Serendipity at TED

I had one of those breakthrough moments at this year's TED conference. A moment where the idea avalanche suddenly starts cascading. A moment sparked by an unlikely confluence of two successive TEDTalks on topics that looked unrelated, but caused the metaphoric light bulb to go on for me!

Joi Ito: The Now-ist

The first talk was by Joi Ito, the new head of the famed MIT Media Lab, whom I've had the pleasure of knowing for more than a decade. Joi is an amazing entrepreneur and venture investor. At TED, he delivered his new motto for the Lab: Deploy or Die! With this motto, Joi is building the case for a new approach to innovation, steeped in the new reality of a much more connected society and based on a much more agile method of creating new technology and ventures.

His kickoff example was Safecast, a project that measured radiation levels in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Facing a government that would not or could not communicate the situation, Joi and a small team of volunteers created an incredible citizen-driven project to collect radiation data. Guided by compass of their goal, they quickly iterated until they came up with a way for interested citizens to inexpensively build their own Geiger counters and send this data back for aggregation and mapping of radiation levels over time. Thanks to the Internet, this team was able to rapidly assemble, find people with the right expertise, design the open source hardware, and then deploy it to Japanese citizens, creating the largest dataset of radiation measurements ever seen.

Joi's point was that a small group of connected volunteers could do something beyond the reach of governments and large organizations. The cost of prototyping and deploying is becoming extremely low. Consider his example of gene sequencing: While it used to take many millions of dollars to sequence genes, a gene assembler using modern gene synthesis technology today can do it on a chip at a fraction of that cost. Joi sees this as an opportunity for the rest of us in many other fields. People today, he said, don't need to be experts if they can easily tap the answers or the expertise they need when they need them.

Joi felt that new efforts were shifting from being based on large capital expenditures and MBA-driven to being designer/ engineer-driven. He explained that the old motto of the Media Lab had been "Demo or Die," a playful twist on the academic trope "Publish or Perish." Under his predecessor, Nicholas Negroponte, a demo only had to work once, because the goal was to influence the large organizations that would pick up an innovation and bring it to scale. His new motto for the Media Lab, by contrast, is "Deploy or Die!" With the low cost of deploying innovations, Joi wants his Lab rats to get their innovations out into the hands of people and see what happens.

This approach isn't foreign to Silicon Valley, the home of agile software development, lean startups, minimum viable products, and the like. Companies like Google got started as projects that aimed to solve a problem in a new and exciting way, and found a business model much later.

Joi concluded by saying he didn't like the word "futurist." To deal with the world's complexity we need to:

• Be connected
• Always be learning
• Fully aware, and
• "Super-present."

He coined the term for people who embrace these principles: "Now-ists."

Chris Anderson: What would you do with a billion dollars to combat inequality?

TED organizer Chris Anderson immediately followed the enthusiastic audience reaction to Joi Ito. He asked the house lights to be brought up, because he wanted to challenge the attendees to think about a tough problem.

Chris mentioned that technology writer Steven Levy had just published a highly complimentary Wired article about this year's TED conference. One part of the article, however, was bugging Chris: Steven had pointed out that TED had very little content about economic inequality, one of the top ten challenges identified by the TED community.

Chris quoted from Post-it notes left on the Inequality Challenge board:

• Greatest challenge of our times
• Fix this or it's over.

Chris said it had been difficult to get speakers on this topic. Nobody seems to have a great solution to the inequality problem, or if we do, it's hard to find out about it. He noted the fact -- part of startling statistics contained in a recently issued Oxfam International briefing paper -- that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. What could those wealthy people do to remedy this growing tide of economic inequality?

Bill and Melinda Gates had touched on the issue, and their Giving Pledge campaign -- convincing the super-rich to pledge at least half of their assets to philanthropy -- has made progress. But Chris noted that it's hard to spend a billion dollars effectively. "You can't just give it away," he said.

Chris then challenged the audience: "What could you do audaciously to reinvest that money for the public good?" He went even further: He wanted both the people with the money and those without to answer that question. How could we use the "technical assets" of the TED community to capture the wisdom of the crowd to overcome inequality?

He concluded with a request to "Come help us in this conversation."

I expect a Twitter campaign with the hashtag "WithABillion" to kick off soon!


Joi and Chris were a powerful one-two act. What if we put the challenges posed by these two leaders together? What could we do with a billion dollars invested in a "Deploy or Die" campaign aimed at the world's poorest communities? Would it be a better and more powerful way to address inequality?

Please tune in to my second installment on this topic: "With a Billion?" I'm having a lot of fun writing it, as you might imagine!