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Back to school, TED style


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TED is addictive.

It's not just the engaging talks — an eclectic collage of humour, motivation, drama-in-real-life, pathos, wonder, and sometimes just plain shock and horror — it is the vibe of the event itself.

Everyone attending, whether it is the US$7,500 main event in Vancouver this week, or the US$3,500 event in Whistler, wants to be there sharing their ideas, listening to others and learning.

It's like going back to school except you want to be there. It's like being at a conference where the best of humanity is on show.

And if you don't like a particular topic of the show you just have to wait 18 minutes — the length of the average talk — to hear the next one.

But it is more than the talks.

Whistler's Fairmont Chateau conference area has been turned into a sort of campus, with "hydration" stations, funky snack boxes everywhere, and orange bucket swivel chairs with desks, or beanbag chairs, grouped in front of flatscreens in gathering lounges. There are coffee bars and coolers filled with health drinks and a bookstore — where the pages of offerings seem an exact match to the event, from Melanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel, to books by W.G. Sebald (The Rings of Saturn) and Danah Boyd (It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens).

And, of course, there was a Spock Star Trek toy — you couldn't have this type of conference without a nod to Star Trek.

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has moved its operations from California to Vancouver and Whistler TedActive for at least the next two years.

It got its start in 1984 when a group of tech enthusiasts gathered to explore how their world interacted with life. At the opening night Monday, March 17, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT's Media Lab and a frequent TED speaker, reminded everyone that back then technology was often at odds with day-to-day living. The idea that our fingers would control our screens was called not just stupid, but "so stupid," he said.

In 1995 Newsweek mocked another one of his predictions, that we would read books and newspapers using the Internet.

Negroponte, is known for the predictions he makes — most of which have come true. This year's prediction?

"My prediction is that we are going to ingest information — we're going to swallow a pill and know English and swallow a pill and know Shakespeare," he said. "It will go through the bloodstream and it will know when it's in the brain and, in the right places, it deposits the information."

Sounds crazy right?

But, said Negroponte, "One of the things about aging is that I can tell you with great confidence that I've been to the future. I've been there actually many times. How many times in my life have I said, 'In 10 years this will happen ... and then 10 years comes?'"

Stepping into the Chateau does feel like entering an ivory tower. Though the 600 (1,200 in Vancouver) attendees will enjoy the resort it's not expected to have huge spinoffs, and is in general being treated here as a conference and not an event.

No street banners here, as in Vancouver, no funding partnerships.

In Vancouver, reports the Globe and Mail, the city's Mayor Gregor Robertson expects a ripple effect beyond this week. "I think this is a great opportunity for our city to strut its stuff to some big influencers," he said. The city contributed $25,000 toward a monumental work of public art commissioned for the conference, and paid $17,000 for TED street banners.

A fee was paid by a consortium to partner with TED to soften the financial blow of the move north. Partners included Tourism Vancouver, the Canadian Tourism Commission, the Vancouver Convention Centre, and it was also supported by the Vancouver Hotel Destination Association. The CTC would not disclose the amount, but said there is great marketing power in being host city to TED.

Tourism Vancouver predicts $2.1-million in direct and $4.5-million in overall economic impact.

"What our theory is (is) that when these world billionaires, philanthropists, engineers and scientists come and see Canada, they will have a very warm view of what it offers as a business community," Greg Klassen, the senior vice-president of marketing for the tourism commission told the Vancouver Sun.

TED in any form has cachet in today's world of conference hosts. Just saying you are a host venue for the conference can help land other conferences in years to come — on the face of it, is not about the dollars and cents on the ground this week — it is more about the leverage the conference will bring in the years to come.

And while it has the feel of a do-good and raise-consciousness type of event let's not lose sight of the fact that it has big-name sponsors: Walmart, Target, Citibank, Lincoln Motor Car Company, Google, Walt Disney and Toyota just to name a few. Its corporate partners include Gucci, Rolex, American Express, Samsung, Sony and Intel (the role of big business and TED is another whole story).

Further exposure to these companies can be nothing but good in driving more visitors to Whistler in the future.

In a way, Whistler is a TED talk: It's natural beauty sparks emotion, the adventures it offers year round are new to many, and time spent here is memorable and worth sharing.