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Listen to Chris Anderson’s address

Designers have the answers to “the most important question we all face,” TED curator Chris Anderson told imminent Graduate School of Design graduates on Wednesday. “Can the coming world of 10 billion people survive and flourish without consuming itself in the process?” The key lies in finding “better ways to pattern our lives,” he added: “There is nothing written into our nature that says that the only path to a wonderful, rich, meaningful life is to own two cars and a McMansion in the suburbs.”

Anderson, a former journalist and magazine publisher from Britain, acquired the TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) conferences in 2001 through his private, nonprofit Sapling Foundation, which aims to help solve global problems through media, technology, and entrepreneurship. Available online, the TED talks and the newer TEDx bring together leaders and thinkers to nurture global conversations that foster innovation—just where young architects and designers play a pivotal role. If ranking talent, “you…would all be in the top 1 percent of 1 percent,” he told the group. “I’m not talking about intelligence, fine breeding, good looks, dress sense, or compelling social skills (though I have no doubt you excel there too). I am talking about the talent some would call imagination or invention or innovation,” he explained. “It is the remarkable ability, first of all, to model some aspect of the external world inside our heads, and secondly, to play with that mental model until suddenly, bingo! You find a way to rearrange it so that it’s actually better. This is the amazing engine that underpins both technology, the T of TED, and design, the D of TED.  It is this skill that has made possible human progress of the last 50,000 years.”

Much of a successful future lies in “re-imaging what a city can be,” Anderson said. People will live closer together—“if only to give the rest of nature a chance,” and cities already offer “richer culture, a greater sense of community, a far lower carbon footprint per person—and the collision of ideas that nurtures innovation.” But architects have the means to incorporate “light, plant, trees, water, and beautiful forms into the city’s structures and landscapes” and imagine new ways for people to work and connect “without sacrificing your grandchildren.”

Technological trends in computer-assisted programs and construction techniques and materials, he said, make design more adaptable and effective than ever in terms of large-scale projects that affect millions of lives. “Suddenly the fractals and curves of Mother Nature are a legitimate part of the architectural lexicon.” Moreover, cultural and intellectual notions around common human values are changing. “The toxic belief that human nature and aesthetic values are infinitely malleable, and determined purely by cultural norms” is dying, Anderson asserted. In its place, there is growing agreement that “we should think of humans differently, that far from living in separate cultural bubbles, we actually share millions of years of evolutionary biology.”

He pointed to anthropologist David Brown’s research on “more than 200 human universals present in every culture,” which even include a shared sensibility around what is aesthetically pleasing. “In a world of pure cultural relativism, there are no absolutes to appeal to. To succeed you had to learn the opaque language of a tight-knit clique of critics and opinion formers. It didn’t matter if the rest of the world was left scratching its head.” But it is becoming “possible once again to use language the rest of us can understand. I think it’s even OK to use the ‘B word’ again. Beauty,” he continued. “Not as a proxy for arrogant artistic self-expression, but as a quest to tap into something that can resonate deeply in millions of souls around the world.”

He implored the audience to use plain language when articulating big ideas. Even at TED, a fair number of architects “have been absolutely awful….they descend into gibberish—the abstract, over-intellectual language of architectural criticism that makes an audience’s eyes glaze over and their brains numb….I truly beg you to find a way of sharing your dreams in a way that truly reveals the excitement and passion and possibility behind them.”   

Anderson was born in Pakistan (his father was a missionary eye surgeon); he graduated from Oxford with a philosophy degree. In the 1980s and 1990s he built a series of computer magazines through the company he founded, Future Publishing, in the United Kingdom, and later developed Imagine Media, publisher of the groundbreaking Business 2.0 and the games website IGN, in the United States.

On Wednesday he eschewed talk of “follow your dream, pursue your passion…hammered into us by countless movies, novels, and pulp TV.” He instead advised the GSD class of 2011 to seek “the things that will empower you. Pursue knowledge. Be relentlessly curious. Listen. Learn.” Anderson also stressed discipline. “It’s an old-fashioned word,” he admitted, “but it’s never been more important. Today’s world is full of an impossible number of distractions. The world-changers are those who find a way of ignoring most of them.”

Above all, he said, strive always to be generous. “Not just because it will add meaning to your life—though it will do that—but because your future is going to be built on great ideas and in the future you are entering, great ideas have to be given away.”  TED is a prime example. “Radical openness pays,” he told them. “We gave away our talks on the Web, and far from killing demand for the conference, it massively increased it, turning TED from something which reached 800 people once a year to something which reached half a million people every day. We gave away our brand in the form of TEDx, and far from diluting TED, it democratized it, and multiplied its footprint a thousandfold.” 

What’s thrilling about the people in the room, he said, is that, of the visions that exist here, right now, “a significant proportion…will, within the next decade or two, become real. Why? Because you will make it so.”

 “No pressure or anything,” he said in the end, “but we’re counting on you.”