Park city winter 2012 arts teducation illo c2wu2p

Image: Mike Austin

It sounded way above my head: a conference dedicated to lofty considerations of technology, entertainment, and design. But after more than a year of watching video after video on the TED website, I began the application process, hoping to be invited to attend a conference where some of the world’s smartest people take the stage for 18 minutes each to talk about something that they have never spoken about before—something completely cutting-edge in their field.

That was five years ago, and the end of February is now the most important week of each year for me. That’s when I fly out of the Park City winter and into the California desert to spend days on end hanging around members of my particular tribe of nerds, geeks, and wonky folks at the annual TED conference. We attend every session, listen enraptured to every speaker, and participate in every workshop offered.

We’ve learned that the surprises from speakers often arrive in the more casual moments. Like the time Microsoft chairman Bill Gates talked about how mosquitos carry malaria, and said, “It shouldn’t just be poor people exposed to this.” He then opened a mason jar filled with flying creatures into the room (that’s high geek humor, by the way). Or when singer Jason Mraz took the stage and said he had never played to such an audience of overachievers, and started singling out the CEOs, doctors, and tech inventors in the room. Then he sang a song about these folks who, he claimed, must look in the mirror each day to congratulate themselves and say, “I did it! I f-ing did it!” We adopted that mantra and made fun of each other by singing it (largely off key) the rest of the week.

Dr. David Gallo showed us the first photos (funded by those Google guys) ever taken from the very bottom of the ocean floor. And biologist Craig Venter unveiled his research about the human genome years before he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine to announce his discovery to the world. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was treated like an amusing novelty the first year he spoke, and singer Nellie McKay mocked the science of it all and wrote a ditty about the perfect companion, entitled “Clonie.” At night, we listened to musicians John Doe, Jill Sobule, and Sara Watkins as they united to become the house band.

And we listened to each other.

Turns out, global geeks have some pretty big ideas. Audience members are supposed to take what they have heard and witnessed in just four days back to their communities around the world and share the ideas.

My willing employer, the Park City Performing Arts Foundation, has shared and hosted many of the ideas that TED introduced. These include Pangaea Day, held in May 2008; the creation of The Mega Genius Supply Store and IQHQ, started in January 2009; TEDXPARKCITY (independently organized TED events) in September 2010, produced in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and another TEDXPARKCITY held on December 1, 2011, in collaboration with Pat Mitchell, former president of PBS and CEO of the Paley Center for Media in New York City.

Sure, inspired TED-ites bring new ways of doing things back to their towns and villages, but more importantly, they bring new ways of seeing. TED is a glimpse into the future of just what a collaborating, global community can look like, and Park City is up for the challenge.

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