We humans

Why ideas matter … now more than ever

Jun 28, 2016 /

It might seem like our interconnected world is unraveling, if last week’s Brexit vote is anything to go by. What can help knit humanity together? Great ideas, says TED curator Chris Anderson.

I’m a Brit. But also a global soul. It’s a core part of my identity. Last week’s Brexit vote made me feel as if my heart was being ripped out; as if an idea I believed in to my core was being trampled on.

For the past few years, a lot of us have wanted to believe that most humans were gradually expanding their circle of empathy. That instead of our instinctive “us/them” labels, we have been extending our sense of shared identity to all of humanity. That the physical connectedness brought by globalization and the internet made this trend both possible and almost inevitable. That countless millions of humans were on a trajectory to becoming global citizens.

That belief just suffered a savage blow. We might be dead wrong. The world may instead be heading in exactly the opposite direction. That’s a terrifying and depressing thought.

What happened here?

I know there were many complex factors behind Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, including an understandable dislike of distant bureaucracy and oversight. But it seems clear that ultimately the decision was driven by real fear and real anger. Millions of people in Europe and America have lost the hope of high-paid jobs and the lives they once dreamed of — and they are lashing out. Blame the outsiders, blame the global elite, smash the system and try something else. Anything else.

We ignore this at our peril. There is far more at stake than whether one country remains part of a trading bloc. We’re battling here for the survival of an idea on which the world’s future depends, the idea of humanity as one connected family. Millions of people seem eager to reject this. To believe that life would be better if we all just kept to ourselves. No outsiders here, please: we don’t trust you, and we don’t like you.

How should we respond to this? The need for new ideas has never been more apparent. Two huge areas in particular are crying out for fresh thinking.

The first is the future of work itself. The truth is that because of the new capabilities of technology, most of the jobs that disappeared are never coming back … and they probably shouldn’t. Humans are capable of being so much more than production line robots. But without jobs, how do they survive? Long-term, we can dream of a world rich enough to pay everyone a living wage as a birthright, of thriving human creativity, and of thrilling new ways for humans to build on and collaborate with machine intelligence. But how do we get there? There are no quick answers. It may take a revolution in education; we may even need to rethink capitalism itself. Certainly we’ll need ideas to address the growing inequality that has driven so much of the anger. So let’s seek out those with compelling ideas to offer here. The current system is in danger of breaking. We need to give a platform to dreamers and reformers who are thinking outside the box.

The current system is in danger of breaking. We need to give a platform to dreamers and reformers who are thinking outside the box.

The second huge area? Our treasured global values. It seems clear now that millions of people around the world are rejecting a global order that they feel was foisted on them and has given them nothing.

Here, we can’t back down. The idea of one connected humanity has inspired the world’s greatest reformers for centuries. And now that we have technologies that can inflict global harm, our very survival depends on it. As Martin Luther King, Jr said, “We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.” Somehow we have to help people find a new way of seeing that the dream of one world is not threatening, but beautiful. The key may be to stop framing this dream as a top-down system driven by faceless global elites who tell us all what to do, but instead as a flourishing of human possibility that’s happening right here on the ground. People from all corners of the globe connecting with each other and discovering to their delight that they share so many hopes and dreams, and also have so many remarkable things to learn from each other, and to be amazed by each other.

There’s so much more to gain by taking a risk and reaching out than by turning inwards. I’ve felt this viscerally when traveling the world and meeting TEDx communities in different cities: Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, Bangalore, Qatar, Tunis, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Sydney, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, New York, and – yes – London. In every city I met young visionaries who are animated not by looking back, but by looking forward at a world glittering with possibility. So much of their joy and purpose came from their connections with people on the other side of the planet. They inspired me more than I can say.

Ultimately the idea of one connected humanity is going to prevail. It is notable that the younger generation in Britain voted differently from their parents. They already know this more connected world, and they want to be part of it.

But the world can’t afford to wait for generational change. It’s urgent for those of us who believe in these ideas to nurture them with all our strength. And actually, it’s not just these ideas, it’s the role for ideas generally in our public discourse. A world informed by reasoned thinking will be a very different world than one informed by dark, instinctual reactions. Ideas matter. And if ideas matter, openness matters. Ideas can’t be contained by borders. They’re for all of us. And ultimately, I believe humans are capable of being inspired by ideas that will draw them toward the reflective, reasoning, forward-thinking part of who they are instead of the fearful, angry part. Together we’ll figure out the right way forward.