If you are one of the many worldwide who watch TED videos, you will know of the power of its 18 minute presentations by some of the world’s leading thinkers, capturing in bite-size chunks "ideas worth spreading" that inspire and provoke. TED – short for Technology, Entertainment, Design – is another internet phenomenon, which takes the best of high quality conferences and brings the keynote speakers, from Bill Clinton to Steve Jobs to Malcolm Gladwell to Paul Simon to Herbie Hancock, direct to your computer screen, free of charge.
TED aims, it says, to provide a platform for the world’s smartest thinkers, greatest visionaries and most-inspiring teachers, so that millions of people can gain a better understanding of the biggest issues faced by the world. Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea. TED seems to have an enviable track record.
What most of us will not yet know, however, is that TED has elected to hold its annual global conference (TEDGlobal) in Edinburgh, at the EICC, in July this year. This is a significant coup. On its website, TED explains that when it started considering a move, it looked at several other UK cities. Edinburgh "topped our analysis".
That Edinburgh is recognised in this way as an ideal centre for the exchange and propagation of new ideas should not be a surprise. It bears out what a number of people have been saying for a while. Edinburgh’s geographic setting, improving transport links and accommodation, and reputation for integrity and hospitality serve to augment its historic reputation for enlightened thinking. Edinburgh is a good place to talk.
Indeed, back in the early 1980’s, the city and its university was the setting for the high-powered Edinburgh Conversations – sub-titled Survival in the Nuclear Age – involving British, American and Soviet experts and academics, which many came to believe had a crucial role in hastening the end of the Cold War. Meetings were held alternately in Edinburgh and Moscow between 1981 and 1988. Participants were chosen for their expertise and the leading figure was Professor John Erickson, a peerless expert in Soviet military affairs who was the head of the Department of Defence Studies at the University of Edinburgh, which played a major hosting role. Meetings were held in private, exploring options rather than trying to find solutions. The social programme in Edinburgh was essential to breaking down tensions and building up personal relationships and the final event was a concert by members of the Edinburgh Quartet in St Cecilia’s Hall in December 1988.
What characterised these crucial talks was their non-political nature, the absence of financial stakeholders (no public money was used and a trust fund met expenses), the sometimes sacrificial commitment by participants to continue at highly sensitive moments (such as the shooting down of the Korean airliner just days before the 1983 Conversations), and a desire to make a real difference.
Can we capitalise on this tradition and on TED’s vote of confidence by enhancing our own ability to discuss the important issues of the day as they affect us in Scotland, here and now? Can we move from politicised, narrow argumentation where the mainstays seem to be personal attack and obfuscation to a frank, open, respectful dialogue in which we wrestle transparently with the things that really matter?
What topics would such conversations about a new Scotland invite us to tackle?
(a version of this blog appeared in Caledonian Mercury recently)