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TED@State: New Ideas for a Better World

Ed. Note: TED is a small nonprofit devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading."  It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.

So much has happened since I last wrote about how the State Department is opening its doors to the private sector and civil society. Through the Global Partnership Initiative, we have been reevaluating not just the substance of our foreign policy but also how we conduct our foreign policy -- "tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world," to use Secretary Clinton’s words
To learn more, be sure to check out the blog post that just went up on the State Department’s DipNote Blog. As you will see, we are working hard to implement the Secretary's vision around here.  But I don’t think we would have made so much progress without the sparks that flew during TED@State back in June.
"Hands down it is the best event that I’ve attended in all of the years that I’ve been at State," one colleague wrote. The folks at BeDo expressed their thanks, saying, "It’s an honor to witness the transformation and experience the partnership embodied by TED@State." But I think the change of thinking TED brought to State was best exemplified in this blog, which said it was like "cats and dogs living together, my friends."  I loved reading that.
All told, over 800 people attended the first government sponsored TED Talks.  Before the event, the line wrapped all the way up 23rd Street and around the building. Every single seat in Dean Acheson Auditorium was filled and people were sitting in the aisles.  We’ve never seen anything like it. 
But what’s best about TED@State is that this wasn’t just a one-time event. Our Foreign Service Officers stationed across the globe have been watching the videos on the State Department intranet site and on our closed-circuit TV station.  And with the videos free online at, TED@State has been popping up on laptops and mobile devices all around the world. One of my coworkers even watched Clay Shirky’s talk on an airplane.   TED is the gift that keeps on giving.
One of the TED folks told us about the amazing story of "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind," William Kamkwamba, so we introduced him to Ambassador Peter Bodde in Malawi (and evidently they really hit it off). Coming up next week, we are going to get to hear his story firsthand at an event we are co-hosting with Andrew Natsios at Georgetown. I’ve even had conversations around town about spinning off TED@State to other agencies, so who knows what’s next.
Ben Franklin had his kite.  We had TED@State.  And here are a few of the lightning strikes that we have been thinking about ever since: 
Clay Shirky: How social media can make history
NYU’s Clay Shirky kicked off TED@State with a stunning presentation about how cell phones, the internet, and social media tools have empowered everyday citizens.  According to Shirky, consumers of information are becoming producers, generating "the largest increase in expressive capability in human history." 
"It’s as if when you bought a book they threw in the printing press for free," he explained.  Then, less than two weeks later, Shirky provided insights on the TED Blog as events in Iran unfolded: "Someone tweeted from Tehran today that ‘the American media may not care, but the American people do.’ That's a sea-change." 
Hans Rosling: Let my dataset change your mindset
He has swallowed swords, debated with Fidel Castro, identified a disease (and named it konzo), and pointed a finger straight at his State Department audience and asked, "Does your mindset correspond with my data set? If not, one or the other of them needs upgrading."
You’re just going to have to watch Hans Rosling for yourself (and you only have to catch the first ninety seconds to see him point at the screen with an "old fashioned laser pointer," as he put it: a microphone stand).  You’ll be mesmerized by his moving bubble graphs as he dispels myths about social and economic development with a sportscaster’s flair, and you will probably even find yourself clicking over to to play around with the software on your own.
Stewart Brand: Four environmental 'heresies' 
Stewart Brand, author of The Whole Earth Catalog (which he first published forty years ago), previewed his new book, The Whole Earth Discipline, which comes out later this month.  With his first book having sold 1.5 million copies, we were all at the edges of our seats to hear what he had to say (and thrilled that we would be the first to get a preview).
Brand’s talk covered a wide range of topics, from his thoughts on why cities are actually greener than the countryside, to how nuclear power might provide answers to energy concerns, to why genetic engineering could be the key to crop and land management.  You won’t want to miss the astonishing video clip from Bangkok that he shows at around the six-minute mark.
Jacqueline Novogratz: A third way to think about aid
Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund made the case for impact investing in a masterful way: "So we need both the market, and we need aid.  Patient capital works between and tries to take the best of both … [by investing] in entrepreneurs who know their communities and are building solutions to healthcare, water, housing, alternative energy."  
Novogratz’s TED Talk has galvanized all kinds of buzz, starting with the roundtable discussion on a potential Global Innovation Fund hosted by Aspen and continuing at SOCAP09 and elsewhere. Then a real game-changer was announced recently when USAID made a funding commitment to develop a set of standards that will rate the social and environmental return on financial investments.  As Ambassador Bagley commented, "These shared metrics are just the start of our efforts to develop impact investing strategies that will ensure sustainable, responsible, and long-term growth." 
One day soon, if we do this right, investors could have the ability to double-click on their mutual funds and clearly see their social and environmental impacts – the number of well-paying jobs they’ve created in post-conflict areas, the number of daycare centers, hospitals, or schools they have retrofitted with green building technologies, or the number of women who have received microcredit loans to create income-generating opportunities for their families.  Exciting stuff.
Paul Collier: New rules for rebuilding a broken nation
People’s eyes widened as Paul Collier rattled off statistics about how forty percent of post-conflict situations reverted back within a decade, accounting for half of civil wars.  To change the paradigm, he argued that we need to think differently about who leads recovery efforts, saying, "On the ground, you should use whatever works: churches, NGOs, local communities.  Whatever works."
Similar phrases were still fresh in my mind from a few weeks earlier: "We have to find new ways to fill that space that is unfortunately left to create vacuums in too many places around the world," Secretary Clinton stated at the Global Philanthropy Forum in April. "The problems we face today will not be solved by governments alone. It will be in partnerships – partnerships with philanthropy, with global business, partnerships with civil society." 
Great minds sometimes think alike, even if it is outside of the box.
And TED@State’s "new ideas for a better world" were just the start, as we found out last week at the Clinton Global Initiative when President Obama issued this challenge: 
"We stand at a transformational moment in world history when our interconnected world presents us at once with great promise, but also with great peril … And just as no nation can wall itself off from the world, no one nation -- no matter how large, no matter how powerful -- can meet these challenges alone.  Nor can governments alone.  Today's threats demand new partnerships across sectors and across societies -- creative collaborations to achieve what no one can accomplish alone.  In short, we need a new spirit of global partnership.  And that is exactly the spirit that guides this organization; I hope that it is the spirit that guides my administration."
You can answer the President’s call by submitting your partnership proposals to us online. Together, we can turn your ideas into the partnerships that really will create a better world.
Rob Lalka is the Partnerships Liaison at the U.S. Department of State