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  • Ian Ritchie : Scottish Business Insider

Scots miss out on exclusive ‘Festival of Ideas’

A NEW EVENT has joined the ranks of Edinburgh’s summer festivals. It is probably the most intelligent, exclusive, and international of all the festivals but, unlike the others, has largely gone unnoticed by the locals.

The TED conferences started in California in 1984 – the letters in TED stand for ‘Technology, Entertainment and Design’ – and it is a ‘festival of ideas’. Philosophers, economists, scientists, politicians, educators, technologists, writers, artists and performers, most at the top of their game, make their individual presentations, each one in 18 minutes or less – and all of which can be viewed for free at

TED continues in California each spring, but Edinburgh is now the summer home of the annual week-long international edition of the TED conference, dubbed ‘TED Global’, which after a few years in Oxford has now set up permanent home in Edinburgh’s International Conference Centre.

At this year’s conference there were more than 850 delegates from 70 countries listening to talks from around 100 international presenters.Some of the speakers were quite prominent, such as historian Niall Ferguson, philosopher Alain de Botton, British Museum director Neil MacGregor, and actor Thandie Newton. But many of the speakers were discoveries, such as Bunker Roy who founded India’s ‘Barefoot Colleges’ and who has trained grandmothers across India and Africa in how to install solar panels in order to bring electricity to their villages.

Others were famous, but not here: Yang Lan, whose Oprah-like TV programme in China regularly attracts audiences of over 200 million, reported she had just come from hosting China’s Got Talent featuring a guest performance from Susan Boyle. She spoke about how to free up communications in modern China.

Balázs Havasi, who holds the Guinness world Record for ‘most piano keys hit per minute’ performed an incredibly fast piece of music, accompanied by a rock drummer.

TED is run by Chris Anderson, a Brit who published popular computing magazines first in the UK and then in California from where he also launched Business 2.0 magazine; and many of the presentations look like they are assembled by a magazine editor looking for attractive, well-told, stories, even if the content behind a few of them might not be quite so solid.

The conference attendees also exhibited a level of enthusiasm which seems overblown to us Scots – many speakers received a standing ovation. There was also a notable lack of opportunity to ask questions and challenge their assertions.

It was almost as if this event had been helicoptered in because there were almost no speakers or delegates from Scotland. There was a performance from Eddi Reader, and one presentation each from academics from the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but apart from those there were no other Scottish-based speakers. I estimate there were only around 10 delegates from Scotland.

There is no doubt many potential Scottish attendees were put off by the relatively high delegate fee, which at $6000 certainly made the eyes water, but TED is run by a not-for-profit company and it is clearly an expensive event to organise. It also funds the free distribution of talks on the website, which have been viewed more than 500 million times to date.

And Edinburgh is an excellent home for TED Global. The city which hosted the Scottish enlightenment seems a natural place to explain, debate and develop ideas. Let’s hope future years will see more Scots engage with this new festival of ideas taking place in our own capital city.

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