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Chris Anderson commencement address

Jun 1 '11 17 Last Comment
Gregory WalkerGregory Walker
Jun 1, 11 3:53 pm

this has been circulating a few different places lately, but thought it was worth sharing. chris is the leader of TED and was giving a commencement address for the gsd this year. there are certainly the nuggets of unbridled optimism (hey, it is graduation) and some generalities but he's a dead clever and interesting person...

 

I was invited to address the 2011 graduating class or architects from
the Harvard Graduate School of Design last week. Some of them wrote me
over the weekend asking to put the talk up online.  So here it is....
First of all, I'm not sure if your organizers today were aware of
this, but  I actually don't give a lot of speeches. I'm usually the
guy doing the inviting. Frankly, it's a lot more comfortable that way.
But... I couldn't pass up the chance to spend some time with a group
of people who have so much to offer the world. Truly, it's an honor to
be here.

To begin with, a favor.  If you are one of the graduating class, I
would like you please to stand up.  I want to see you properly.  Thank
you. Congratulations. You made it.  And if you would, I would like you
to hold your heads very still for just the next 10 seconds or so.
Because, I  have an app on my ipad here that's pretty cool. I'm not
taking your picture. What I'm doing, if you don't mind,  is just
grabbing a download of the contents of each of your brains. Thank you.
You may sit.

 

Now unfortunately, this app is still in, let's say, pre-alpha mode. It
doesn't work that reliably. But if it did, I wonder what a read out
would reveal. Of course today there would be all manner of emotions
around the years you've spent here and the prospects ahead.
Excitement, nostalgia, hope...  regret, panic. We'd no doubt uncover a
few unexpected jealousies, embarrassing memories,  a complete record
of everything that happened late at night over there in the trays.
(Don't worry, it's all 100% privacy protected, unless you forgot to
check the box marked no public humiliation.) But along with all that,
there would be something else in this data. We would be able to see an
astonishing picture of...  the future. Better than any crystal ball,
or forecasting tool, we could see what our world will look like in a
couple decades' time.

Now I mean this quite literally and seriously. By getting this far in
this place, you, the Harvard Graduate School of Design class of 2011,
have proved that you possess a certain, incredible talent. It's a
talent that is unique to our species. And if you were to rank this
talent among members of our species in general, I have no doubt you
would all be in the top 1% of 1%. 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 which some would call...   imagination or invention or
innovation. 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 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.


It's really astonishing that we can do this. For almost the entire
period of life on earth, the appearance of design has been driven
differently. By random trial and error. Like a drunkard lumbering
through a dark maze of passages, life has lurched its way forward. For
every evolutionary step forward there have been countless dead ends.
In a single lifetime, change was not detectable. It happened slowly,
painfully over millions of years. Somehow in our species the light
came on. We actually found a way to model the future before lumbering
into it. That... changed... everything.

 

Viewed from a different perspective, you could say our brains became
the ecosystems for a new kind of life, a life that replicated and
transformed itself at a rate hitherto unknown in our corner of the
universe. The thrilling life of the world of ideas. TED is devoted to
nurturing this life form. And in a sense, you're about to devote the
rest of your life to that same mission. But whereas we at TED nurture
ideas by putting free talks up on the Internet, you will be not just
dreaming them but turning them into reality so that thousands or
millions of other people will be impacted by them.

And that is why I'm so excited by this group brain scan I'm holding
here in my hand. It's the future right here.
Wait I think I can make out something, albeit it's a little fuzzy.
Espoused in a mind over here, I think I can just about make out... a
gorgeous building, full of natural light whose bio-inspired curves
evoke wonder and delight in everyone who sees it. Over there I can see
a once barren industrial wasteland converted into a glorious city park
where people gather, mill, walk, play and dream. And emanating from a
mind on this side...  oh wow. Here is a spectacular city of the
future. One in which cars are replaced by intelligent, next-generation
transport systems, and human-scale meeting places where people
naturally mingle and connect.  A city which breathes and adjusts and
interacts with its citizens like a living system.

 

When you sum up all the visions contained in this room right now I
have to tell you, the future looks pretty enticing. And the most
thrilling part? A significant proportion of those dreams will within
the next decade or two become real. Why? because you will make it so.
You are the 2011 graduate class of the GSD. Like few other people on
earth, you have the skills and the  resources to truly change the
world.

But here's the rub. What will determine which of the dreams here
present today see the light of day, and which will languish unfunded,
forgotten, ignored?

 

Well, usually a single person can't make a big idea come true (unless
they have extremely rich parents). In almost every case an idea need
multiple backers. So it must first spread from one brain to many,
spreading excitement as it goes. So what makes THAT happen? It
certainly helps if the idea itself is powerful. By which I mean some
combination of beautiful, ingenious, and... affordable. But there's
something else.  It needs to be communicated with power.

One of the most tragic things in the world is a powerful idea stuck
inside the head of someone who can't actually explain it to anyone
else. At TED over the years, we've had a lot of architects come and
share their visions with us, and a good number of them have been
absolutely... awful.  How can that be?  They have the most compelling
subject matter imaginable. Giant designs at a scale that impacts
thousands or millions of people... Yet when it come to articulating
them, they descend into gibberish - the abstract, over-intellectual
language of architectural criticism that makes an audience's eyes
glaze over and their brains numb.  This is an utter tragedy!

 

Whatever else you do in the coming years of your life, I beg you, 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.

The good news here is that you're entering the profession at a
wonderful moment. I speak as an outsider, but it seems to me that
three giant trends are combining to transform both the role of
architecture - and  how it can be talked about. First of all, in
recent years a mode of thought that has dominated intellectual life
for much of the past century is gradually being laid to rest. I'm
referring to the toxic belief that human nature and aesthetic values
are infinitely malleable, and determined purely by cultural norms. For
a while this gave a generation of architects exhilarating freedom to
abandon all traditional architectural rules, and impose their own
vision on society. But, like similar experiments in music, art, drama,
and literature, they didn't always win the world's love.

 

Today there's a growing consensus that we should think of humans
differently. That far from living in separate cultural bubbles we
actually share millions of years of evolutionary history. That there
are far far more ways that we're the same than that we're different.
The anthropologist Donald Brown has documented more than 200 human
universals present in every culture on earth. They ranged from things
like body adornment, feasting, dancing to common facial expressions
and, yes, shared aesthetic values. This latter question has been the
subject of countless experiments around the world in the past couple
decades, and they've mostly revealed an amazing degree of resonance
among vastly different people on what they find...  beautiful.

This shift is surely allowing us to change the language in which
architecture is discussed. 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. Today, slowly, gingerly, it's become possible once again to use
language the rest of us can understand. I think it's even OK to use
that B word again. Beauty. 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.  I'm happy to
report that in the last couple years at TED  we've been wowed by a new
generation of architects  Joshua Prince-Ramus,  Bjarke Ingels, Liz
Diller, Thomas Heatherwick and others, as they've shared with us - in
plain English -  their passion, their dreams, and yes, the beauty of
what they're created. When Thomas Heatherwick shared his vision for a
stunning, new residential complex in Kuala Lumpur, curved out from
narrow bases like a bed of tulips, I had just one thought.  I wish I
had been born in the future.

 

I suppose an architect might have dreamt of such a development 30
years ago... but it could never have been built. And that brings us to
the second trend. Technology is changing the rules of what's possible.
The astounding power of computer-assisted design and new construction
techniques are giving us the ability to actually build what before
could only have been a whimsical doodle on a sketch-pad..  Suddenly
the fractals and curves of Mother Nature, are a legitimate part of the
architectural lexicon. And around the world, as people watch these new
buildings arise, instead of muttering "monstrosity", their jaws are
dropping, their eyes moistening.

And finally, perhaps most important of all, we're at a moment in
history where the world is paying attention to you like never before.
As leading designers of scale, you, more than anyone else, hold in
your hands the answers to the most important question we all face.
Namely this. Can the coming world of 10 billion people survive and
flourish without consuming itself in the process. The answers if they
are to be found, - and I think they will - will come from... design.
Better ways to pattern our lives. 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.

 

But it's becoming urgent for the world to start to see a compelling
alternative vision. Probably it's going to come down to re-imagining
what a city can be, and making it so wonderful, that few people would
want to live anywhere else. If there are to be 10 billion of us, we
will have to, for the most part, live close to each other -- if only
to give the rest of nature a chance. Indeed more than half the world
already lives in cities and the best of them offer so much to the
world : richer culture, a greater sense of community, a far lower
carbon footprint per person - and  the collision of ideas that
nurtures innovation.  And the future cities you will help create need
not feel claustrophobic or soulless. By sculpting beautiful new forms
into the city's structures and landscapes; by incorporating light,
plants, trees, water; by imagining new ways to connect with each other
and work with each other, you will allow the coming crowd to live more
richly, more meaningfully, than has ever been possible in history -
and to do so without sacrificing your grandchildren.

Now finally, I guess it's traditional at a time like this to offer
some personal advice to you as you embark on your career. Everything
from "one word: plastics".  to... "follow your dream, pursue your
passion". Indeed the mantra of romantically pursuing passion is
hammered into us by countless movies, novels and pulp TV. I'm not
convinced it is very good advice. Apart from the fact that many people
aren't sure what their passion is, even if they were, there are lots
of wonderful things in life that absolutely should not be pursued
directly. Take love.  We all want it. But there's a word for people
who pursue love a little too directly.  Stalker. Or take happiness. Go
after that wholeheartedly and most likely you'll end up a hedonist, a
narcissist, an addict.  A great musician who wants to pursue the
absolute in artistic creativity doesn't get there by being creative.
She gets there by being disciplined. By learning, listening and by
practicing for hours... until one day the creativity just flows of its
own accord.

 

The architect Moshe Safdie ended his TED talk a few years with this poem:

   He who seeks truth shall find beauty. He who seeks beauty shall
find vanity.
   He who seeks order, shall find gratification. He who seeks
gratification, shall be disappointed.
   He who considers himself the servant of his fellow beings shall
find the joy of self-expression.
   He who seeks self-expression, shall fall into the pit of arrogance.
   Arrogance is incompatible with nature.
   Through nature, the nature of the universe and the nature of man,
we shall seek truth.
   If we seek truth, we shall find beauty.

 

So I guess my advice would be... Don't pursue your passion directly.
At least not yet. Instead... pursue the things that will empower you.
Pursue knowledge. Be relentlessly curious. Listen, learn. You're
leaving Harvard this week, but your learning cannot ever, ever be
allowed to stop.

Pursue discipline. It's an old-fashioned word, 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.


And above all. Pursue generosity. 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. They do. The world is more
interconnected than ever. The rules of what you give and what you hold
on to have changed forever. If you hold on to your best ideas, maybe
you can for a moment grab some short-term personal commercial gain.
But if you let them roam free, they can spread like wildfire, earning
you a global reputation. They can be reshaped and improved by others.
They can achieve impact and influence in the world far greater than if
you were to champion them alone.

 

If we've discovered anything at TED these past few years, it's that
radical openness pays. 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 thousand fold.

Knowledge, discipline, generosity. If you pursue those with all the
determination you possess, one day before too long, without you even
knowing it, the chance to realize your most spectacular dreams will
come gently tap you on the shoulder and whisper... let's go.  And
you'll be ready.

 

And that is how you're going to help shape a better future for all of us.

No pressure or anything, but we're counting on you.
 

 

Paul PetruniaPaul Petrunia
Jun 1, 11 5:03 pm

This is great, thanks for posting.

 

tbone
Jun 2, 11 2:48 am

wow.  very good speech indeed.

AP
Jun 2, 11 2:03 pm

bravo.

toasteroven
Jun 2, 11 2:31 pm

@orhan 

 

social sacrifice?  community? calling?  when did david brooks become a socialist?

Rusty!
Jun 2, 11 2:35 pm

I don't see it. I suppose it would be hard to give a speech to Harvard grads regardless, but this one misses the mark by a mile. "let your ideas roam free in order to gain global reputation". Lame. I take it Chris doesn't quite understand the scope of architectural services, and is easily awed by the shiniest of starchitecture.

 

I'd like to see his credentials.

18x32
Jun 2, 11 2:51 pm

@rusty! The regular lecture series is for credentialed speakers, academic development, nuanced understanding of architecture. Graduation is for parents.

toasteroven
Jun 2, 11 3:10 pm

chris's full time job is to collect motivational speakers to give motivational speeches to already highly motivated people.

Orhan AyyüceOrhan Ayyüce
Jun 2, 11 3:21 pm

toasteroven i liked the article. it speaks to some harsh realities on the ground. to be honest, i don't know the man, david brooks.

jmanganelli
Jun 2, 11 3:25 pm

thanks Greg and Orhan!

 

Rusty!
Jun 2, 11 3:35 pm

Orhan, the article you linked to is 10 times better than Chris' call for organic shapes in architecture.

 

Problem with TED (well not actually a problem per se) is that it's a victory lap for already accomplished individuals. Architecture just doesn't work in the same mode as other technologies do. There's always at least a decade long lag between idea and implementation in what we do. This may be completely lost on people like Chris.

J. James R.J. James R.
Jun 2, 11 3:57 pm

@ toasteroven.

 

Thank you! That's the best description ever... at least one that comes off as the least biting.

 

The speech on the other hand comes off as one of those Hallmark cards— you know, the ones with the gold-leaf writing that covers every inch of it along with a picture of a tree, lily or heart— that no one really reads because we all know they are nothing but generic platitudes and feelgoodery.

toasteroven
Jun 2, 11 4:14 pm

orhan - david brooks used to be a conservative intellectual (former cheerleader of the freedom doctrine and other neo-con nation-building BS), but I think he, like other smart conservatives, had an ideological crisis toward the end of the bush years, and, like frum, is trying to distance himself from the current insanity that has taken over the republican party.  I just find it interesting that he's now being critical of this idea of self-serving randian individualism - which in this case has been disguised as a critique of boomer mentality. I think he's trying to drape it in this "individual excellence" parlance in order to give him some cover with other exiled conservatives, but he's treading into leftist-common-good territory.

Orhan AyyüceOrhan Ayyüce
Jun 2, 11 4:28 pm

in the future everybody is going to be leftist! .;.)

AP
Jun 2, 11 11:00 pm

nitpicking aside, that is a good commencement speech.  as the original poster suggests, it may be over the top in a few places, and i can accept the comments that perhaps there are some generalities about the future that are somewhat naive, but that doesn't take away from what is a quality send off.

traced
Jun 4, 11 12:28 am

the image on the homepage is Chris Anderson founder of Wired magazine, NOT Chris Anderson of TED.... 

Donna SinkDonna Sink
Jun 13, 11 4:09 pm

I finally read this and enjoyed it very much.  My enjoyment was only slightly spoiled by knowing that the comment

...yet when it come to articulating (their designs), they descend into gibberish - the abstract, over-intellectual language of architectural criticism that makes an audience's eyes glaze over and their brains numb...

was directly totally at Daniel Liebskind's horrible TED talk.  I hate being reminded of the TWO times I actually listened to that talk - twice just to make sure it really was as meaningless as I thought it was.  Ugh, sad to be reminded of that again.

But yes, awesome speech!

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