It’s a new, strange, experimental day for TED. In a special Earth Day event, TED2020: The Prequel brought the magic of the TED conference to the virtual stage, inviting TED2020 community members to gather for three sessions of talks and engaging, innovative opportunities to connect. Alongside world-changing ideas from leaders in science, political strategy and environmental activism, attendees also experienced the debut of an interactive, TED-developed second-screen technology that allowed them to discuss ideas with each other, ask questions of speakers and give real-time (emoji-driven) feedback to the stage. Below, a recap of the day’s inspiration.
Session 1: Fragility
The opening session of The Prequel featured thinking on the fragile state of the present — and some hopes for the future.
Larry Brilliant, epidemiologist
Big idea: Global cooperation is the key to ending the novel coronavirus pandemic.
How? Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant reviews the global response to SARS-CoV-2 with head of TED Chris Anderson and reflects on what we can do to end the outbreak. While scientists were able to detect and identify the virus quickly, Brilliant says, political incompetence and fear delayed action. Discussing the deadly combination of a short incubation period with a high transmissibility rate, he explains how social distancing doesn’t stamp out the disease but rather slows its spread, giving us the time needed to execute crucial contact tracing and develop a vaccine. Brilliant shares how scientists are collaborating to speed up the vaccine timeline by running multiple processes (like safety testing and manufacturing) in parallel, rather than in a time-consuming sequential process. And he reminds us that to truly conquer the pandemic, we must work together across national boundaries and political divides.
Quote of the talk: “This is what a pandemic forces us to realize: we are all in it together, we need a global solution to a global problem. Anything less than that is unthinkable.”
Huang Hung, writer, publisher
Big idea: Individual freedom as an abstract concept in a pandemic is meaningless. It’s time for the West to take a step toward the East.
How? By embracing and prizing collective responsibility. In conversation with TED’s head of curation, Helen Walters, writer and publisher Huang Hung discusses how the Chinese people’s inherent trust in their government to fix problems (even when the solutions are disliked) played out with COVID-19, the handling of coronavirus whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang and what, exactly, “wok throwing” is. What seems normal and appropriate to the Chinese, Hung says — things like contact tracing and temperature checks at malls — may seem surprising and unfamiliar to Westerners at first, but these tools can be our best bet to fight a pandemic. What’s most important now is to think about the collective, not the individual. “It is a time to be together rather than to try to pull the world apart and crawl back into our own nationalistic shells,” she says.
Fun fact: There’s a word — 乖, or “guai” — that exists only in Chinese: it means a child who listens to their parents.
Watch “An ode to living on Earth” at go.ted.com/oliverjeffers.
Oliver Jeffers, artist, storyteller
Big idea: In the face of infinite odds, 7.5 billion of us (and counting) find ourselves here, on Earth, and that shared existence is the most important thing we have.
Why? In a poetic effort to introduce life on Earth to someone who’s never been here before, artist Oliver Jeffers wrote his newborn son a letter (which grew into a book, and then a sculpture) full of pearls of wisdom on our shared humanity. Alongside charming, original illustrations, he gives some of his best advice for living on this planet. Jeffers acknowledges that, in the grand scheme of things, we know very little about existence — except that we are experiencing it together. And we should relish that connection. Watch the talk on TED.com >>
Quote of the talk: “‘For all we know,’ when said as a statement, means the sum total of all knowledge. But ‘for all we know’ when said another way, means that we do not know at all. This is the beautiful, fragile drama of civilization. We are the actors and spectators of a cosmic play that means the world to us here but means nothing anywhere else.”
Musical interludes from 14-year old prodigy Lydian Nadhaswaram, who shared an energetic, improvised version of Gershwin’s “Summertime”; and musician, singer and songwriter Sierra Hull, who played her song “Beautifully Out of Place.”
Session 2: Resilience
Session 2 of The Prequel focused on The Audacious Project, a collaborative funding initiative housed at TED that’s unlocking social impact on a grand scale. The session saw the debut of three 2020 Audacious grantees — Crisis Text Line, The Collins Lab and ACEGID — that are spearheading bold and innovative solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their inspirational work on the front lines is delivering urgent support to help the most vulnerable through this crisis.
Pardis Sabeti and Christian Happi, disease researchers
Big idea: Combining genomics with new information technologies, Sentinel — an early warning system that can detect and respond to emerging viral threats in real-time — aims to radically change how we catch and control outbreaks. With the novel coronavirus pandemic, Sentinel is pivoting to become a frontline responder to COVID-19.
How? From advances in the field of genomics, the team at Sentinel has developed two tools to detect viruses, track outbreaks and watch for mutations. First is Sherlock, a new method to test viruses with simple paper strips — and identify them within hours. The second is Carmen, which enables labs to test hundreds of viruses simultaneously, massively increasing diagnostic ability. By pairing these tools with mobile and cloud-based technologies, Sentinel aims to connect health workers across the world and share critical information to preempt pandemics. As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, the Sentinel team is helping scientists detect the virus quicker and empower health workers to connect and better contain the outbreak. See what you can do for this idea »
Quote of the talk: “The whole idea of Sentinel is that we all stand guard over each other, we all watch. Each one of us is a sentinel.”
Jim Collins, bioengineer
Big idea: AI is our secret weapon against the novel coronavirus.
How? Bioengineer Jim Collins rightly touts the promise and potential of technology as a tool to discover solutions to humanity’s biggest molecular problems. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, his team combined AI with synthetic biology data, seeking to avoid a similar battle that’s on the horizon: superbugs and antibiotic resistance. But in the shadow of the present global crisis, they pivoted these technologies to help defeat the virus. They have made strides in using machine learning to discover new antiviral compounds and develop a hybrid protective mask-diagnostic test. Thanks to funding from The Audacious Project, Collins’s team will develop seven new antibiotics over seven years, with their immediate focus being treatments to help combat bacterial infections that occur alongside SARS-CoV-2. See what you can do for this idea »
Quote of the talk: “Instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, we can use the giant magnet of computing power to find many needles in multiple haystacks simultaneously.”
Nancy Lublin, health activist
Big idea: Crisis Text Line, a free 24-hour service that connects with people via text message, delivers crucial mental health support to those who need it. Now they’re going global.
How? Using mobile technology, machine learning and a large distributed network of volunteers, Crisis Text Line makes it easier for people to get help in times of crisis, no matter the situation. Here’s how it works: If you’re in the United States or Canada, you can text HOME to 741741 and connect with a live, trained Crisis Counselor, who will provide confidential help via text message. (Numbers vary for the UK and Ireland; find them here.) The not-for-profit launched in August 2013 and within four months had expanded to all 274 area codes in the US. Over the next two-and-a-half years, they’re committing to providing aid to anyone who needs it not only in English but also in Spanish, Portuguese, French and Arabic — covering 32 percent of the globe. Learn how you can join the movement to spread empathy across the world by becoming a Crisis Counselor. See what you can do for this idea »
Quote of the talk: “This will be strangers helping strangers around the world — like a giant global love machine.”
Music and interludes from Damian Kulash and OK Go, who showed love for frontline pandemic workers with the debut of a special quarantine performance, and David Whyte, who recited his poem “What to Remember When Waking,” inviting us to celebrate that first, hardly-noticed moment when we wake up each day. “What you can plan is too small for you to live,” Whyte says.
Session 3: Restoration
The closing session of The Prequel considered ways to restore our planet’s health and work towards a beautiful, clean, carbon-free future.
Watch “How to shift your mindset and choose your future” at go.ted.com/tomrivettcarnac.
Tom Rivett-Carnac, political strategist
Big idea: We need stubborn optimism coupled with action to meet our most formidable challenges.
How: Speaking from the woods outside his home in London, political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac addresses the loss of control and helplessness we may feel as a result of overwhelming threats like climate change. Looking to leaders from history who have blazed the way forward in dark times, he finds that people like Rosa Parks, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi had something in common: stubborn optimism. This mindset, he says, is not naivety or denial but rather a refusal to be defeated. Stubborn optimism, when paired with action, can infuse our efforts with meaning and help us choose the world we want to create. Watch the talk on TED.com >>
Quote of the talk: “This stubborn optimism is a form of applied love … and it is a choice for all of us.”
Kristine Tompkins, Earth activist, conservationist
Big idea: Earth, humanity and nature are all interconnected — and “rewilding” the world back to health starts in its wildernesses.
Why? The disappearance of wildlife from its natural habitat is a problem to be met with action, not nostalgia. Activist and former Patagonia CEO Kristine Tompkins decided she would dedicate the rest of her life to that work. By purchasing privately owned wild habitats, restoring their ecosystems and transforming them into protected national parks, Tompkins shows the transformational power of wildlands philanthropy. She urgently spreads the importance of rewilding — and that we all have a role to play. “The power of the absent can’t help us if it just leads to nostalgia or despair,” she says. “It’s only useful if it motivates us toward working to bring back what’s gone missing.”
Quote of the talk: “Every human life is affected by the actions of every other human life around the globe. And the fate of humanity is tied to the health of the planet. We have a common destiny. We can flourish or we can suffer, but we’re going to be doing it together.”
Music and interludes from Amanda Palmer, who channels her inner Gonzo with a performance of “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” from The Muppet Movie; Baratunde Thurston, who took a moment to show gratitude for Earth and reflect on the challenge humanity faces in restoring balance to our lives; singer-songwriter Alice Smith, who gives a hauntingly beautiful vocal performance of her original song “The Meaning,” dedicated of Mother Earth; and author Neil Gaiman, reading an excerpt about the fragile beauty that lies at the heart of life.
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