Broadening My Horizons at TED2011
Gervais Tompkin in Consulting, San Francisco, innovation

Photo credit Conference Basics

At a talk in San Francisco decades ago, Herbert Muschamp, the famed New York Times architecture critic, said that architects have a responsibility to provide the connective tissue for societies. I agree.

Architecture as a profession does not always provide the necessary exposure to ideas that fall outside the traditional boundaries of design. As a consequence, it is important to take personal responsibility for broadening our exposure to other worlds and ideas. For me, TED Conferences have played an integral role in my continuing education in that broader, bigger world.

In 2000, I attended my first TED Conference. Below are a few talks from TED2011 that had a big impact on me. They contain ideas that have a dotted line connection to what Herbert Muschamp was talking about all those years ago. I am curious if you see that same connection.

Deb Roy: Cognitive Scientist
Deb Roy's discussion about the development of language is one of my favorite talks in years. He traced the development of his son’s first word and gave examples on how the same methodology can be applied to broader issues. The information graphic is as beautiful as it is profound. The implications of this talk on space design are fascinating to contemplate.

Julie Taymor Director Designer
All designers have been there: a situation where the expectations are high and things don’t go as planned. Julie Taymor gave a brave and direct talk about what it was like to deal with the challenges of Spider Man on Broadway. I found this story of conviction and focus in the worst of times very moving.

Anthony Atala: Surgeon
This brilliant surgeon discussed a new technology that has the potential to revolutionize organ donation. In his research, he found that by creating the underlying structure of human organs, cells could grow, guided by that architecture, and regenerate functional implants for people in need. The possible has been redefined. If we look at cities as organisms, what cell growth are we trying to encourage as designers? Where does architecture stop and cell growth take over?

Morgan Spurlock: Filmmaker
Morgan Spurlock’s talk tore into the notion of branding and its value. Before this talk I admit to wondering if I should spend more time cultivating my own brand, the brand of Gervais. Thanks to Morgan that idea is banished forever. I do think brand has an important role to play, but as designers we must stay focused on the messages with real value.

Sarah Kay: Poet
This talk was as low-fi as it gets: a person, her thoughts and voice. I admire the raw power and personal exposure of poetry. My creative products are almost always a result of work with others. Am I brave enough to bring that much self to my collaborations?

Eli Pariser: Organizer and Author
As our access to information and entertainment expands, we increasingly rely on editors to filter and aggregate for us. Our browsers are filtering search results based on our past behaviors. Since we may be losing awareness of who our editors are and what their motivations are, is a moral web possible? For me this talk was a reminder that I need to be measured about balancing my digital information inputs with direct experience. Diverse, direct experience takes more time so it may require more effort to ensure that I am getting enough of it.

Stanley McChrystal: General
Stanley McChrystal is a great speaker and has important things to say about how to get people to work together and how to lead teams. “Great leaders let you fail but don’t make you feel like a failure.”

Mark Bezos: Robin Hood Foundation/Firefighter
A Ted U talk. No life changing discoveries in this talk…simply an entertaining reminder of the importance of empathy in public service.


Gervais Tompkin
Gervais Tompkin chooses to be optimistic. He thrives on collaborations with others and is more likely to diagram it than talk about it. His practice as a leader of Gensler’s consulting practice allows him to work with interesting people on worthy problems globally. Contact him at
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (
See website for complete article licensing information.