It’s TED time

The iconic TED Conference and its visiting captains of industry are back in town on Feb. 15. The City of Vancouver is trying to harness the (renewable) energy it will create

January 7, 2016

By Tom Gierasimczuk / Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Al Gore, munching on some masala from Vij’s Railway Express, is seated at a picnic table outside the Vancouver Convention Centre while lunchtime office workers stroll by obliviously. A few feet away, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, queue at a Tacofino food truck, craning their necks to catch glimpse of the misty North Shore mountains behind them in pensive appreciation. Or is it a eureka moment of self-piloting float planes?

It’s March 2014 and Vancouver is hosting its first TED Conference (as in Technology, Entertainment, and Design), the 1,200-person, US$7,500-per-ticket, five-day “brain spa” (as local organizers call it) gathering of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet. Since 1984 they’ve come to Monterey, to Long Beach, and for the past two years to Vancouver to see dozens of 18-minute insights ranging from black hole theory to zombie insects to Edward Snowden beaming in live from parts unknown. It’s a US$50-million business spanning ubiquitous online videos, grants, books, and more.

But it’s all about those five days in Vancouver, and everything grows from that pilgrimage by the global cognoscenti with means. When Bill Gates or Sting or Cameron Diaz rush into the custom-built, temporary, locally sourced cedar-wood theatre in the west ballroom of the Vancouver Convention Centre, jostling for the best seat as if on the 99 B-Line, they are, quite possibly, the largest concentration of wealth anywhere at that particular time.

Vancouver has benefited from all that star power. In 2014, Canada’s Chris Hadfield helped a local concert fundraising for the Greater Food Bank Society raise thousands more when he corralled a few musically-inclined TED speakers to tweet their guest appearances. Last year Michael Green’s non-profit Design Build Research Institute donated the mobile terrace roof that kept billionaires dry on the convention centre terrace to Pigeon Park’s street market, and this year three of his warming huts for attendees will be helicoptered as donations to the three North Shore ski resorts. Meanwhile, the infamously exclusive event will again be accessible via live simulcasts to interested community centres, libraries, and schools months before the freshest talks are posted online.

Local businesses benefit as well, aside from the blocks of $2,000 hotel rooms and attendee tours of local innovative companies and schools. Six weeks after the 2014 TED, Microsoft announced its Vancouver expansion and 400 associated new jobs. Burnaby’s General Fusion Inc. appointed astronaut Mark Kelly to its nine-member advisory council and received significant investment from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, both of  whom attended the event.

Given how closely this spectacle of progressive politics, local procurement, and green everything aligns with Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vancouver, the city has spent the past two years trying to figure out how to align itself with this influx of influence. Mayor Robertson has represented at TED after-parties the past two years, but there hasn’t been any official kickoff or welcome for what many refer to as the “Digital Davos.”

Greg Klassen, who as CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission (now Destination Canada) helped land the conference, says that it’s the local government’s turn to pitch in. “Tourism helped bring TED here, but we expected it would get help when tourism support ran out,” he says. “TED’s values of philanthropy, sustainability, and green tech are the city’s stated values. These are the mayor’s people.”

While the mayor’s chief of staff, Mike Magee, points out the city’s support for the event—“We’ve helped TED sell its donor passes since the first event to wealthy locals”—he does acknowledge more ambitious collaboration this year. “Council just committed to having Vancouver be a 100 percent renewable-energy city by 2050, and we’re confident we can do this by 2035,” Magee says, adding that he’s been in conversation with Bowen Island-based Wade Davis, a TED speaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “With Wade and people like Elon Musk in town, we want to state our dedication to making Vancouver a renewable energy demonstration city. Once the Mayor and I return from [the Paris Climate Conference] with targets for making this happen, the next global event will be TED, which is a goodplace to announce the intent.”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.