by Andrea Doyle | February 27, 2012
“I don’t work from expertise, I work from my ignorance, which I embrace,” explains Richard Saul Wurman founder of TED. This self-effacing declaration from the man who revolutionized the way the conference industry views content represents the impetus of Wurman’s life mission: to bring clarity to complex issues. The 81 books he has authored focus on some subject or idea he had difficulty understanding. For someone driven by making things simple, his life is far from that. Architect, designer, cartographer, college dean, graphic designer, writer, publisher, and archeologist are all vocations Wurman has espoused at some point in his life, reflecting the high energy apparent in his personality. As diverse as his background is his cadre of friends, which includes famed architects, award-winning musicians, politicians, diplomats, inventors, innovators, literary giants, celebrities, and winners of Oscars, Grammies, and Emmys. 

He turned to many of them for his very first TED, an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design, a conference that debuted in 1984 as a convergence of the three industries. It is Wurman’s gift of seeing the similarities among things that has led to his success. In synthesizing three disparate industries he created a unique experience.

“I changed all the rules,” declares Wurman who sold the TED Conference in 2002.

Wurman seeks to shake up the conference industry again September 18-20, 2012, with his WWW Conference ( Wurman plans to stage a series of one-on-one conversations paired with improvised music and held in front of a small invitation-only audience. The conversations will be made available to the public by way of an app that will engender a new modality of information gathering.  It will allow users to 'fly through' information about the subjects by offering a way of navigating through topics lead by their own curiosity and by harnessing the vast resources available on-line. As noted on the conference web site, 'Wikipedia integration, bibliographic references, social media connections, and a flood of illustrative and cartographic images will allow for expansion and sharing of ideas as offered by the conference.  It will strive to present information in a way that has not yet been achieved.' 

Ideas in Rhythm
“Intellectual jazz,” emphasizing conversation over traditional presentations, is how Wurman describes what attendees will experience. “When two people engage in conversation they are more likely to be truthful as they are not focused on impressing an audience,” Wurman explains. There are several things this conference will not have: speeches, slide shows, or tickets.

According to Wurman, the title of the conference consists of Ws because: “The letter W has more words that describe the world then any other letter. The first W word on my list is ‘world.’ The last on my list is ‘waking dream,’ which to me is how you mystically create things. That’s the way I live my life, in a waking dream.”

Conversations will include architect Frank Gehry, magician David Blaine, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, The Simpson creator Matt Groening, and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. Yo-Yo-Ma and Herbie Hancock will serve as conference music directors. Steelcase, a global leader in the office furniture industry, has created WWW Conversation Chairs exclusively for the conference and famed artist Dale Chihuly will install two of his famed blown glass sculptures in the Esri Conference Center in Redlands, CA, the conference site. 

Contrary to how most meetings are organized, Wurman has never designed a gathering with a specific goal in mind such as changing the world or affecting the lives of the audience. His foremost goal is to open a dialogue between individuals or groups that people might not expect to be paired together.  

Always Terrified
There are no guarantees of this conference’s success but Wurman is up for the challenge. “I’m always terrified. I know the reality; it’s very risky,” he says. He reminisces about his first TED conference, “I lost money and vowed never to do it again,” says Wurman, who turns 77 at the end of March. He took a five-year hiatus from the conference industry until he succumbed to the many who enjoyed the first year and urged him to do another.  From then on, TED was sold out every year, often a year in advance.  

Although the first TED conference was not financially successful, it was ground breaking. Steve Jobs had three original Macintosh computers on hand for attendees to try; the first time anyone could touch his revolutionary creation. Mickey Schulhof, president of Sony USA, gave away shiny-mirrored discs. They were actually compact discs, foreign to all back then. Herbie Hancock composed a piece of music digitally and played it back all within an hour one evening of the conference—mind-blowing in 1984. 

The first TED was also transformational. There were no panels, no dress code, and no keynote speaker at a lectern. “A lectern protects your groin and makes you less vulnerable,” Wurman says. “When one is vulnerable they speak more truthfully. Plus, nobody could speak for very long and if they did I pulled them off. There were no keynotes and no questions.”

Breaks were revered and never shortened. “They are the most important part of a conference as this is when people meet each other,” he adds. Speakers were encouraged to stick around to spark conversation. It has been reported that the idea for the magazine Wired was hatched among its three founders during a break at TED. 

Introductions are a no-no, according to TED’s impresario. If there is a three-minute introduction for each of his 60 speakers that would take 180 minutes that Wurman can’t justify. Instead, every attendee receives a program with the names and bios of all the presenters.

From his Newport, RI, home where he lives with his wife Gloria Nagy, author of ten novels of social satire, Wurman has not only created the WWW Conference but several others. 

Prophesy2025 will take place in the spring of 2013 over the course of five sequential Mondays in five countries around the world. Each day will consist of five long-form conversations of about 50 minutes by an individual who will make a prophesy for what we can expect to happen in the next 12 years. 

The Geeks and Geezers Summit, a recreation of an earlier gathering of the same name, is being reintroduced in the spring of 2014. It will feature dialogue between the generations. An example of a presentation at the first Geeks and Geezers featured Larry Page and Sergey Brin who discussed their new search engine-Google. In another presentation, 92 year-old Stanley Marcus discussed the history of Neiman Marcus.  

TEDMED, set for the spring of 2015, will address healthcare policies and governance in 50 representative countries. 

“The goal of every book and every conference I do is to find it interesting to myself,” Wurman says. “I don’t have somebody who comes to me and asks me to do a conference or a book. I don’t work with anybody. I don’t think anybody wants to work with me as a result of my abrasive personality. I don’t have a publisher, or a lawyer, or a business advisor, or a publicist. I don’t give out press passes to my conferences. That’s not the way I generate anything.”

He generates his ideas by painting, playing with his three beloved Labrador retrievers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and living his life in a “waking dream.”