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January 21, 2011

TEDx prepares for U of C convention

A new RSO is bringing the TED experience to the University of Chicago on April 17 with a convention licensed by the global non-profit organization.

The event, modeled after the annual Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference, will feature 14 speakers, of which six names have been revealed: former President of Bolivia Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (A.B. ’51), Executive Director of the Kellogg Innovation Network Robert Wolcott, U of C Genetics professor and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Janet Rowley (A.B. ’44, B.S. ’46, M.D. ’48), Cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick, Director of the DaVinci Institute Thomas Frey, and Mark Inglis, who was the first man with no legs to reach Everest’s summit.

TEDxUChicago is a licensed satellite of the TED conference which brings academics, philanthropists, politicians, and business magnates together under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Past speakers include Julian Assange, Bono, and Bill Clinton. Several U of C professors have presented as well, including professors of economics Steven Levitt and Emily Oster, and professor of organismal biology and anatomy Paul Sereno.

The TEDx events are entirely locally organized, receiving the TEDx license in exchange for agreeing to a set of rules. One of those rules is finding a previous speaker or attendee to agree to sponsor the TEDx event. The students running TEDxUChicago reached out to Levitt, Oster, and Sereno.

Levitt and Oster said they were unable to do so due to other commitments, but both expressed excitement about the proposed conference.

“What makes TED-like events great are that the speakers are outstanding,” said Levitt. “If there’s any place to do this, [the U of C] would be it.”

This is the first time U of C has hosted a TEDx series, which TEDxUChicago co-chairman and third-year Güimar Vaca Sittic said gives the group an opportunity to differentiate U of C from the other lecture series and talks hosted by RSOs and campus group.

“The grand challenge of our century is to activate the life of the mind in more than just a small population,” said Sereno. “If we can build a model to link the university and the community, then we should take the opportunity to do so.”

Vaca Sittic started the RSO after receiving positive feedback from friends. Last year, a group of friends would gather weekly for what they called “TED Tuesdays,” to watch past TED talks and discuss them. Organizing TEDxUChicago, which will be an all-day event utilizing the entirety of Reynolds Club, seemed a logical next step.

According to Vaca Sittic, planning the event for the first time wasn’t easy, especially because of the rules that the organizers had agreed to follow. “We want to bring in a lot of inspiring people from abroad, but we have to follow very strict guidelines in order to be allowed to host this conference,” he said.

The organizers of a TEDx event will record each speaker’s lecture and upload it to their website and restrict the speakers’ talks to 18 minutes each. They are not allowed to pay any of the speakers outside of lodging and transportation fees.

“The speakers are also required to stay for the entire conference, and they have to mingle with the conference-goers, which gives us an unprecedented opportunity to interact with and learn from such inspiring figures,” said Vaca Sittic.

One of the concerns for the RSO was money. According to Vaca Sittic, companies were unwilling to donate money because the RSO was new. “A lot of companies said, ‘That sounds interesting, so maybe we’ll donate next year after we see how it goes,’” he said.

According to Pedro Sanchez de Lozada, the Chair for Marketing and Public Relations for TEDx, about a quarter of the conference is being funded from campus sources, including Student Government, and another quarter is coming from corporate sponsorships, with the rest being made up of ticket revenue.

Though ticket prices have not yet been announced, there will be a “very good discount” for UChicago students, according to Vaca Sittic. The RSO is planning to release both regular admissions and VIP tickets, the latter of which will allow ticket holders to talk with the speakers during breaks between the lectures.

Some companies donated equipment, like Apple, which is providing computer equipment for the conference, Vaca Sittic said.

A student competition, open to any undergraduate or graduate student in the Chicagoland area, will give the winner the chance to be one of the speakers at the conference. The deadline for applications was moved from January 5 to January 25 due to low student response, which Vaca Sittic attributed to winter break.

Contestants will be given feedback on their written and recorded proposals, and five finalists will be chosen to present to a panel of judges. According to Vaca Sittic, the judging panel will be made up of faculty who will choose the winning student speaker.

According to Sanchez de Lozada, the majority of applicants have been undergraduate students from UChicago, though they have received applications from students at Northwestern and other schools in the area.

“We don’t have many applicants, but the people who applied are really dedicated to what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s really a unique chance to find and enable a speaker who may not have the credentials to speak at such a prestigious conference like TEDx, but who may have the ability to do so.”

The videos of the five finalists will be showcased on the TEDxUChicago website, and the student speaker will be treated as one of the speakers.

According to Levitt, “It’s hard to recreate the magic of the real TED, but anything that can even accomplish a tenth of what they can accomplish [at TED] is a monumental success.”

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