TIME Innovation

TED’s Revered Founder Shares Secret to a Good Conference

Richard Saul Wurman
Richard Saul Wurman Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

The splendid exile of the genius Richard Saul Wurman

bif10-600-sq-info

This is one of a 10-article series of conversations with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI, on Sept. 17-18.

In Newport, RI, lives an old magician in splendid, self-imposed exile.

Richard Saul Wurman, best known as the founder of the TED conference, has made it his job to produce clarity out of the complex.

His eclectic body of work boasts over 80 books, including the original Access city guides, the bestsellers Information Anxiety and Information Anxiety II, as well as esteemed companions on all topics from football, to estate-planning, to healthcare. He has founded 40-odd conferences and chaired numerous information-mapping projects.

In conversation, Wurman speaks with unapologetic honesty, which one comes to appreciate. He has light eyes and a hawk-like profile. He describes himself as “abrasive, but also charming.”

Wurman lives with his wife in a 19th-century mansion on eight high-walled acres. They have few friends in Newport. He admits they prefer it that way. “I live reclusively behind a fence,” he jokes, “The town put it up to keep me in.”

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Outside of Newport, Wurman is someone who enjoys what the New York Times describes as “a happy notoriety as a connector and king-maker.”

“My interests are only apparently varied,” he claims. “I’m Johnny-one-note. My passion is less the subject, and more the patterns. Everything connects and can be mapped, and the mapping of that is fascinating to me.”

Of his business philosophy, Wurman says he sees “every book, every conference, every design” as an experiment on how he can get people closer to “telling the truth.”

When asked about how he developed his mission, Wurman reflects on his college days. He had been an accomplished student of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with the highest honors. Despite this success, he eventually came to realize that he “didn’t actually understand anything.” He claims, “I realized that just because somebody told me something, it doesn’t mean I understood it. And that was terrifying.”

“I’m not very bright intellectually, but I’ve decided to not by humiliated by my ignorance,” he says. “What a joy it is, to really not know something and slowly fill it in with things you understand!”

Wurman claims to be consistently self-serving.

“I use myself as the basis,” he says. “Every time, it’s a journey from me not knowing, to knowing about something.” Nor does he believe in complicating his goals by worrying over how people will receive his projects. “If you try to have that effect, it affects your own work. I don’t want to change my work. I already have a client. That client’s me.”

His latest project is Urban Observatories, a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian (complete with its own app), dedicated to providing an intuitive platform to compare live-population trend maps of major cities.

“I’m just trying to understand things,” he says, “I’m not trying to change the world.”

Yet he acknowledges that the implications of the project are immense. From enabling governments to make use of the failures and successes of other cities, to helping families decide where to take root and companies where to relocate, Wurman’s project explodes the potential of comparative cartography by conducting its study on an unprecedented scale.

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Richard Saul Wurman coined the term “information architect” to describe his particular set of talents.

It is easy to see how his architectural background continues to influence his work. Wurman’s projects deal deftly with questions of experience design, structural integrity and intention and result.

The 18-minute TED Talk had been his answer to question of how to deliver the “Next Big Idea” in an age pressed for time. He sold TED in 2002, after which, he claims, the conference became “appalling—it’s edited and teleprompted now.”

In 2004, Wurman advised his friend Saul Kaplan as Kaplan’s nonprofit, The Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI, was designing its first annual Collaborative Innovation Summit. As Wurman mentored Kaplan, they worked by subtracting from the usual style of business conferences.

They eliminated the podium and numerous projection screens in favor of a simple, well-lit stage. There was no dress code; “I don’t own a suit,” Wurman says. They requested from their speakers personal stories of transformation, not speeches or pitches.

Wurman looks forward to returning to the BIF Summit in September. The summit, he claims, “unequivocally attracts smart individuals who tell a fresh story about their passions, ideas and failures.” He adds, “Looking in the gray area between these stories is where good, inspiring concepts will arise.”

Wurman shares his secret to hosting a good conference: “Have a dinner party,” he says. “Invite people you’re interested in and have conversation with them.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

Saul Kaplan is the author of The Business Model Innovation Factory. He is the founder and chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence and blogs regularly at It’s Saul Connected. Follow him on Twitter at @skap5. Nicha Ratana is a senior pursuing a degree in English Nonfiction Writing at Brown University and an intern at The Business Innovation Factory. Follow her on Twitter at @nicharatana.

TIME Innovation

IBM’s New Processor Sounds More Brain-Like Than Ever

Imagine assistive glasses for the visually impaired that can help them navigate through complex environments—without the need for a wi-fi connection.
Imagine assistive glasses for the visually impaired that can help them navigate through complex environments—without the need for a wi-fi connection. IBM

IBM unveils a new processor that sips a fraction of the energy today's processors do, but that can deliver radically greater returns on a brain-like synaptic scale.

IBM’s splashy new “brain” chip, TrueNorth, is actually nothing like a real human brain — it’s not going to admire the pointillistic works of Van Gogh, much less fall in love with you before absconding to frolic with a new race of godlike machine beings ala Her — but it is a remarkable-sounding next step in the direction of brain-like computers that mimic the synaptic conversation actual brains have been having for eons.

The chip, designed over the past decade and part of IBM’s TrueNorth computing architecture, is detailed in the August 8 issue of Science, and it’s based on a principle that’s been around for decades known as neuromorphic engineering. That’s a fancy way of describing a system that mimics the biological nervous system, including (though not limited to) biological brains.

TrueNorth is IBM’s stab at a neuromorphic processor, something its authors describe as an “efficient, scalable and flexible non-von Neumann architecture.” John von Neumann came up with the basic architecture for how you’d go about running a digital processor in the 1940s, and it’s that essentially linear notion that forms the basis for the computers we’re still using today.

But linearity has its disadvantages: today’s processors are epically faster than human brains at crunching massively complex mathematical equations, say simulating weather patterns or calculating all the gravitational vectors involved in soft-landing a rover on Mars. But they’re utterly dimwitted at attempting contextual feats we humans perform with ease, say picking a voice out of a crowd or deciding which type of wine goes best with a meal.

That’s where the notion of brain-like parallelism comes in, itself a well-established idea in computing, but TrueNorth is about scaling it to unprecedented levels. The processor simulates a brain with one million neurons and 256 million synapses — about the crunch-power of a honey bee or cockroach — fueled by an on-chip network of 4,096 neurosynaptic cores. That adds up to a 5.4 billion transistor processor — the largest chip IBM’s yet built — but one that sips a mere 70 milliwatts of power during realtime operations, or four orders of magnitude fewer than conventional chips today. Altogether, the chip can perform 46 billion synaptic operations per second, per watt, says IBM.

IBM

Think of it as a little like the old left brain, right brain relationship: language and analytic thinking are left (von Neumann architecture) while sense and pattern recognition are right (neuromorphic processors). And that’s just the start, says IBM, noting that in the years to come, it hopes to bring the two together “to create a holistic computing intelligence.”

While we’re waiting for our holistic machine overlords to take over, what can TrueNorth do after developers have figured out what to design for it? How about improving visual and auditory tasks traditional computers presently stumble over?

As IBM Fellow Dharmendra Modha writes, “The architecture can solve a wide class of problems from vision, audition, and multi-sensory fusion, and has the potential to revolutionize the computer industry by integrating brain-like capability into devices where computation is constrained by power and speed.” Notice the way Modha describes the chips as complementary: the strategy with TrueNorth out of the gate looks to be integrative rather than one of displacing the processors in our smartphones, tablets and laptop computers.

Again, it’s important to bear in mind that TrueNorth isn’t a brain. As Modha himself notes, “we have not built the brain, or any brain. We have built a computer that is inspired by the brain.” But it’s an important step forward: another rung on a ladder that’s as high as our hopes of perhaps someday creating computer-like beings in our own image, or ones better still.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 8

1. We won’t know that new investment in Africa works unless we build solid systems for reporting real data about success.

By Nikhil Sonnad in Quartz

2. China needs sweeping reform to shake its deeply ingrained corruption.

By Kenneth Courtis in the Globalist

3. Don’t make college students select a major; make them choose a problem they want to solve.

By Jeff Selingo in LinkedIn

4. Foundations can learn from startup culture to better direct funds and amplify their impact.

By Shauntel Poulson in 1776 DC

5. President Obama can still secure his legacy if he spends his final years in office focused on economic inequality.

By Walter Isaacson in Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 7

1. Climate change and increased fertilizer use could mean more poisonous algae blooms and contaminated drinking water.

By Jane J. Lee in National Geographic

2. If the world community isn’t careful, the very concept of sovereignty could be finished.

By the editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor

3. From Nigeria to Gaza and beyond: what happened to our ability to feel empathy?

By Lauren Wolfe in Foreign Policy

4. What if pay reflected a job’s social worth?

By Robert Reich in Guernica

5. International development is too focused on the very poor. Transformational strategies to improve whole societies do more to help the poor – and everyone else.

By Lant Pritchett in Effective States and Inclusive Development

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 6

1. There is another war raging over Gaza: How social media helps people personalize propaganda.

By Gilad Lotan in Medium

2. A Boston battle over a supermarket chain is highlighting a deepening divide over corporate purpose: Should companies just make money for stockholders, or contribute to the welfare of employees, customers, and society?

By Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe

3. Helping the Kurds is our best bet for stopping ISIS in Iraq.

By Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker

4. By enrolling parents alongside their children, one school is helping to break the cycle of multigenerational poverty.

By Michael Alison Chandler in the Washington Post

5. To deliver on the promise of an agriculture revolution in Africa, we must help farmers take the first steps by managing their risk.

By Lindiwe Majele Sibanda in This is Africa

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

On the Internet, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

How the myth of connectivity hurts us all

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This is the second of a 10-article series of conversations with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at theBIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI, on Sept. 17-18.

Ethan Zuckerman’s job is to see the Internet for what it is.

As the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, Zuckerman studies civic engagement within digital infrastructures. He has made the case that we are not as connected as we appear to be.

Zuckerman’s research explodes what he calls the “myth of connectivity.” As he claims, “The world is more global. Our problems and economics are global. And though we are inundated with content, the media is getting less global.”

He believes it is important to expose and rectify this fallacy; after all, “this leads not only to shocking ignorance about the world, but also to missed opportunities for marketing and collaboration.”

As it turns out, Zuckerman says, “What you don’t know can hurt you.”

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“Atoms are more accessible than bits in many occasions,” Zuckerman says. “Fijian water is easy to access, but Fijian culture is not.”

He attributes the myth of connectivity to a lack of demand rather than too much supply. With the explosion of personal publishing and the “read-write web,” the issue isn’t so much the lack of stories told from other parts of the world, but rather, that these stories have been filtered out by the American attention span.

One of the problems of “free market journalism,” Zuckerman says, is that it relies on user behavior to recommend content. This filtering mechanism is deeply susceptible to what he calls “homophily.” Meaning “love of the same,” the concept is also known by the truism “birds of a feather flock together.”

Homophily explains the tendency of news coverage to cater to the lowest common denominator, or, speaking within the realms of Zuckerman’s research, of the disappearance of international or investigative reporting.

“What we need are new systems to help us stumble over things, to jog us out of ordinary reality,” Zuckerman says.

Zuckerman claims the key to integrating international or hard-hitting perspectives into domestic discourse is to provide relevant context. Fundamentally, he says, “What’s most important to you, is ‘you’ and ‘yours.’ If we’re not giving people some way in which they can interact with content, we’ll be missing giant opportunities.”

He forecasts that content recommendations of the future will be able to determine an audience’s interest and the “information rut” that they’re stuck in, before bridging that gap by suggesting novel, yet unexpectedly useful content. For instance, “following your interest in US mobile phones, you might find yourself reading about Chinese phone technologies, or about how much disposable income the mobile market captures in East Africa,” he explains.

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“I was never in love with the narrative of the Internet startup,” Zuckerman says.

“Dot com” entrepreneurism did not excite him as much as the question of the Internet’s potential to transform the world.

Yet, for all his reluctance to view enterprises as one-stop fix-its for society’s ills, Zuckerman looks forward to returning to speak at the Collaborative Innovation Summit hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI.

At the Summit, Zuckerman intends engage the BIF community — which he knows to be composed of unconventional tinkerers and seasoned social entrepreneurs — with a critical question he has been wrestling with: how to innovate journalism.

The BIF Summit has been a site of meaningful connections for Zuckerman in the past. He recalls meeting his MIT colleague Neri Oxman there, and marveling, from her talk about her first encounter with snow, Oxman’s intuitive thought process as a materials scientist.

“What I value so much about BIF is this notion that you’re not there to give a presentation, but to tell a story,” Zuckerman says, “With stories, the interesting motivations are never completely rational. That irrationality, that underlying passion, is to me what’s fascinating about anybody who’s trying to change the world.”

He believes that in BIF’s passionate community, he will find a receptive audience. “Storytelling is hugely underrated as a form of human communication,” he says, “It’s really hard to make money while doing good, investigative journalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

“Ultimately, I think we need to be having a deeper conversation about what public goods we should be willing to pay for, that the market isn’t good at provisioning,” Zuckerman says. He recognizes, “Those tend to be fighting words in the United States, but I think this notion of having really high-quality information is something that we’re not talking seriously enough about.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

Saul Kaplan is the author of The Business Model Innovation Factory. He is the founder and chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence and blogs regularly at It’s Saul Connected. Follow him on Twitter at @skap5. Nicha Ratana is a senior pursuing a degree in English Nonfiction Writing at Brown University and an intern at The Business Innovation Factory. Follow her on Twitter at @nicharatana.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 5

1. The grinding stress of life in poverty – not the scarcity of healthy options – leads the poor to unhealthy eating.

By James McWilliams in Pacific Standard

2. Cutting out the middlemen: Loan servicers aggravate the college debt crisis.

By Chris Hicks in the Reuters Great Debate

3. We must treat addiction as a learning disorder.

By Maia Szalavitz in Substance

4. Stop trying to be the “next Silicon Valley.”

By Ross Baird and Rob Lalka in Forbes

5. A first step: The Ugandan Constitutional Court strikes down that country’s vicious anti-gay law, but more fight remains.

By James K. Arinaitwe and Adebisi Alimi from the Aspen New Voices Fellowship

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 4

1. Making the punishment fit the crime: A better way of calculating fines for the bad acts of big banks.

By Cathy O’Neill in Mathbabe

2. Lessons we can share: How three African countries made incredible progress in the fight against AIDS.

By Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times

3. Creative artists are turning to big data for inspiration — and a new window on our world.

By Charlie McCann in Prospect

4. We must give the sharing economy an opportunity to show its real potential.

By R.J. Lehmann in Reason

5. Technology investing has a gender problem, and it’s holding back innovation.

By Issie Lapowsky in Wired

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 1

1. The current state of global chaos might spell the end of America as the ‘indispensable nation.’

By Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times

2. There is no crisis of young adults returning home after college.

By Amy August in the Society Pages

3. Overprotecting kids at play hinders their development, and parents should “lighten up.”

By Andrea Gordon in the Toronto Star

4. The great stagnation: America is far less entrepreneurial than it was a decade ago; and that decline in innovation threatens our economic recovery.

By Richard Florida in Citylab

5. Businesses can upend poverty with rapid innovation and unconventional thinking.

By Bill Bynum in the Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 31

1. Sanctions have backed Vladimir Putin into a corner – and that’s where he is most dangerous.

By Julia Ioffe in the New Republic

2. The new vanguard of journalism entrepreneurs won’t destroy media; they’ll probably save it.

By Ann Friedman in Columbia Journalism Review

3. Can Congress rein in the spies?

By David Cole in the New York Review of Books

4. Already heavily subsidized, making mass transit free could help cities attack congestion and pollution.

By Henry Grabar in Salon

5. Things are improving in Africa: A data visualization

By Our World In Data

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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