A speech to graduating Harvard architects – TEDChris: The untweetable

by Chris Anderson

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.