On Saturday, Feb. 9, a group of deep-thinkers will gather at the Circuit of the Americas facility for a day of freewheeling entertainment. The event, however, has nothing to do with racing, and will take place primarily in COTA's media center. "FearLess" is the theme for the fourth annual TEDxAustin – an immersive, daylong experience based on the popular TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, a global phenomenon founded in 1984 with the intention of sharing "ideas worth spreading" through 18-minute talks.
In the early 2000s, TED started streaming its conferences online, which led to the popularization of the conference as well as the localized, franchised version known as TEDx. TEDxAustin was one of the first offshoots to be licensed to host an independently organized event; there are now thousands.
While the entire event will be live-streamed, the core team of producers emphasizes the visceral, interactive element that the 525 participants will be offered, in part due to the scale of the new setting. "We've literally flipped the TEDx model on its head in a way," said Jeff Sharpe, creative director. "Traditionally the audience is an observer, but this year is very much about participatory theatre that guests will be provoked to engage with."
"Jeff is creating what I call an intellectual Oz," said Nancy Giordano, the licensee and chief idea wrangler for TEDxAustin. Giordano, who is founder of and brand futurist at Play Big, helps select both the speakers and the attendees. Speakers are kept secret until the event, which Giordano says prevents people from prejudging and also reflects the improvisatory spirit of TED. "It's rare these days to have the opportunity to walk into something and be in a state of wonder," she said. "It's really nice to provide people with something to come and experience fresh."
Those who do get this experience are selected through an application process that Giordano says is designed to increase diversity and "create a big stew of people united in their desire to have deeper conversations about the year's theme." They will relinquish their phones and other electronic devices at the door and spend the day disconnected from the outside world.
Community engagement is a primary goal of TEDxAustin. This year there are viewing parties, an official pre-event happy hour open to anyone, and the inaugural TEDxYouthAustin, a format of TED-like talks geared toward local high-school and middle-school students. "In the end it's about bringing the community together, so how do we do that, is the question," said Sharpe. "I think it could be more diverse for sure, but it's definitely a cross-section of Austin."
Austin's intellectual diversity was a major inspiration for the initial TEDxAustin. "We've got all these people at the front edge of the future here," said Giordano. "Biology, government, technology, education, entrepreneurs, all with so many fresh ideas." In keeping with last year's conference theme – "Beyond Measure" – people were encouraged to confront scale and complexity by making 18-second videos, a play on the traditional 18-minute talk length. On YouTube, under the tag "TEDxAustin18," is a compilation of short, loosely related videos. It feels like an artificial online community created just for itself – perhaps the point of TEDx.
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