TED: the world’s coolest conference

A conference unlike any other, TED started in California in 1984 and has grown into a worldwide phenomenon with a thousand online videos already watch by over half a billion people.

With colleagues reporting from the jubilant but tense newly formed South Sudan, the world’s biggest refugee camp on the Kenya-Somalia border, and on the aborted “Freedom Flotila” with activists trying to draw attention to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, my trip to the highlands of Scotland, may not seem that interesting to many.

But if TED is more than a simple English name for you, then you’re probably wishing you had a flight to Edinburgh and a very expensive entrance ticket to TEDGlobal, the exclusive conference that hosts thinkers and doers from around the world.

TED is a conference unlike any other – started in in California in 1984, its intended focus was Technology, Entertainment & Design, but with past speakers like Bill Clinton and Richard Dawkins, it has long moved on from that to cover every topic imaginable.

The main TED conference takes place in Long Beach every year, and this year the international off-shoot, TEDGlobal, moves from Oxford to the Scottish capital. Speakers include the fascinating sand artist, Joe Castillo, the beautiful actress Thandie Newton and the somewhat controversial author Malcolm Gladwell.

The thing with TED though, is that it’s one of the few conference where not only are the speakers big shots, but most of the attendees are as well. Major Hollywood stars like Meg Ryan and Cameron Diaz have, in the past, mingled with the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as a host of famous scientists, businessmen, investors and activists.

TED is about the exchange of ideas, “ideas worth sharing”, as its motto goes, and it has been doing that in a more open way for the past five years. TEDTalks, free online videos from the closed-door elite conference, have already been viewed by around half a billion people worldwide.

Even those that don’t have the time to complete the rigorous application procedure, or can’t afford the $6,000 entrance ticket, or are not lucky enough to get an invite, can benefit from the 1,000 plus videos that are already available online.

TED committed to “radical openness” after a speaker extolled the benefits of Creative Commons licenses, an alternative to copyright that is being used by a growing number of organisations and individuals worldwide – including the White House and Al Jazeera.

With crowd sourced Open Translation technology, TED talks are now truly global with over 20,000 translations, 7,000 translators and 81 languages.

On top of that, two years ago TED launched TEDx – self-organised, self-supporting mini-TED events that are fast becoming as popular as the original event itself.

Hundreds of cities have already hosted TEDx events, including one in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and TEDx Kibera, in a shanty town in Kenya.

Africa’s youngest country, South Sudan, has yet to host a TEDx event, but I’m sure it’s bound to happen soon enough. For now, stay tuned to Al Jazeera for all sorts of exciting TED news, and when Juba does host a TEDx event, we’ll be sure to let you know.