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People walk past the TED logo at the Vancouver Convention Centre where the TED conference will take place March 17-21. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
People walk past the TED logo at the Vancouver Convention Centre where the TED conference will take place March 17-21. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

TED’s next chapter is Vancouver’s Add to ...

So you’re going to TED. You’ve dropped the $7,500 (U.S.), your application has been vetted and approved, and you are preparing to be wowed in 18 minutes or less by the likes of Bill Gates, Sting and Chris Hadfield. Given the impact TED talks have demonstrated since they moved online – 1.9 billion views and counting – you are probably in for a life-changing week of information, inspiration and high-powered networking.

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But even if most Vancouverites can’t shell out big bucks, the TED conference coming to town next week is a big deal.

The Olympics it ain’t, no matter the gleeful hype, but it’s a very high-profile event that brings with it not only a long list of A-list speakers and attendees, but also the impact of producing content that will be watched online by knowledge-seekers the world over, over and over again.

This year is a big one for TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). Beyond the move to Canada, it is marking its 30th anniversary of offering up short talks (not speeches), in a now-familiar format: no podium, headset mic, sharp-casual-dressed genius doing the stage walk, while the well-heeled crowd expresses quiet astonishment at delightful facts. The “ideas worth spreading” – TED’s motto – cover a wide range. Recently posted talks offer everything from a 50-cent microscope that folds like origami to “the surprising science behind how animals get it on.”

Stars have been made at TED – Sir Ken Robinson with his talk on how schools kill creativity (25.5 million views); Jill Bolte Taylor with her “stroke of insight” (14.9 million).

Love it or hate it, TED has become a powerful cultural phenomenon.

There are several TED conferences as well as the affiliated TEDx off-shoots, but the main event is the annual gathering held for the past five years in Long Beach, Calif.

It was a remarkable period of growth for TED, its global brand skyrocketing. But last year, TED announced it would move to Vancouver for at least the next two years.

“I’m a believer in continuing to dream and imagine, and imagine new possibilities,” TED curator Chris Anderson told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview, on the phone from New York, where TED is based.

Why Vancouver? “When you meet for an event like TED, you want to meet in a place that’s beautiful, inspiring, interesting and has the kind of facilities that you need to make a great TED experience work. And for Vancouver, it was kind of check, check, check, check, check and check.”

Persuading TED attendees to come north for the conference was not a problem, Mr. Anderson says – although the $3,750 TEDActive event in Whistler, with simulcast talks and other activities, didn’t sell out until recently. But there were other challenges, chief among them the need to create a custom-designed-for-talk TED theatre built to fit inside the Vancouver Convention Centre.

The pop-up theatre is designed to accommodate 1,200 people without losing the sense of grand intimacy that is part of the TED experience; Mr. Anderson likens it to storytelling around a campfire. The theatre is constructed from thousands of laser-cut pieces of locally harvested Douglas fir, and can be dismantled and stored until next year’s TED event, now on sale at the increased price of $8,500.

“There’s a lot of expenses in running an event this big and so building the theatre certainly adds to the expense,” Mr. Anderson said. “We didn’t move to Vancouver to make more money, put it that way. We moved to have a better experience.”

TED IN VANCOUVER

If the streets and bike lanes of Vancouver aren’t exactly buzzing with excitement over TED, you can chalk it up to the perception that it’s an elitist event, removed from the average Vancouverite’s experience.

“$7,500 tickets? I don’t think so,” says Kristina Morrison, an accountant in Vancouver. “It’s prohibitive for most people, for sure.”

But this year, in a first, TED is providing some local access to the talks. Events will be broadcast live on the big screen at Terry Fox Plaza, beginning Monday evening, as well as up on Grouse Mountain. TED has also offered local high schools, universities, libraries, community centres and NGOs a free conference webstream, something that usually costs $600. About 85 organizations have signed up.

“It’s really just a desire to give back locally,” Mr. Anderson said. “I know that there’s a lot of people locally interested in TED. In an ideal world you would throw open the doors and everyone would come, except then you wouldn’t have a conference that could actually work.”

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