TEDxPeachtree focuses on ideas worth spreading

By Jon Waterhouse - For the AJC

If you hear someone talking about spending time with TED, they’re not necessarily plopping on a bar stool alongside a drinking buddy or cuddling with a stuffed bear.

They may be gazing at their computer, getting a shot of knowledge from one of an endless array of TED Talks online videos. These acclaimed, thought-provoking lectures on “ideas worth spreading” — starring everyone from artists to scientists to CEOs — arguably get more shares than the stock market.

Yet, it’s not confined to the laptop screen. For the fifth year in a row, TED’s largest local torchbearer, TEDxPeachtree, presents the live TED-like experience to Atlantans. The all-day affair will take place at the Buckhead Theatre, where the public can soak up talks about artificial intelligence, urban farming, garbage art and a hodgepodge of other topics. During networking breaks guests can dive into culinary and interactive experiences.

“Our attendees have called TEDxPeachtree a brain spa,” co-organizer Jacqui Chew said. “It’s the idea of being able to spend an eight-hour day away from the day-to-day pressures and just being able to absorb new ideas and potentially see issues and things in a different way.”

TED dates back to 1984, when it originated as a California-based conference bringing together a mixed bag of folks from the technology, entertainment and design worlds.

The nonprofit still holds its annual conference on the West Coast, but with a broader scope. The March 2014 conference will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia. More than 50 speakers from a variety of backgrounds will explore a wealth of topics, and organizers sprinkle the event with music, comedy and other performances. Other offshoot events are now in place, including the TEDActive conference.

By 2009 the TED organization was getting flooded with requests for TED-style events to be held in cities around the country. That’s when they allowed TED conference alumni to apply for free licenses to bring TED to their own areas.

Atlanta entrepreneur Al Meyers applied, but wasn’t the first local to make a request. Tod Martin, a local businessman, snagged the name TEDxAtlanta and began putting together his own local TED events.

Meyers opted for the name TEDxPeachtree. The “x” stands for independently organized, and each licensee operates on a volunteer basis with no financial support from TED. Although licensees obtain permission free of charge, each license comes with a set of rules and a manual to keep the TED spirit intact.

TEDxPeachtree, a Georgia nonprofit, does this with a five-person board that comes together to curate a roster of speakers for each event. The group wades through online nominations as well as names suggested by individual board members.

“We curate speakers on the potential of how important their idea is and the potential that the idea could have to change the world, the way we live, behave or interact with each other as a community or a society,” Chew said. “We take it very seriously.”

That seriousness pays off. Primatologist Frans de Waal, an Emory professor and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Center, spoke about moral behavior in primates at TEDxPeachtree in 2011. The lecture proved so popular, Chew said, that it’s one of the 25 most-watched videos on — out of more than 30,000 TEDx talks from around the world.

TEDxPeachtree centers each event around a specific theme. This time, it’s catalyze, and each speaker falls under one of four subtopics: cities, creativity, classrooms and crowds.

In true TED tradition, the 17 speakers run the gamut: Guests will hear New York-based sculptor Nathan Sawaya talk about building art with Lego bricks, and from local singer-songwriter Michelle Malone. Other speakers include acclaimed portrait artist Rossin; Mark Riedl, an assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing and director of the Entertainment Intelligence Lab; and media personality Lisa Earle McLeod.

“Out of the 17 speakers only three are from out of state,” Chew said. “It’s all about showcasing the most promising, the most ambitious, the most inspiring ideas coming out of folks from the state of Georgia.”

TEDxPeachtree events typically sell out. If all goes as planned, the organizers hope to deliver these ideas more than once a year. Chew said the group will be spearheading a partnership with other TEDx groups and a local venue to create four additional events each year.

Although Chew said many guests show up for the networking aspect, “the number one reason people come is to be inspired. They come with a very open mindset and a willingness to just consider possibilities.”

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