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Ted@State: A Trip To The Nation's Capitol

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Originally posted on TakePart.
My flight has just taken off from Washington DC. This whirlwind trip was invigorating yet exhausting--it was my first time to the Capitol, my first TED talk, and my first time blogging from 35,000 feet. Everyone I met with yesterday gave me great ideas for this evolving project we call TakePart, in addition to contributing to the overall sense that the U.S. political system is no longer inaccessible and shrouded in secrecy. It's ours if we want it back. National Journal staff writer Amy Harder, who I first met in college working on our campus newspaper, is feverishly blogging on all-things-Sotomayor. Yosi Sergant, who I first met in LA in 2007 when he was helping to brand the Obama Campaign through making this image so popular, was recently appointed Communications Director of the National Endowment of the Arts. Mark Newberg was recently appointed Senior Disaster Analyst, Executive Office of Disaster Strategic Planning and Operations for the Small Business Administration (yes, this fits on a standard business card). The placement of this kind of talent--so passionate, informed, engaging--is crucial to implementing change across all of the many organizations that make up our government. Not to overshadow the fact that there's a great amount of work to be done or to suggest that change will happen over night. But knowing the right people are being appointed to these positions is a great way to start. And kudos to the many institutions that are now open to new ideas.

n82489559025_82791The prime example of this new attitude was yesterday's TED@State talk (talks, to be precise), the first of its kind hosted by the Department of State's Global Partnership Initiative and TED, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading new ideas. TED Curator Chris Anderson properly described it afterward as a "feast" of ideas, with approximately 800 people in attendance. Here are my notes from the event.

Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, special representative for global partnerships for the Department of State, introduced the event, first noting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would have loved to be there, but was invited by the President to accompany him to Egypt. Bagley went on to say that the State Department is changing the way they do business, and described this new approach as a "far cry" from eight years ago. You can read the full transcript of her remarks here.

Chris Anderson gave a brief overview of TED (mission statement here), noting that every day, 300,000 people watch TED videos online. (A couple of my all-time favorites: Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity, Dave Eggers on his TED wish, Jeff Skoll on Humanity 2.0, and Blaise Aguera y Arcas on Photosmyth.) Anderson asked us to switch our mindset for the afternoon from that of a skeptical observer to a participant. His brief address left me thinking: Do ideas last forever?

Global, social, ubiquitous, cheap. This is how the first speaker, media theorist Clay Shirky, described the current state of the media landscape. During the 20th Century, the media landscape--telephones, the printing press, television, etc.--supported either groups or conversations, but not both. Recent shifts in the landscape, including the introduction of cell phones with cameras, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc., have enabled the entrance of a new consumer, one that is a producer as well. A proliferation of citizen reporting via these channels has forced reactions out of governments. He described the events that happened with the Sichuan province earthquake in China, of which the major news outlets first got word of through Twitter. China, he says, is the best censor of the internet in the world ("The Great Firewall of China.") (See our report on how the Chinese government shut down major Web sites in advance of today, which marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.) Global, social, ubiquitous, cheap.

Between talks, we were treated to the vocal stylings of ZapMama and a few short videos from Pangea Day.

Stewart Brand, the author and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, asserted that the rise of the West is over. His talk mainly focused on the slums of the world, and how they surprisingly have tremendous potential. One billion people currently live in slums, which he described as "intensely urban" areas that are gradually being gentrified. In Mumbai, for example, one-half of the city is classified as a slum, which overall represents one-sixth of India's GDP. Squatters embark upon informal enterprises, part of a larger informal economy that can either progress toward crime or a formal economy. We can influence which way they progress.

Economist Paul Collier spoke on post-conflict recovery and the conventional approach that denies reality. "Post-conflict economic recovery is a slow process," he said. "The true exit strategy is economic prosperity." He outlined a strategy for successful recovery, stressing the importance of focusing on a few critical objectives--job creation, improving basic services and a clean government. Job creation for young men is essential and should be focused in the construction sector. It's not sustainable, he asserted, to inflate civic service. We can scale up basic social services by incorporating NGOs as part of the public government system instead of independent of it, thus fostering a healthy competition between the organizations and ensuring they are held accountable. After a decade of producing jobs, improving security and reconstructing the infrastructure countries can recover post-disaster, a shift which he described as "the politics of plunder to the politics of hope."

Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, discussed the notion of patient capital. Investors, she claims, must have tolerance for risk, allow time for entrepreneurs to experiment, and accept low market returns that have high social impact. Currently the drip irrigation model, which originated in Israel and with Acumen funding was applied with great success in India and Pakistan, reaches a quarter-million people. This is not enough, she said. (You can read up on Acumen Fund's investment in drip irrigation for farmers in Pakistan here.)

The final speaker was Hans Rosling, who presented beautiful visual representations of data that support his assertion that we must adopt a new mindset of convergence. "We have a world that cannot be looked upon as dividable," he told us. Our current way of framing the world into two parts ("Western" and "Developing") is incorrect, which he supported through visual analysis of statistics such as mortality and income, child survival and GDP per capita. He expressed gratitude to the US government for its transparency with its data online, and hinted that the World Bank also make its numbers available.

Wow. Blogging from up here is incredible. I'm going to try and get some shut-eye before we land in LA. Hopefully these ideas will spark some of your own.