From Delos Symposia to the WWW Conference

The 2012 Life Achievement National Design Award by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum was bestowed to Richard Saul Wurman in recognition of his “profound and long-term contribution to the contemporary practice of design.” Broadly described as an “intellectual hedonist” with a “hummingbird mind,” Richard Saul Wurman is continuously motivated by his curiosity or ignorance to a constant search for innovation and understanding. I would just add a great sense of humor and a disarming simplicity facing life burdens.

Richard Saul Wurman was originally formed as an architect, while he collaborated for a long period with Louis Kahn. Nevertheless he became broadly known as the creator of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences, an event widely identified by its eighteen-minute talks, videos which often go viral online, and the expensive and clubby annual event where the talks are given. The first TED was held in 1984 and status events have been mushrooming ever since.

Having broken his ties with TED in 2002, Richard Saul Wurman has a new paradigm coming up in September 2012. Conceived as a series of paired-participants conversations interlaced with threads of improvised music, the WWWConference aims to revive the “lost art of conversing.” Alike other events, the WWW conference promises an intriguing gathering imbued with creativity, intellectual explorations, and a touch of ecological considerations. Moreover, it banks on technological innovation in order to deliver an integrated and commercially appealing product that will spread the message through high quality apps.

Arguably, neither the list of the participants – some of them are TED veterans – nor the technological modalities are such news. Innovation and freshness however, come along the format: WWW essentially mirrors Wurman’s “conversation-over-presentation” approach. Like the architectural commandment “form follows function”, WWWurman’s premise could be “creativity follows improvisation.” More than considering the failure or success of the project in terms of its media impact (revenues, hits, and likes) then, WWW hypothetically and promisingly jumps out for its capacity to sparkle ideas, promote dialog, and provide metaphorically a “truth” button.

Seen against the background of Richard Saul Wurman’s overall explorations, WWW seems more willing to discuss current critical issues than a status gathering designed to shelter thought-leaders for elbow-rubbing and brand promotion. For example, 19.20.21. is an attempt for “understanding population’s effect regarding urban and business planning,” by the comparative analysis of data on 19 cities that will have 20 million or more inhabitants in the 21st century. By the same token, the FEDMED World Exposition aims to a comparative format of data regarding health-care policies and governance in 50 representative countries, in order to promoted communication and awareness on a global level.

All in all, Richard Saul Wurman’s commitment to understanding and making the complex clear has yielded interesting results, so far. This time he has a fresh proposal to reinvent conference events: fostering communication on a loose base, aiming to stage rather than shape creativity, this mixture of conversation, improvisation, and music somehow brings to mind the concept of Scenius. The term was originally suggested by Brian Eno in order to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. His actual definition is:  “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.

Constantinos Doxiadis and the Delos Symposia

All in all, an event could act as an amplifier of ideas, a platform of knowledge sharing, and an arena of critical debate. The Delos Symposia were created and staged from 1963 to 1975 by the Greek architect-planner Constantinos Doxiadis. Twelve sessions took place, ten of them on board ship, navigating the Aegean Sea to end up at the island of Delos, where the signing of a declaration affirmed the critical situation of global urbanization and the need for “rational and dynamic planning of human settlements”.

The Delos Symposia were interdisciplinary events that witnessed the participation of distinguished personalities like the architectural historian and critic Sigfried Giedion; architect-engineer and inventor Buckminster Fuller; communication theorist and futurist Marshall McLuhan; anthropologist Margaret Mead; economist Barbara Ward; biologist and geneticist Conrad Waddington; historian Arnold Toynbee; architects Sir Robert Matthew, Charles Abrams, and Kenzo Tange; microbiologist and environmentalist Rene Dubos; and professor Jacqueline Tyrwhitt to name just a few.

In fact, Doxiadis named the event after the Greek word symposion, in order to differentiate it from an official symposium and convey an informal and relaxed ambient as a stimulus for creativity and debate.

“It was hoped that the free discussion of a symposion would 
give the participants an opportunity of approaching closer 
to the truth. Sometimes informal gatherings yield more and 
better fruit than formal conferences. For an increasingly 
larger number of people formal sessions offer very few 
opportunities for creative thinking.”

Once again, the essence of the event laid in the format. The puzzling morning presentations and fervent debates often continued along sunbathing and swimming, pleasant afternoon strolls in the maze of white houses, and evening parties that challenged the dance abilities of the “glamour-intellectuals.”  Innovative ideas and knowledge flowed between the participants. The on board tension brought by confronting perspectives and approaches, by the end of the day was giving way to dialectic cooperation. “High-level theoretical discourse was well lubricated with retsina and ouzo.”

Some critics tagged the Delos Symposionan endless jargon, nevertheless these discussions clearly had an effect on the evolution of every participant’s ideas fermenting the theoretical grounds of their respective researches. Electronics was fused with urbanism, architecture was imbued with biological metaphors, and environmental issues were seriously considered long before official sustainability policies or even the first Earth Day. All in all, Delos Symposia created the sense of a collective intelligentsia that could bridge the gap between East and West and inspire synergies and understanding towards problem-solving actions.

Four decades after, we still lack a common interdisciplinary base to identify, compare and bring forward the problems of our cities. To this end Constantinos Doxiadis dedicated his life and developed Ekistics, what he called the science of human settlements. Nevertheless, the celebrated think-tank barely survived the passing away of the author, in 1975. Posthumously, the “busy remodeler of the world” was forgotten, his theories, and ideas have fallen into oblivion. Today, a great part of the Delos’ theoretical legacy occasionally sounds as a long distant echo, in a dissonance however, when media recycle similar ideas labeled “innovation.”

Against this background then, more than a gala of fabulous confabs and expectations of rapid obsolescence, Richard Saul Wurman’s initiatives are a call to explore and celebrate in the name of  “understanding precedes action”.

Ekistic elements – Ekistic Grid
Sketchnotes by Jonny Goldstein of Richard Saul Wurman’s presentation at SenseMaker Dialogs.

References:

on the TED conferences and the status events fever read: “Those Fabulous Confabs”

on Delos Symposia read: Mark Wigley – “Network Fever” +  “Halfway between the Electron and the Universe: Doxiadis and the Delos Symposia” Simon Richards, in Scale

on the concept of Scenius read: Scenius, or Communal Genius

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