On Keeping an Open Mind About TEDx Vancouver

An Open Letter to Cyrus Irani, the TEDx Vancouver organizing team and everyone who has raised concerns about the event,

Welcome to a crash course in the difficulties of shaping and guiding something that belongs to the Public Trust!

That people feel passionately about the TED Lectures is beyond question.  The organizing team are passionate enough about it that they’ve dedicated their time and energy to making it happen. The people who have made their thoughts known since the event was announced many months ago – who put their ideas forward to speak at the event, who applied to attend and, perhaps especially, those who have turned up the volume across the social media channels over the past day – are just as passionate about what TED means to them.

It’s been a fascinating conversation to watch, a very public conversation and I’ve tried to bite my tongue on it but I just can’t do it.  There’s a few things that I am feeling compelled to say.

But first an admission: I will be attending TEDxVancouver.  I will be listening and speaking to people at the event that day with an open mind.  It’s about respect.  Make no mistake, I am honoured to be a part of the first TED event in Vancouver.

My expectation is that the presenters at TEDxVancouver will deliver an amazing, inspirational and life-affirming day and that optimism and a renewed commitment to action will reign.

But that doesn’t mean that I am exactly enthralled by how the organizers have handled things or that I’m 100% in agreement with what the dissenting voices are saying.

For those of you coming a late to the party, a little background.

TEDx Vancouver was announced some time during the early summer, I believe, and during those early months people could apply to present a lecture.  I applied to present but was not chosen.

Then the organizing team opened the registration for attendees.  I applied to attend (I know how ridiculous that sounds and I will leave it to others to pick this aspect of the whole thing apart and offer creative solutions) and was accepted.

I printed my evite when it arrived and happily waited for the event.

Then yesterday the TEDx Vancouver organizers announced the line-up of speakers and the shit hit the proverbial fan.

Twitter and Facebook lit up with links, opinions and commentary like your drunk uncle had just found a secret stash of roman candles in the attic.

People were outraged that only 1 of the 11 speakers chosen to present that day is a woman.  There were questions about the racial mix of the speakers’ panel and the intellectual pedigree of some of the speakers.

People wanted to know: is Vancouver really best represented by video game designers, television personalities, film makers, web strategists, environmental entrepreneurs and Terry McBride?  (Does any Vancouverite really want an honest answer to that question?)

Was the agenda of the organizing team too narrow in its scope?  Did the organizing team bother to look any further than the corporate rolodex at the EA headquarters where the event is being held?

Some people weren’t ‘feeling’ the vision.  They weren’t sure that venture capitalism, advertising and cinematic special effects were the stuff of ‘inspirational genius.’

The voices that were speaking out wanted something.  And they were passionate about it, but what did they want?

They wanted to be heard.  They wanted to feel like they were a part of TEDxVancouver even if they weren’t going to attend the actual day.

I’m not sure that their outrage really had too much to do with the speakers on the panel.  I think that it’s actually more about how the organizing committee communicated their vision for TEDxVancouver to the public over time, and how they handled the backlash when it happened.

The best expression of how people felt was written by Stephanie Vacher in this post that appeared shortly after the news broke.

A very eloquent and thoughtful letter.

Those are not the terms that I would use to characterize TEDxVancouver’s response posted on their site the next day.

Their letter, in my opinion, sucks.  It’s appallingly generic and does little more than gloss over the concerns expressed by Stephanie and others.  It reads like a form letter from Telus and I think it exposes the true root of the problem.

The Root of the Problem: a perceived lack of accountability/communication on the part of the organizing committee for 2 things that people feel very strongly about: a very personal vision of what the City of Vancouver represents to them and the founding ideals of the TED brand. Then mix in a sensitivity to how the rest of the world perceives Vancouver and its relationship to the TED brand.

Especially in this city of boundless interconnection and frenetic, highly-caffeinated intellectual and artistic energy you’ve got to meet people on their turf and share the info.

It is better to have transparent processes and more open public communication when handling things that are so connected to people’s aspirations and sense of place.

To me, that is what we have learned over the past 36 hours.

I think that Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD said it best in his response to the letter posted online:

There is one point that I think is far from obvious and that I want to address in print. TED’s success in promoting “ideas worth spreading” hinges on successfully exploiting the scalability properties of information flow in a networked society. In other words, for TED to succeed, the videos and talks need to go viral and have the broadest reach in the shortest amount of time. Best medium to accomplish that? The online world.

And the online world favors transparency and accountability.

Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.


  • Reply November 18, 2009


    Well put. I won’t be attending, in part because the (ahem) information flow did not include letting the Facebook Fans know about the application process for attendees.

  • Reply November 18, 2009


    I could not agree more with your excellent analysis.

  • Reply November 18, 2009


    I agree with Raincoaster and I am still really surprised at the line up of speakers at TedXVancouver!

  • Reply November 18, 2009

    uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by seancranbury: My Open Letter to both sides of the @TEDxVAN debate http://bit.ly/3jurtQ #TED #tedxvancouver…

  • Reply November 18, 2009


    Well said. I think it’s telling that the TEDxVan blog post is entitled “To all TEDxVancouver Fans, Enthusiasts and Supporters”.

    Of course, it’s not aimed at friends of the conference. It’s written to the conference’s critics, and ought to be brave enough to recognize them…er, us.

    Having been involved with Northern Voice for five years, I’m no stranger to controversial decisions around organizing (if I may call it this) a much-loved event. See, for example, last year’s controversy about having the BC Liberals as a sponsor. I was only tangentially involved with the conference last year, but I really admire the letter than Travis (with input from others, I believe) wrote regarding the issue: http://bit.ly/1VSqnh. I think it stands as a sound response to public criticism.

    It makes use of a tactic I always employ: invite your worst critics to contribute. If they won’t put their effort where their mouth is, in some capacity, then they tend to go quiet. As somebody once said to me: if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the government.

  • Reply November 18, 2009


    Well put Sean… The blah blah blah post automatically generated by the PR dept at TEDxVan got my blood boiling too. The selection of speakers must have been made by LA culture robbers looking to reinforce the Hollywood North image of Vancouver. Open events like BookCamp Vancouver, Northern Voice, Open Web, and Media Democracy Day are where all the fresh brains are going. I’m a big fan of TED, but when I saw that just being in the audience required tooting my own horn, my reaction was ‘ef this’, blow it out your arse!

  • Reply November 19, 2009


    Hi Sean,

    I could not agree with you more.I was really excited about the idea of a TED event in Vancouver, a friend was just at the event in India but I can’t believe, how closed this entire event has been, especially from a group of people who’s battle cry is “ideas worth spreading.” My biggest concern aside from the gross gender, and industry imbalances, goes to process by which it is decided who’s ideas are worth spreading. By that I mean, who in their right mind holds an event at a building that appears from their website to be the size of a small college and then only issues 100 INVITATIONS! invitations which you have to APPLY to receive…

    If you want ideas to spread you’re gonna need more than 100 people, and you’re certainly gonna need people from outside of a particular industry.Its not like the video game industry and the film industry aren’t best friends already! There’s an idea that’s already spread.

    Not only that you’d think that with an event this size, you might be able to offer media accreditation to those of us in the media who might want to spread the word, about the event or those ideas that are worth spreading that everybody keeps talking about, but there’s nothing on the site to direct media inquiries. But hey those ideas that are gonna come from this, they’re worth spreading.

    This to me feels like a job fair for the 17% of EA employees who just got laid off, let’s hope Terry McBride is looking for people.

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Leigh Christie

    I was pretty disappointed in the lack of diversity of the speakers. However, I’m saving my anger until I see the diversity of the nominations. Statistically, how many women were nominated? How many men? How many white people? If the ratio of the speakers reflects the ratio of the nominations, then I place the blame with the nominators.

    As for the exclusivity part. I think it’s safe to say that the TED formula depends on this. I was fortunate enough to attend Gadgetoff 2009 in NYC (which has many similarities to TED), and I can tell you that the exclusivity plays a huge roll in how they manage to get so many amazing speakers/artists/inventors.

    As for why the speaker list is dominated by environmentalists, film and video game folks… I have no idea. I would prefer more artists, inventors and scientists. I know a fair few personally who would do an amazing job. Guess I’m at fault for not nominating more people.

    Has anyone else noticed the irony that one of the speakers (Alden E. Habacon) is a diversity specialist?

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Angela Crocker

    Thanks, Sean. I look forward to your insider’s report of the event. Once again trust grows from familiarity through social media and I trust you to attend with an open mind and share a balanced report. I look forward to perceptions and recommendations.

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

    Thanks so much for this post, and excellent analysis, Sean (and no, I don’t say this just because you quoted me, heh :))

    I am sure that in the future, the folks who organize a TEDx conference wherever they decide to do so will learn the rules of a networked society. They better.

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Anthony Hempell

    It’s apparent to me that what has happened is that a lot of people have embraced the vision of a TED conference, and that what has been presented is not in alignment with what *they* would put together for a TED conference. Fair enough. But although there is a lot of feeling of community ownership, this actually isn’t reflected in the organization of this conference.

    I’m also detecting a lot of jealousy from the social media in-crowd here. Cyrus and his pals are not in their circle and haven’t lived up to other people’s vision of the TED brand.

    It’s pretty easy to slag a conference before it even happens. I haven’t heard any of the talks yet so lets save our criticism for after it’s over.

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Anthony Hempell

    This is where I think we disagree. How exactly is TED a “public trust”? TED is owned by a US non-profit foundation. It’s all warm and fuzzy, but it is no more a public trust than the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the NRA or Greenpeace.

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

    @ Anthony,

    You may perceive that there is jealousy from the in-social media crowd, but I don’t see it, to be quite honest. It is all a matter of perception, as you said in your comment saying that you’re detecting it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there’s jealousy. I think that there is a puzzle and lots of questions, not many of which have been answered.

    My point is that TED is predicated on the premise of “ideas worth spreading”. But one of the ideas that has spread the most (and TED itself has contributed to its spread) is that, we live in a society that values democracy, accountability and transparency. As a result we all are measured by the same stick (we are expected to be transparent, democratic and accountable).

    You’re 100% right. The conference hasn’t happened and one could reserve judgement. But there is a difference between “one could” and “one should”. We all *could* reserve judgement. That doesn’t mean we should.

    As I mentioned in all my comments, I have organized conferences before (not one, not two, MANY). I know how easy it is to pile on the organizers for doing things a different way. I have been criticized (heck, I’m criticized every single day, for what it’s worth!) and I have learned from the criticisms. It doesn’t matter if the criticism comes BEFORE or AFTER the conference, it’s a learning experience. The criticisms will not stop the conference from happening.

    In truth, behind the scenes of many a conference there is politics, a lot of unknowns and very few explanations. all I can hope (and I seriously wish) is that TEDx Vancouver succeeds.

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Sean Cranbury

    Anthony, thanks for pursuing the Public Trust angle.

    You’re right of course, that strictly speaking it’s not a public trust and perhaps that is the view of the TEDxVancouver organizing committee, too.

    But I would say that TEDx functions similarly to a public trust because of the perception that the brand is fundamentally inclusive and egalitarian and it is also representative of the community in which it is being held.

    I think that when you take on the responsibility of organizing a TEDx event that there’s some responsibilty to be open and conversational with the public.

    If one chooses to ignore or do the absolute minimum in terms of communicating with the people of the community whose name you are emblazoning on the website and attaching to the TEDx brand then you end up with situations like this one.

    That may not strictly speaking be ‘public trust’ but it comes close to expressing where i think the friction in this situation comes from.

    Thanks again for caring enough to comment. (you, too, Raul.)

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Anthony Hempell

    Thanks Raul and Sean, your replies give me a much better understanding of the discussion.

    I’m all for openness, democracy and transparency, it’s just that I also know what a pain in the ass it is to get anything done in such an environment. Yes, it is all worth it, but sometimes benevolent dictatorship really is the best option short term… until the dictator becomes corrupt of course (bwah hahahaha…)

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Sean Cranbury

    Hey Anthony

    You’re absolutely right, I’m definitely not advocating that the organizing committee waters down their ability to make decisions or to steer their vision.

    I’m just saying that some communication along the way could have gone a long way to defusing the insurrection and the aftermath of the other day.

    I’m not trying to advocate that a million hands should get into the gears, just that there was a conversation to be had over time that didn’t happen.

    Hopefully the organizers of events like this can learn from this example.

    Ultimately it will take nothing away from the event itself.

    Thanks for the maniacal laugh not we just need the disembodied sound of Darth Vader’s respirator and we’re in business!

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Anthony Hempell

    One other observation I have is about the ordering of the list. Go and look at the list of speakers now… they have re-ordered it in alphabetical order. The original list had “four white guys from gaming/film” at the top and if you didn’t scroll down this impression was difficult to shake. Now the first impression is much different.

    The presentation of the speaker list in part contributed to the negative reaction in my view.

  • Reply November 19, 2009

    Sean Cranbury

    Agree, Anthony. Totally agree.

    The Electronic Arts trifecta – host location/organizing committee/currently employee at top of original list of speakers – gave some people pause for concern.

    Optics could have been handled better.

    Again, trust could have been gained over time via engagement, conversation, transparency.

  • Reply November 19, 2009


    Now, of course I’m biased (we are all biased in our own ways) but I don’t see any jealousy from the social media community here in Vancouver. The potential was certainly there, but it just hasn’t happened; what you’re seeing isn’t disappointment at being left out, it’s disappointment at the execution and perceived merits of the speaker lineup.

    We all get more than enough opportunity to see “the Usual Suspects.” I wanted to see people I’d never seen before, people who’d blow me away with what they said. One of the ways in which this speaker list fails is the extent to which it is to be more or less interchangeable with any standard speaker’s circuit group of suits. Motivational speakers and three guys from a company which has just had to hugely dial itself back … just not the best we can do.

    I wanted to see people selected on the basis of their merits as inspirational geniuses. That was obviously not among the criteria used here. They may indeed be such geniuses, but if they are, that’s not in their bio. It was never communicated to us. And if it was never communicated to us, then it comes down to a matter of faith.

    Faith in the TED brand is strong, obviously. Faith in this execution? Given the lack of TEDxVancouver’s engagement, most particularly in social channels which accept 24/7 engagement as a given, there is a neatly corresponding lack of trust. Imagine getting a phonecall, hearing “Please hold for TEDxVancouver” and continuing to hold, for months.

    Every inaction has an equal and opposite inaction. If they’ve failed to engage with Vancouver, it’s only natural that Vancouver will fail to engage with them.

  • Reply November 20, 2009

    Hipster Designer

    Just a few points.
    Get over it (it’s just another conference)
    Get over yourselves (a dime a dozen, you is)
    And to those who got a golden ticket, enjoy the show

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