TEDx San Diego Partners with Qualcomm Institute to 're:THINK' its Speaker Series

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

San Diego, Calif., Dec. 3, 2013 — TEDx San Diego creator Jack Abbott and his co-organizers have had to do a lot of rethinking in preparation for the 2013 event — so much so that they decided to embrace the notion as the theme for this year’s daylong series of talks, which will take place at the University of California, San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute on Dec. 14. 

The line-up this year includes more than 20 speakers and performers who will all address one common idea, “re:THINK,” from a multitude of perspectives, including the perspective of one critic who wants to rethink TED talks entirely. 

TEDx is an independently organized, official spin-off TED, a global series of conferences that focuses on “ideas worth spreading” (traditionally ideas from the fields of technology, entertainment and design, but TED and TEDx have since expanded their reach). There are currently more than 8,000 TEDx events in 151 different countries.

This year’s TEDx San Diego lineup includes science fiction author David Brin, Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology CEO Hal Harvey, artist Wendy Maruyama and 12-year-old Sylvia Todd, the creator of “Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show,” which has more than one million followers. Matt Emerzian, founder of the non-profit Every Monday Matters and a past TEDx San Diego speaker, will host the event. 

The decision to shake things up behind the scenes at TEDx San Diego was partly controlled, says Abbott and his co-organizer Mark Lovett, and partly due to circumstances outside their control. 

“Our theme this year started with the notion of thinking differently, and was inspired by the opening of the new San Diego Public Library downtown,” says Lovett. “The library represents a lot of things we think TEDx also represents: rethinking what a library can be with state-of-the-art architecture and also being a crucial element in the redesign of downtown’s ‘Idea District.’ It’s also rethinking education with the library's new e3 Civic High School. All that got us thinking about how we could rethink TEDx San Diego, both in terms of a new venue but also in terms of creating a new city vibe.” 

Although Abbott and Lovett had originally planned to host 350 TEDx San Diego participants at the library and simulcast the talks to all of its branches, technical difficulties forced the team to abandon that approach. Moving back to the auditorium at Qualcomm’s corporate offices, where the event was held last year, was by that point out of the question since the venue was being remodeled. 

“So again, we had to rethink the whole thing, and that’s when we decided to build this partnership with Calit2 and the Qualcomm Institute,” explains Abbott. The Qualcomm Institute is the UC San Diego division of Calit2, or the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, which San Diego magazine called “UC San Diego’s epicenter of innovation” in a story about TEDx San Diego. The talks will be held in the 200-person capacity Calit2 Auditorium and simulcast to its neighboring Black Box Theater. 

Benjamin Bratton
Benjamin Bratton

“Being surrounded by the technology and cool atmosphere at Calit2 is reflective of what TEDx is all about,” adds Abbott, “plus, so many TEDx San Diego speakers have come from the Qualcomm Institute, Calit2 and UCSD, it just seemed like a natural relationship.” Past Qualcomm Institute-affiliated speakers at TEDx San Diego and TEDxYouth@San Diego have included Calit2 Director Larry Smarr, Professor James Fowler of the UCSD School of Medicine and the Division of Social Sciences, former postdoctoral researcher Shannon Spanhake and UCSD MyLab Founder Saura Naderi.

This year’s speaker lineup includes the Qualcomm Institute’s Benjamin Bratton, an associate professor of Visual Arts at UC San Diego who was invited to speak at this year’s event after he told Abbott “the only topic I’d give as a TED talk is why I don’t like TED talks.” Abbott took him up on the challenge, and his talk, titled "We Need to Talk About TED," will touch on some of his criticisms.

“I have nothing against the idea of smart people who do smart things and explain their work in a way that everybody can understand,” explains Bratton, “but I think TED goes way beyond that: entertainment at the cost of over-simplification.” 

“Our healthcare infrastructure or astrophysics or literature or malaria in Central Africa — these are hard, difficult and complex,” he continues. “Unfortunately, TED presents these in a format that may make people feel good but that has nothing to do with actually solving the problems. TED epitomizes a situation where if a scientist, an activist, an artist or a philosopher’s work is not inspirational and entertaining they’re told that their work is not worthy of attention and support. The means and ends have gotten confused. Instead of inspiration in support of real innovation, we have feel-good innovation in support of inspiration, and so tough problems just get worse.”

It’s a criticism echoed by Lebanese-American essayist, scholar and former TED speaker Nassim Taleb, who called TED a "monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers." But Abbott argues that there is huge benefit in having “big thinkers be able to communicate their ideas to people who may not ordinarily understand or even be exposed to those ideas.”

“That said, he adds, “the ability to deliver an idea in the short format is a unique skill. We know we miss out on some great ideas due to our subjective judgment that for various reasons it won’t come across effectively in our format. We try hard to get better at those decisions every year.”

Adds Lovett: “With a typical TED talk you’ve got a scientist or an entrepreneur who’s spent years doing research or running a business — and now they’ve got 10-12 minutes to distill all of that down into a talk. Rather than that being a ‘circus performer,’ I think it’s remarkable that these talks can do that and get the average person to understand those issues.”

Clearly the draw for TEDx participants has not waned in the four years since the TED franchise has been in San Diego (and they’re called ‘participants’ because they must apply to attend). Although the live attendance at this year’s event is capped at 250, hundreds more than that applied. An additional 100 volunteers have signed on to help with logistics (and the organizers had to turn away many more). 

“Day after day, volunteer applications were coming through from people who are CEOs, graphic designers, musicians — an amazing group of individuals from all sorts of different professions and boundaries,” says Lovett. “Far more people wanted to help than we actually had space for. That was a revelation to me.”

Abbott adds that this revelation has also encouraged his team to start rethinking the focus of TEDx San Diego as it enters its fifth year. 

“One of the really big epiphanies for Mark and me this year is that we really need to re-gear the event to the individual who wants to be a part of it, and be less focused on making it really big and finding corporate sponsors,” he says. “Sometimes when we ask local corporate sponsors for money, they say they love the idea of helping people and inspiring people, but they say, ‘We only do that for kids.’ They don’t understand the depth of opportunity to engage with people who have big ideas but need exposure. 

“That’s something some of the really innovative companies in town, like Qualcomm, understands. That’s something UCSD understands. These are the people who are breaking the rules, the people who get behind TEDx.”

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links

TEDx San Diego