Where will you find your ideas? The Ideas Economy and Moving beyond TED

In the Financial Times this weekend, April Dembosky writes about Richard Saul Wurman, one of the creators of the TED conference, and his new WWW event:  http://on.ft.com/SXqtXS .  WWW doesn’t stand for anything specific; instead, it refers to a list words starting with “W”: “wanderlust,” “warming,” and “wizardry” — evidently in order to emphasize the fertile openness of the events to generating new ideas.  Besides being very expensive, charging $16,000 per person, the new event has a distinctive format of conversations between two high-profile speakers.  Dembosky devotes most of the piece to Wurman and, despite alienating many he’s left behind at other events like TED (which he sold in 2001), what has been his successful career at organizing such conferences.

What’s more compelling about the story, though, is how Wurman has so successfully operated as an entrepreneur of ideas.  The 21st century ideas economy has thrived through the development and interaction of communities energized by extraordinary transformations in business and society but enabled by new communication technologies and a circuit of on-the-ground events.  While TED is, again, the best known of these platforms for producing and circulating ideas — familiarly, both in person for those who can pay entry fees of $7500 and (over time) online for others at no cost — many, many other events are what make the economy thrive.  These range from local unConferences and cross-industry workshops to South by Southwest and the World Economic Forum.  While many of the events draw together the creative class and technorati, they have varying political and industry priorities.  But together, they have tapped into and accelerated a contemporary drive to innovate and to understand the changes re-shaping business today.

The title of Dembosky’s piece, “Life after TED,” has an obviously specific meaning in offering its profile of Wurman.  Yet it also broaches two broader topics.  One is the matter of what comes after TED, either because that particular event is becoming, for some, too slickly-produced or even running out of speakers.  An illustrative critique of TED, by the consistently insightful Evgeny Morosov, appeared recently in The New Republic (http://bit.ly/NNmpgi).  More important than TED or its prospects, however, is a fuller comprehension of the ideas economy itself and how we should understand it as a driver of creativity and change in business and society.  (The very term, “ideas economy,” is for some associated with The Economist and its excellent series of global events, http://econ.st/PloKL8 — but that is taking the term too narrowly.) 

The compelling question — not least for those, like me, with deep roots in the traditional academy — is what is the future of the wider ideas economy and the dense fabric of events and communities supporting it?  In other words, what will be the shape and dynamics of how we produce, share and act on ideas in the future?  By better understanding the process and structure of how we engage ideas, we arguably will be a step ahead in producing and building on better ones.

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