When Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan launched the Nantucket Project four years ago, they did so in the shadow of TED, the hugely popular conference that has been around for thirty years. “I didn’t want to do just some version of TED on Nantucket,” Tom Scott says. “I wanted to make this an event that people on the East Coast simply couldn’t miss.” And so he experimented. Each year’s conference drew bigger and bigger names across the spectrum—inventors, philanthropists, financiers, politicians, poets. The Nantucket Project is emerging as a world-class intellectual conference in its own right. But now in a bold move, Tom Scott has enlisted the help of the very man he set out to distance his conference from: TED’s legendary founder, Richard Saul Wurman.
To understand what Wurman will bring to this year’s Nantucket Project, we need to go back to the year 1984, when he founded TED. Wurman built the conference around the observation that a powerful convergence was happen- ing in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design, thus the name TED. It was the same year that Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh and Sony came out with shiny new discs, even though no one even had a CD player yet. Wurman quickly grasped the significance of these breakthroughs, and trotted out the first Macs and CDs onstage at the original TED conference. Wurman’s conference sought to understand how developments in design and entertainment could help people utilize all of the newfound computing power in a way that actually made them more human—not less.
Wurman went on to make TED a global phenomenon, he says, by addition through sub- traction. He basically threw away all of the things he hated about conferences—reserved seating, dress codes, panels, and people “sell- ing” from the stage. Wurman also did away with lecterns. As he is fond of pointing out, all lecterns do is “cover the groin area and make the speaker feel less vulnerable.” Along with jettisoning the lecterns, he effectively did away with canned speeches. And politicians. And doom and gloom. And it worked. TED Talks, as Wurman’s radically pared- down speaker format came to be known, have been viewed online over two billion times.
Despite the conference’s undeniable success, Wurman would bristle at the notion that he is Mr. TED. He sold TED in 2002 and wishes he had parted with it sooner. “I feel like if I have done something, why do it again?” he says. “Just making a modest improvement on something is not as satisfying as creating something new.” Wurman’s restless curiosity led him to produce over forty different events. He sees all of them as “an elaborate hobby,” along with his eighty-three books that cover a dizzying array of subjects, from sports to health care to finance. While it may be just a hobby, Wurman’s work has spawned an entire field of study called “information architecture,” a term he coined.
So what about Wurman’s latest hobby, the Nantucket Project? Wurman will be speaking at the event in September and has also signed on as a member of the advisory board. His influence is already being felt, as Scott and his team are looking to adapt a wide range of new formats for conversations on-stage. “What Saul has taught me is that once you have succeeded in subtracting what you don’t like, then you can start to creatively add things back in, like stunning visual presentations,” Scott says.
One of the creative additions to the Nantucket Project this year is TNP Labs, a production and innovation laboratory. BMW and art-world impresario Renee Harbers Liddell have both partnered with TNP Labs to produce a groundbreaking film series for the Project. In addition to a slate of in-house productions, TNP Labs and its partners are bringing six cutting-edge filmmakers to the island to create short films inspired by presentations at the event.
“We see our place in the world as storytellers,” says Scott, “but more specifically, we are concerned with how to tell the modern story.” How can we separate what is truly important from all of the noise in our world today? To answer this question, Scott is looking to Wurman for guidance. And that is also why—not coincidentally—Wurman is the subject of one of TNP Lab’s first films, to premiere September 28th.