Monday, March 7, 2011

Enter the Corporations

Chris Anderson has a passion to transform TED from a conference celebrating Ideas Worth Spreading into a movement that will change the world.  And to do that, Chris argues, you have to involve corporations in the conversation.  They have the power and the reach to make a real difference.  This year saw a new 'species' of TED speaker - corporate executives (none from companies that were sponsors, by the way).

Bill Ford, Executive Chair of Ford Motor Co., talked of his long-time commitment to the environment and the imperative to build cars that are affordable, financially, environmentally and socially.  The number of cars is forecast to grow from 800M today to 4B by 2050.  But 4B cars are still 4B cars, and a green traffic jam is still a traffic jam.  Although Ford made a fleeting acknowledgement of public transportation and car sharing (initiatives that would reduce the number of cars), mainly he advocated that cars simply needed to get smart, which would allow more cars on existing road infrastructure.  In my opinion, there is a major power struggle coming here: clearly both cars and roads are going to have to get smarter, but where will the control be?  Ford obviously wants it in the car; many of us would want it to be in the roads.

Indra Nooyi, Chair and CEo of Pepsico, was an engaging and sympathetic person on the stage.  She is driving Pepsi to Performance with Purpose, maximizing human, environmental, and talent sustainability.  She described the Pepsi Refresh Project, where people submitted worthy projects.  Pepsi gave a total of $20M to the  projects earning the most votes.  It was nice that Pepsi funded 1000 different grantees, but the 'vote for donation' model is not new or interesting.  And besides, the talk was littered with Pepsi logos, totally inappropriate for TED.  This one also felt very commercial, even though there were no logos in it.

Another corporate speaker was Christina Lampe-Onnerud, giving a breathless account of how her company's battery technology could revolutionize the energy world.  The basic idea is Lego-sized batteries, that can be plugged together to give the battery size you need.  To be honest, I could see how this kind of battery would be extremely convenient for manufacturers, but I failed to make the leap that it would revolutionize power.

I do not consider the incursion of corporate executives to have been a great success at TED.  I'm sure TEDsters will react in their usual forthright way to this experiment.  There was an opportunity for people to deliver a 1 minute talk at the end of the conference, responding to one of talks they've heard.  Two of these 1-minute talks expressed distaste for Ford and Nooyi!  On the other hand, the TED team are fabulous at listening to and responding to criticism, so I wouldn't be surprised to see more corporate speakers next year - and for them to be better.

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