About the Author: Matthew Barzun serves as U.S. Ambassador to Sweden.U.S. Embassy Stockholm hosted its first ever TEDx event Wednesday. The annual TED conference is committed to "ideas worth spreading," and is a forum of presentation and conversation for just that purpose. TED is where Al Gore gave his original presentation that was expanded into the film An Inconvenient Truth. As I understand it, the organizers got so many requests to do TED events around the world that, instead of declining again and again, they radically lowered the barriers to allow TED to spread. They let others put on their own TEDs -- thus TEDx, in which the x stands for independently organized events.
The U.S. State Department -- with its focus on 21st Century Statecraft and Global Partnership Initiatives -- jumped in even before TEDx fully took off, hosting TED@State last June, a highlight of which was Sweden's own Hans Rosling (more on that below). Sweden was one of the first countries outside of the United States to try this new experiment called TEDx, led by Teo Haren and Henrik Ahlen. The local community of TEDxers grew and soon raised its expectations about what it could do. This week, they gave themselves a challenge: let's put on the most TEDxs in a week, ever. As of this writing, the count is at 25.
Inspired and encouraged by the innovators at Ted@State and TEDxStockholm, we joined the effort and hosted one Wednesday at the embassy. Our clever name: TEDx@USEmbassyStockholm. (We have room for improvement in the clever naming department, but stay tuned.) We did focus our energy in getting a great mix of engaged people -- from inventors to executives, academics to artists, policy makers to diplomats. We planned a great schedule with talks from the TED video archive, including Dan Pink on motivation, child prodigy Adora Svitak on what grown ups can learn from children, and Hans Rosling's talk on how datasets can change mindsets. We also hosted some unanticipated guests, who were volcano strandees from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky: Alice Stites, who challenged us to think of art as a verb ("art does"), and the cellist Ben Sollee, who told his story of sustainable touring and his upcoming bicycle trip (with cello, of course) concert tour.
Marcus Oscarsson presented on the value of plain speaking, and embassy colleagues Dan and Ryan stepped up to the challenge, too. Dan extolled the virtues of debating at the dinner table. Ryan used the metaphor of musical notes to remind us to avoid a rut of linear thinking -- instead of being limited by the normal scale progression in music, we recombine the notes to make melodies.
I talked about how many complex systems come from simple patterns repeated over and over. In the math world, this is called "fractals." Each fractal has a seed pattern. For instance, the seed pattern of a tree is the branch shape, which is repeated as it grows. It turns out lava flows are fractal too, but I didn't dwell on that for reasons too obvious to mention. I made the case that the Obama campaign exhibited just this fractal pattern. The same engagement with small groups of people in the cornfields of Iowa were successfully repeated throughout the campaign, resulting in millions on the Washington Mall for inauguration.
The seed pattern is important, because it determines the ultimate shape of the result. Thinking in fractals is a good way to test your plan or idea. What is your seed pattern? Will your fractal look like the goal you envision? I asked the group to consider this when thinking about the complex problems and big dreams each of us works on in the lab or at the office.
Having this group of American and Swedish people assembled to listen, to engage, and to help ideas spread was just the sort of seed pattern we at U.S. Embassy Stockholm want to repeat.