of music for peace and a performance by Melissa Etheridge.

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