Ideas Worth Spreading… in Japan

An Interview with Patrick Newell of TEDxTokyo

Patrick Newell is, among the many things that he is, one of the organizers behind TEDxTokyo. Most people would agree he’s the right man for the job. As founder of the Tokyo International School, he is a global educator, traveling the world to discover innovative educational models. He has also founded Living Dreams, an NPO that assists the CSR goals of large corporations by linking them with orphanages throughout Japan. Together with Todd Porter, Patrick launched TEDxTokyo to further his cause of sharing knowledge and goodwill to restless seekers of earthier forms of enlightenment.

The “x” of TEDx designates independently organized events in the same model as TED events. TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) is an interconnected group of conferences whose explicit goal is “ideas worth spreading.” Although its origins are tech-heavy, in the years since it became an annual event in 1990, it has embraced a great diversity of fields. Its format is simple: great minds giving short talks about their specialty. There are few props, making spoken words the main vehicle of inspiration and education. Speakers have included Nobel Prize winners, world leaders, business elites, scientists and artists. The talks are available online through a Creative Commons license and have been translated into over 40 languages.

We recently interviewed Patrick about his involvement with TEDxTokyo during a quiet moment in his busy life. We didn’t see his skateboard with him, but he was wearing his typical business attire of shorts and casual T-shirt. He spoke with easy eloquence and an assuredness some of his colleagues joke about. Said one, “Let me edit that interview when you’re done.” But perhaps those who can realize big dreams can be afforded the luxury of talking big things. Especially if it’s related to TED.

How did you become involved in TEDxTokyo?

I started going to TED five years ago when it was in Monterey, California. A friend first told me about it, I checked it out and it looked like a dream. I’ve been exposed to all kinds of things in my life, but there was nothing like this. It blew me away.

Then I thought, wow, Japan needs something like this. Later, when I was doing a presentation at a meeting of entrepreneurs, one of the attendees was Todd Porter, who was involved with TED. He was running these salons where they showed TED videos and you could talk about them. I then asked if we could live-stream the TED talks into Tokyo and the organization said yes. The next step, then, was not to have a talk salon but to have actual live speakers. Some people wanted TED to come to Tokyo or Beijing but the organization realized they couldn’t. Instead, they said you can have your own speakers, in a kind of BETA program. As we were organizing our event, they came up with the “x” idea. The University of Southern California actually held the first TEDx in the world. Tokyo, in May of 2009, became the second. At the time, TED had no idea whether others could pull off a similar event; they were naturally worried about their brand. But the TEDx director flew in from New York to see the Tokyo event and was impressed by the quality and that we did it all with volunteers.

Did you have to do anything differently because it was Japan?

The hardest part of the event was that nobody had been to TED except for me. I had to take what I knew and add something Japanese to it; TED is so much more than the talks you see online. I had to get people to understand the concept of TED. People asked, well, it’s a conference, but what kind? It’s a conference of everything. What’s the theme? It doesn’t matter. Japanese want things intricately planned. They want to come with expectations. But going to TED is like going to an izakaya; your senses go crazy from all the varied tastes, smells and movement. TED is like an izakaya, but of ideas.

Also, with Japanese conferences, people will just show up for an hour, to show their face. Rarely does the culture of a conference here keep you intrigued for a whole day. So we chose to host the event in somewhat remote Odaiba, so people couldn’t just pop in and say, hello, then leave.

Another real challenge is that most Japanese don’t know how to present. They are terrible at it. When we told them that they have a very limited time frame and no slides, some of our Japanese presenters seemed really daunted. Also, I wanted them to speak in English, rather than Japanese, if possible. Giving their talk in English elevates them to another level because of the challenge. It is inspiring to see. Very few top researchers don’t speak English, so I knew they could do it.

How did you explain TED to them?

I said the key to TED is being unpredictable. The goal is to give the audience a huge variety of information so that neural paths connect in ways that they usually don’t. Then there is that “aha!” moment.

TED is a huge event around the world, but do you think TEDxTokyo has caught on?

This year we had 50,000 unique viewers watching the video feed. 90% of the viewers were from Japan—70% of our speakers were Japanese. NHK, Nikkei, GQ, Asahi all wrote about us. We’re in the social fabric now.

The goal of TEDxTokyo was to create a center. There is no hub of creativity and no center of entrepreneurship in Japan. I think we’ve definitely hit a tipping point.

Where are you going with this now?

We have TEDxyz for younger thinkers and other formats we are building. There’s TEDxKids with parents and kids together. And since TED is under a Creative Commons license, I want to explore how to simulcast to 20 locations where others are having parties. Some of our recent talks focused on how to rebrand Tohoku. What do we do? TED is also very useful for language learning and development. All our talks are done in simultaneous translation. We’re about international mindedness.

Our community has come to life. It is just the beginning. TEDx is definitely something people want to be a part of now.



















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