Ideas to trump names on TEDxTokyo stage

by John Matthews

Special To The Japan Times

TEDxTokyo is set to kick off its fifth annual event on May 11 at Hikarie Hall in Shibuya Ward, featuring a bevy of talented speakers, among whom are many you’ve likely never heard of.

According to Joseph Tame, coleader for the media team putting together this symposium of ideas (and inventor of the iRun suit), that’s part of what makes the TED experience so magical.

“Provided they have an idea worth sharing, anyone can be a TED speaker,” says Tame, using the conference’s quintessential “Ideas worth spreading” tagline. TEDx events are licensed and independently created by volunteers such as Patrick Newell, a cofounder of TEDxTokyo. The Tokyo incarnation was the first independent event to be held outside the United States when it launched in 2009. Speaking to The Japan Times, Tame admits the naming convention may be a little confusing: “We’ve got a lot of calls from all over Japan mistaking us for TED, asking for help setting up events.”

TED (short for Technology, Entertainment, Design) earned part of its fame in the 2000s through high-profile presentations from big and sometimes controversial names: Bill Gates, Richard Dawkins, Peter Gabriel, Julian Assange and many others.

However, as Tame points out, TED and the resulting independently organized TEDx offerings have kept the focus on being idea-studded rather than star-studded.

TED isn’t simply a series of cleverly written commencement speeches in any given auditorium; TEDxTokyo, along with many of its cousins in Japan and abroad, blends the intimate audience-presenter atmosphere with a strong social-media presence.

Onstage livestreams and YouTube videos aside, Tame and the crew of more than 200 volunteers bring the streaming cameras backstage for more personal chats with the speakers themselves during the event, allowing those at home to send questions directly via Twitter. Unsurprisingly, TEDxTokyo was the top trending topic on Twitter during its 2012 event, allowing the public to peer into the minds of its sometimes bizarre, often brilliant, and always insightful speakers.

Having worked on four TEDxTokyo events, Tame firmly believes that “anyone can find themselves in TED,” not only as a speaker, but as an audience member.

Though ticket applications are carefully scrutinized to build curated audiences, presentation videos and livestreamed broadcasts are open to all Web denizens.

Of course, TEDxTokyo is hardly a platform to extol the virtues of brilliant Western thought to Eastern audiences; this year’s speakers are overwhelmingly Japanese by ethnicity, with a very strong cadre of local volunteers. They include architect Shigeru Ban, food artist Ayako Suwa and author/Japan Times columnist C.W. Nicol.

When asked who the human version of TED would be (no doubt named Ted), Tame finds himself a little stumped as the sheer variety of voices contained within the pantheon of TED and TEDx speakers would be impossible to fit in a single person.

So, excluding the idea of extreme schizophrenia, it seems clear that not all TED talks are designed for all audiences, but you shouldn’t have to look hard to find a talk that reaches you. That diversity may make TED a difficult sell, according to Tame, but media adaptations such as NHK’s “Super Presentation,” where the country’s national broadcaster uses TED as an educational tool on how to deliver an impressive speech, certainly help clear part of the hurdle.

TED isn’t the only quirky presentation-based event to take off in Japan. PechaKucha Night, with the tagline 20×20, for 20 images and 20 seconds, has regularly packed out crowds at venues across the country. This almost game-show-like event requires speakers to speak on each image for 20 seconds, anchoring exposition and inquisition to visual content. The first PechaKucha night was held at a bar in Tokyo in 2003, and has since spread worldwide to more than 500 cities.

Other presentation events, such as Hills Breakfast in Roppongi Hills and Creative Social, have also picked up tech-savvy followings of young entrepreneurs.

Among the speakers at this year’s event is John Kluge, a man who spends much of his time on a concept everyone can sit and think on: the toilet. Kluge heads up the social enterprise Toilet Hackers, dedicated to fighting the War on Poop. According to the poop group, 40 percent of humanity is without access to toilets, resulting in often deadly sanitation problems. Kluge, raised by renowned philanthropist John Kluge Sr., aims to provide 1 million toilets to those in need.

When asked about whether improved toilet access would have a “trickle down effect,” he says that responding to the dire need for sanitation would be much more like a flood, though not of the type that would need a plumber. It does, however, need what he calls “fearless giving.” Coauthor of the book “Charity and Philanthropy for Dummies,” part of the “For Dummies” series, Kluge ascribes to the idea of “philanthropunk.” He says that the core concepts for successful philanthropy and social enterprise are rooted in punk rock culture, partially pioneered here in Japan. The few chords needed to master early punk meant that anyone could pick up a guitar and start shredding; for Kluge, a successful social enterprise provides a similarly easy framework for others to spread utility and benefits to their communities.

As a philanthropunk looking to “disrupt sh-t,” Kluge points to the serious need for disruptive thinking leading to disruptive innovation to make significant changes for the better. What the world needs now are “rebels with a cause” instead of without, according to Kluge.

Part of that rebellion is learning to talk about poop; though related to what goes on at the dinner table, it’s hardly a common topic to share over a meal. As it stands, the curse on the War on Poop is that feces suffer from a long-standing taboo. Even the word “sanitation” is itself a sanitized term, without the gravity its importance should lend it. In their fight against stigma, the Toilet Hackers team recently invited New Yorkers to attend a reading of a play titled “An Inconvenient Poop,” highlighting the seriousness of the sanitation issue.

With admiration, Kluge reflects on the birth of sanitation theory, largely attributed to physician John Snow and his discovery of tainted drinking water at the heart of a cholera outbreak in 1850s London. Changing his tone to one of apprehensive disappointment, he notes the distinct lack of innovation in basic sewage and sanitation since that time. Even with a high regard for Japanese toilet manufacturers’ achievements, he says that there is still much progress to be made, particularly in the fields of waterless or graywater systems (recycling wastewater from faucets and other nontoilet fixtures) in order to conserve the world’s most essential natural resource.

As for the future and for how to solve major social issues like sanitation access, Kluge outlines three cornerstones of a good philanthropunk:

  1. Do-It-Yourself: “Enterpreneurs are taking on problems no one has a proven solution to; you have to go out and hack at it. You experiment, try, fail and try again.”
  2. Collaborate: “Taking on big challenges is not something you can do as a solo act. Assemble your band, because no awesome punk band was ever an army of one. There’s usually a drummer, bass player, guitarist, and someone yelling at the top of their lungs.”
  3. Jump in the mosh pit: “It’s messy, it can be scary, and you’re probably going to get hurt or kicked in the head at some point … but when you succeed, man, is it awesome.”

Although he’s known for being a prolific toilet talker, Kluge’s presentation at TEDxTokyo will be focused not on his work with porcelain and plastic but instead on hearts and minds. As part of his talk, he wants to stress the need for “fearless giving.”

When asked how Japan fits into the equation, he points out that the country had already made efforts to rebuild and recover after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. On top of a national culture of giving, he sees potential in the youth and counter-culture to start building their own social enterprises, with an emphasis on community and cooperation supported by a sustainable business model.

Kluge emphasizes the creation of social enterprises and other creative forms of philanthropy rather than outright charities, explaining, “Direct giving implies an imbalance, a disharmony of assets that needs to be corrected.”

For Kluge, operating as a charity may betray the lack of social strata he sees in Japan. Still, the world shift he sees toward social enterprise, especially among under-30s, gives him and others hope that philanthropy’s evolution is keeping pace with the changing needs of society, especially with regard to the increasing need for communities to look after themselves rather than relying on support from cash-strapped governments.

TEDxTokyo takes place at Hikarie Hall in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, from 9 a.m. on May 11. The event will be streamed live at www.tedxtokyo.com.