555 Conference: TED creator Richard Saul Wurman discusses his latest gathering

www.time.com | By Emi Kolawole | Published 30 July 2013

Author and TED conference founder Richard Saul Wurman has a new plan for a conference. It’s called the 555 Conference, and it’s slated to he held in 2014.

The conference would be held in five different cities worldwide. Each city would host a one-day gathering of five “exceptional global experts.” The gatherings would be held on five consecutive Mondays. Wurman, who plans to attend all five days, would choose three of the experts and call on the host city to provide him with a list of 10 nominees, from which he would pick two. Each of the 25 total experts would be called on to make “narrowly constructed, focused & superbly communicated, constructed predictions for the next 10 years.” The Monday conference would be followed on Tuesday by a smaller, closed gathering with the attendees and special guests. The goal, said Wurman, is to make a truly global conference.

The predictions would address 11 different topic areas, including energy, space and travel, food, water, urban development, entertainment and sports, and computers, visual display and transmission. Wurman said he released the details of the conference on his Web site about a week ago, but made no formal announcement about the conference. The documentation publicly available, so far, is little more than a Web page and a two-page handout.

“I just try to struggle through scamming everybody to do something once a year — one big project,” said Wurman during a phone call Tuesday. “I’m trying to reinvent what gatherings are.”

Wurman, an architect and graphic designer, launched the Urban Observatory installation this month during the ESI International User Conference. He hosted the WWW conference in September 2012 — a series of improvised conversations over three days.

“It was the most amazing conference I ever ran … and ever went to,” he said of the gathering. That’s no minor assessment considering the massive popularity of TED, which Wurman first convened in 1984 and worked on until 2002.

A total of 180 people were in attendance at WWW, said Wurman, including world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, musician and producer Quincy Jones, recording artist Will.i.am and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry among other notable attendees. The event was hosted by ESRI President Jack Dangermond at the company’s conference center in Redlands, Calif.

“I was terrified,” said Wurman of the lead-up to the WWW Conference, “I wasn’t sure it was going to work at all. And then it worked better than I thought. So  that was a surprise. But it was scary.”

Videos of the WWW conference were made available on Fora.TV this week, but an iOS app featuring additional multimedia elements around the conversations held there will also be made available Aug. 15. These would include Pulitzer Prize-winning poet CK Williams’s hand-edited drafts as well as other more intimate materials, according to a release. The app will include 18 hours of what Wurman says is “astonishing” video of the conversations.


Now, for the 555 Conference, Wurman said he was attracted to the concept of “finding the future first” — what he sees as the tagline for the conference. Each of the 25 speakers would give roughly an hour-long, highly structured talk. They would also be given access to a leading information architect, video designer and app maker. On top of that, they would also get Wurman’s help in orchestrating their talk. Each speech, said Wurman, would ultimately be “a piece of theater.”


Audience invitations would be extended by the host city, not by Wurman or his team.

“If the city wanted to have a thousand people free, fine. If they want to have a thousand people and charge them ten thousand dollars each, fine. They can keep all of that. All I wanted was the media that came out of the conference,” he said. “I don’t care about the audience.”

But Wurman said he would want some funds from the host city to put on the event, since the city would benefit from the public relations, being cast as a city that’s “looking at innovation” and associated with the “finding the future first” tagline.

Wurman has five rules of innovation, which go by the acronym “A NOSE”: addition, need, opposite, subtraction, epiphany. The WWW conference was about subtraction — where Wurman stripped away the traditional conference structure. When asked which rule the 555 Conference abided by, Wurman said he didn’t have a good answer, but saw it as incorporating both epiphany and opposite, since it was a new idea for an event that, unlike a traditional conference, could be held regardless of the number of tickets sold.

At the end of the five weeks, all 25 speakers would be brought together in New York City for a WWW2 conference where they would be placed in pairs or groups of three and called on, as with the first WWW conference, to engage in an improvised conversation — or “intellectual jazz.” The conversation would be a critique of the predictions, and provide an opportunity to discuss what the world should do to prepare.

“I think everybody every day is going to wait for the new prediction. Because these are going to be by eminent people,” said Wurman. He hasn’t reached out to anyone yet regarding distribution, he says, but hopes to turn the conversations  into a television show, magazine articles, a book or perhaps even distribute them via a streaming video platform such as Netflix.

“This is all based in the art of the possible,” he said during the call. In other words, the specifics are subject to change.

He is collaborating with noted events producer Richard Attias, whose credentials include the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative. are Also listed as advisers are: ESRI’s Dangermond; ocean explorer Dave Gallo; physician, author and USC professor David Agus; X Prize Foundation founder and chairman Peter Diamandis; Harpervision president and founder Greg Harper; @radical.media founder Jon Kamen; and video translations and captions company Dotsub founder and chairman Michael Smolens.

Wurman said he would probably start reaching out to cities this fall.

The Founder Of TED Shares What It Takes To Build The World's Most Popular Conference

He created a conference that sells out before the speakers are announced. Here’s how Richard Saul Wurman did it.

www.fastcompany.com | By Michael Grothaus | Published 17 May 2016

I’ve had two phone conversations with Richard Saul Wurman, the 81 year-old founder of the massively popular TED conference, and both have left me feeling woefully under-accomplished as an individual. If Dos Equis is ever looking for a new “Most Interesting Man in the World” they need look no further than Wurman.

By his mid-20s Wurman had accomplished more than most men twice his age. In 1958 when he was just 23, he took part in expeditions exploring and mapping the ruins and rainforests of Tikal, Guatemala. A year later he earned both his bachelors and masters degrees in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded the Arthur Spayed Brooks Gold Medal. The next year he was off to London where he worked under the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn and helped design the largest barge to travel up the Thames River for Jack Heinz, the owner of the H. J. Heinz company. That barge hosted the orchestral music of the Wind Symphony Orchestra.

In his 30s Wurman was teaching at Cambridge and by his 40s he had begun writing and publishing the first of 90 books on topics ranging from architecture to travel to the nature of understanding. All that doesn’t even include the numerous honorary doctorates and awards he’s won over the years, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian.

But perhaps his most defining accomplishment, or at least the one he will be remembered most for, happened in 1984 when Wurman was just 49.

“1984 was a wonderful year. There was the first Macintosh, USA Today had just come out, Benoit Mandelbrot announced about a year before (and he was the first in the public eye about) fractal geometry,” says Wurman. “The first CD came out. It was jointly invented by Sony and Phillips, and nobody had a CD player, and that exploded in the world. That was just 1984.”

“I observed in ’84 that there was a convergence going on out there that the people who were within it didn’t understand. They were in it and couldn’t see it. That was [between] the technology business, the entertainment industry, and the design professions,” Wurman says, explaining where the TED acronym came from. “They just didn’t see that they were one group…they didn’t realize they were growing together.”

Since then TED has become the most well-known and talked about conference on the planet, expanding to other disciplines, and becoming a status symbol and badge of achievement for experts who’ve given talks there. But not everything that TED has become pleases Wurman. He sold the rights to the main conference in 2002 and since then some say it’s become elitist and pretentious. Still Wurman himself hasn’t lost faith in the power of gatherings, as he prefers to call them, to spread ideas. Indeed, he’s gone on to create other conferences including WWW.

If you’re thinking of starting a conference, Wurman says there’s no right way to do it, but here’s what worked for him.

1. Only Do It Because You “Have” To

When I ask Wurman what the single most important thing is when pulling off a good conference he gave me a most unexpected analogy. “In the middle of the night, almost every night, I get up because I have to pee. I go wander around the bedroom to find the bathroom, I pee, and I go back to sleep. I get up because I have to do something,” he says. “You only do a conference because you have to.”

Wurman says that if he started building a conference because he wanted to make money from it or because someone asked him to do it, he probably couldn’t have pulled TED off—or had any kind of desire to do so. TED was born from an overwhelming need to fulfill his personal curiosity about the convergence of disciplines he noticed in 1984. Because of that, he was able to give it his all—with an attention to detail only those who are truly passionate about their idea could provide.

“I picked out every bit of food that was served at every meal. I designed the badges, and they were unique badges. I chose the furniture and had it made by Steelcase for me. I called the people who I wanted to maybe sponsor a meal. I designed the stage, I picked all the speakers,” Wurman says of the first TED conference. “Most of all, I worked as much on doing the ordering of people, and what order they came over four or five days. Who follows who, and who was before who. Like an editor would for a film, I spent a lot of time on editing what I thought was this arc. A lot of time—an inordinate amount of time. I chose all the music. It was my fucking party. If it didn’t work, it was me that screwed up.”

When I mention that his attention to detail reminded me of Steve Jobs’s legendary, almost obsessive, oversight of Apple’s products, Wurman says that unknown to most people the Apple cofounder actually attended the first TED in 1984. “He came to the first one, but he wouldn’t come on stage,” Wurman says. “He brought the first three Macs that anybody could ever see. It was right after the Super Bowl, and that one ad. People could play with the first three Macs for the first time ever, in 1984.”

You’re not going to get that type of interest from people in your conference if it’s not obvious you’re truly passionate about it.

“I do the conference I want to go to,” says Wurman. “In our society, that’s thought of as being non-PC, a pompous arrogant asshole. But it isn’t. It’s actually just a thoughtful way of doing things.”

2. Get Rid Of The Normal

The next thing Wurman did when founding TED was to go contrary to the norms of conferences. Back in the 80s—and even today—Wurman says the norm is that most conferences have a very similar format.

“The sponsors and the speakers were cordoned off in the first two rows, so it was them and us. There was always a separation of castes there. Everybody wore a coat and tie. There was a lectern, and you stood, man or woman, behind the lectern because it protected your groin, and therefore, you felt less vulnerable,” says Wurman. “You read a speech, and you gave PowerPoint slides later on. You were given an introduction, and the more important you were, the longer the introduction. That was the model, and it still is the model for most gatherings. It’s utter boredom.”

And when you are bored, Wurman says, you do not learn. “My definition of learning is remembering what you’re interested in. You cannot fault that phrase. It’s the fundamental definition of learning.” So Wurman got rid of the lectern so speakers didn’t have anywhere to put notes down. That forced them to think off the cuff and have a conversation with the audience organically instead of reading a prepared speech. It also kept the talks shorter, which kept people more interested. And if Wurman did sense that the talk was going on too long, he did something about it.

“I was on the stage 100% of the time. I sat over on the side,” Wurman says. “When a speech was boring, or it went too long, I would get up and very quietly walk over and stand behind the person. They felt me there and they realized they had to come to an end.”

Wurman’s setup and tactics could make his speakers feel vulnerable, but that was the point. Vulnerability causes us to lets our guards down. With our defenses lowered we’re more honest and believable. “What do we you want from a speaker? We want to believe them,” he says.

Eschewing the norms and formats of the traditional conferences didn’t only get the best talks about of the speakers, it kept the audiences clamoring for more, Wurman says. “The doors did not open until about three minutes before each session. People lined up around the lobby. Everybody wanted to rush in, and unlike any other gathering there was a gestalt there that had people running and wanting to sit in the front rows. Most every talk, people go to the back. They want to be able to walk out and not disturb people. [With the format of my speaker’s talks] people knew they weren’t going to do that, so it was jammed.”

3. Please Yourself When Choosing Speakers

Unlike most conference organizers, who agonize over which speakers their attendees might want to hear from, Wurman, quite frankly, wasn’t worried about pleasing his audience because to do so, he says, you would need to know what another human being is thinking–and that, he notes, is impossible.

“You never know what another human being is thinking. That is an arrogance beyond arrogance,” he says. “Once you realize that you don’t know what somebody else is thinking, why bother trying to please them? Why not just do good work and please yourself?”

And that’s how he chooses his speakers for his audience: They’re solely a person Wurman wants to hear from.

“Once or twice you do that, and you realize that the audience generally likes it; once you try not to have an effect on people–but you historically know that you have had an effect–you just let go of that and do good work,” he says, and has the proof to back up that his concept works. Within a few years his conferences began to sell out—a year in advance. “I would give a conference, and then on the last day, I said ‘You can now register [for the next one],’ and it sold out. I sold 1,000 seats, and had their money for a year. They didn’t know who the speakers were going to be.”

4. It Doesn’t Have To Be Big To Have A Big Impact

When most think of conferences they think of the massive events like TED or Apple’s WWDC or Google’s I/O that draw thousands of attendees. But despite Wurman’s various conferences drawing thousands each year over the decades, he doesn’t believe that a conference has to be massive to be successful, or even to help change the world.

Case in point: Last April, Wurman held a small conference he dubbed “The Event.” It consisted of him, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, architect Frank Gehry, RadicalMedia owner Jon Kamen, and urban designer and theorist Moshe Safdie. The Event wasn’t publicized or announced and only had 20 attendees, most of whom were people Wurman had met on the street that day. The five men sat around in a circle in front of the small audience and for 90 minutes shared some wine and sugared pecans and had a conversation about the notions of envy, admiration, and terror. Though the gathering was filmed by five cameras, the footage has never been released.

“There’s a conference in its smallest form,” Wurman says. “A semi-formalized dinner party, without dinner. Just a little chat among friends that came in, because they could, from around the world.”

“The goal wasn’t a sponsorship. There was no money involved. The people went there themselves, then they left. There was nothing written about it, it wasn’t reviewed, and there’s never been a story about it.”

But a small conference could still have a far-reaching effect, Wurman believes. After all, he points out, the thousand people that attended his first TED conferences, though larger than 25 people at The Event, were still relatively insignificant in the larger scheme of things. “One thousand people are just an accountant error. It doesn’t mean anything. The thousand people that came to TED were statistically meaningless against the 300 million people in America.”

Yet look what spawned from that original gathering of only a thousand people in a world of 7 billion: Wurman’s TED conference has gone on for over 30 years and spread ideas to millions of viewers who, combined, have watched TED talks over a billion times. And who knows how, in turn, those viewers will act on those ideas to the benefit of the world? Who knows what one of the 20 people who attended the Event might do based on the ideas discussed at the dinner party without dinner? Which of the ideas discussed might they share with others that could ultimately result in some new product or solution or theory?

“You don’t have to sell a million books to have an effect, or to make something clear, or to work out clarity in life,” Wurman says. “Small groups, if they’re the right small groups, and they’re filtered down naturally to people who tell other people, that’s quite enough. Viral communications is really quite interesting.”

Richard Saul Wurman: The Reluctant Genius

www.wethesalt.com | By Oliver Haenlein | Published 15 July 2015

Richard Saul Wurman is the man who changed the world with the creation of TED – a global platform for the convergence of ideas. All his life he’s rejected confusion and been driven by a personal hunger for understanding and clarity. In the process, Wurman has touched millions of lives with his books and events. But don’t ask him the wrong question as he can be just a bit scary, writes Oliver Haenlein.

Richard Saul Wurman is talking to me from his in-house office in Newport, Rhode Island. As the thought leader who dreamed up TED, it’s no surprise that he is surrounded by books – but slightly more curious are the jars behind him filled with peculiar-looking possessions. Among these are teddy bears – one that’s been to Mount Everest, one that’s been to the Bismarck, and one that’s been to the Titanic. Under one jar there’s even a bear that’s been held by a bear itself; “that was up in Alaska,” he explains. Also, under glass is a pair of sneakers which the artist Dale Chihuly dripped paint on for him. I ask if these quircky keepsakes are important to him; “they’re interesting,” he replies.

His every sentence exudes eccentricity and invites curiosity and alternative insight. I quickly realise that this will not be a run-of- the-mill interview.

“Do you mind if I ask you about…”, I’m sharply interrupted before I can put my question to Mr Wurman. “You don’t have to ask me to ask me,” he says. “Why do you say ‘can I ask you?’, when that’s what I’m here for?” He seems genuinely exasperated. Here is a man hell-bent on clarity, completely intolerant of incoherence.

The 80-year-old veteran has dedicated his life to understanding, to making the complex clear. He is a creator of conferences, including TED, the recognised pioneer of information architecture, author of 83 books, cartographer, painter, architect, designer, information theorist, and teacher in a range of notable institutions, including Cambridge and Princeton.

TED is perhaps his most famous creation. He came up with the idea in 1984 after noticing the need for a platform for experts in technology, entertainment, and design to come together. However, even within the field of conferences this has been just a small part of his curriculum vitae; he also set up the EG, Ted MED, California 101, and WWW events, among others.

But what triggered such a hunger for understanding? What has driven him to sort through such a massive volume of information and come up with so many innovative ideas?

Quite simply, he says, “the realization that I didn’t know anything; it was this terrifying moment of ignorance which I’ve carried with me my whole life.”

This was his biggest lesson in life, he adds: “Understanding what it’s like not to understand. That’s actually with me every minute of the day. Thinking about what it’s like not to understand so I can make myself understand. Being a blank slate.”


Wurman preaches understanding and clarity above all else, and puts many of the world’s problems down to a lack of it. When I ask him about leadership, he argues that the face of politics could change if our presidents and prime ministers practiced understanding: “I think the people who are trying to get nominated should not answer any questions or make any speeches about what they would do when they are in office.

“They should just try to take three subjects – health, wealth and one other, make them utterly understandable and say that I can’t know what I would do, what my policy will be a year and a half from now, because that’s just a con job. Because I can’t deliver on it, and nobody has delivered on it in the last 50 years.

“But above that, they don’t make anything understandable, nobody understands what any policy is, nobody understands what we’re really fighting about.”

He tells me that he considers living every day with incoherence and frustration to be an “abuse”.

We move onto education, and Wurman tells me that we could do a lot to improve our approach to learning and the concept of understanding: “Learning is remembering what you’re interested in. We go on signing up for courses we’re not interested in; memorisation, throwing things up on a piece of paper, being marked, forgetting them, and then going on to the next one.

“Why is it a board of education and not a board of learning? Why does learning not start with people’s curiosity? Why do teachers lecture you instead of having a conversation with you, and celebrating the conversation, and find out what your interests are and connect those interests? It seems an obvious thing to do.”

His dissatisfaction with the education system is obvious, and Wurman clearly becomes frustrated with what he considers to be convoluted, unclear and untruthful. He doesn’t mince his words, and this approach hasn’t always gone down well. Only two bosses didn’t sack the TED creator throughout his career.

“People think when you’re telling the truth you’re abrasive,” he says.

“We’re always trying to look smart, we say ‘uh-huh’ even though we don’t understand because we don’t want to question what our boss says, so we go through life lying to each other. I think telling the truth passes for not being part of the team, when actually it shows someone’s interest, curiosity and courage.”

“I’m not a rebel, I wasn’t an unruly student in high school, I didn’t misbehave. But at the same time the principal and class adviser at graduation wouldn’t shake my hand because they knew I knew.”

I ask him what it is they knew he knew; “that they weren’t so smart”, he replies. “And they were doing everything wrong.”


Wurman has had an enormously varied career, but he believes in finding patterns which tie disciplines together. That’s where the famous TED concept came from: he saw there was a convergence between tech, entertainment and design. “I hated all conferences that I’d been to”, he says, “so I tried to design some way of getting these people together so I could see if there was something that occurred if they recognised and embraced the idea.”

He explained that these industries were starting to do some interesting work in 1980s, but without the realisation that they needed each other. You couldn’t do technology without working with designers, you couldn’t do the design without technology, and entertainment needed both.

“So they were all in bed together but they never looked to their left and right,” he explains, “but by embracing that and making more of it, it popped everything. All our technology, everything that Apple did, everything that the movies have done, everything that architecture and design has done, it all embraces each other all the time. This gave everybody permission to say yeah, ‘I can talk to everybody’”.

He adds: “The big idea was this convergence, nobody understood what I was talking about, but it was there to see. We’re still in the midst of various convergences. There is a merger going on between things in order to do clearer work and go on this strange journey which we call progress.”

Wurman’s eternal search for understanding and clarity has been a cause for great positive change in the world. His realisation of the convergence of industries, and his enthusiasm for and elevation of platforms for honest discussion such as TED have brought a wealth of information and progress to the world. But he insists that he never had great goals of positive transformation: “I’m a minor figure, I only have a small life, I don’t have grand plans for changing the world,” he says.

“I have a passion for clarity and to understand things. I have no missionary zeal, I know I’ve had an effect on things but it’s not because I was trying to have an effect, the effect happened because I was trying to do good work. I’m not proactively a missionary but I do know that if you do good work it might affect people in a positive way.

“I can’t type, I have no skills, and I certainly can’t pole vault – I’ve never tried to pole vault. I’ve never played golf – I don’t do anything except think about ideas and how to find a path that’s been there all the time, but that has no detours on the way, that’s just clear.”

Wurman’s eccentricity resurfaces when I ask him what work he values most in his career. He dismisses the concept of legacy and refuses to reminisce. He replies: “My next conference and my next book and my next speech. I don’t look backwards at all. ”


His next book is called ‘Understanding Understanding’, focusing, it seems, on the very concept around which his fascinating career has been based.

“It’s been a revelation to me because I never thought about it before. I used the word understanding a lot in my life but I never realised how complicated understanding is, and how many different ways we understand things.

“It’s obvious we understand from numbers, words, and pictures and a combination of those things, but even beyond that there still are many idiosyncratic ways that various people understand things,” he says.

Wurman is showing no signs of slowing down, he’s also working on yet another conference: ‘555’, which makes predictions on what will happen in five years time.

He explains: “The conference makes the next five years disappear and the presentations will be five or six ideas that will happen in five years. How does the world prepare and what are the unintended consequences?”

The conference aims not for incremental change, but for radical ideas. This is something Wurman feels passionately about: “The biggest problem is most people, most countries, most businesses are focusing their energies on incremental change instead of radical changes.

“I remember when there were radically different times and the world went on fine and we thought what we had was the best it was going to be. Everybody thought, ‘what more is there to do’? There is so much more to do that is so radically different. And we should understand that.”