Ten Years Of TEDx
Earthquakes, fireworks, and a trip to Antarctica
I remember the conversation vividly. It was 2010, and TED had only recently launched the TEDx program. I was debating whether I should apply for a license and asked a colleague what she thought. “How would you feel,” she asked thoughtfully, “if someone else in Christchurch did it first?”
I was instantly furious. How dare they? This is my event!
And then—after a good laugh at how angry I had become at a non-existent person for doing something they hadn’t done—I pulled up the website and submitted my application.
I had no idea what I was signing up for. Our first event had 100 attendees, ran for just 4 hours (1–5pm, so we didn’t have to serve lunch), and featured just 10 speakers. We were called TEDxChCh ’cause we only had a partial license and couldn’t use the full name of the city. We had one cash sponsor who gave us $2,000 so we could offer afternoon tea. Rob Hamill shared his journey to Cambodia to testify against his brother’s killer and Ian Shaw spoke about shrinking alligator penises.
I loved it.
But I didn’t immediately apply to run a second event. Instead, I signed up to attend TEDActive, an official event run by TED HQ that would give me the ability to get a full license so we could welcome more than 100 people to our next shindig.
I also put my hat in the ring for a speaking slot at the event — and was surprised and delighted when they accepted my proposal and told me I would have three minutes on stage.
TEDActive was in Palm Springs, California, USA, and my then-husband and I took a detour to Florida on the way. We were at an old friend’s house in north Miami for dinner when our host announced that he was going to be on the news that night.
Naturally we all wanted to watch, so he turned on the TV just in time for the headline story: The city of Christchurch, New Zealand, had been hit by a major earthquake. Extensive damage. Unknown number of people missing or dead.
We immediately said our goodbyes and raced back to the hotel to call family and loved ones, to see what we could do. From so far away, there wasn’t much. We made sure my mother-in-law was safe. We made our home available to some friends whose house had collapsed, and put money on the phone accounts of folks who were on the ground clearing rubble and doing the real work.
We thought about going back immediately but more than one person told us the city didn’t need more people and we were better off staying where we were. So off we went to TEDActive.
It was a surreal time. I was torn between the fear and helplessness I felt about what was going on back home, and the excitement of meeting so many new and interesting people. I kept wondering what more we could be doing.
And then it hit me. Maybe I could take those three minutes I’d been given and use them to tell people what was going on.
I cornered Kelly Stoetzel, the curator of TED and host of TEDActive, and begged her to let me change the topic to talk about what had just happened and my hopes for the future of the city. She agreed, and two days later I got up on stage and said this:
Just ten days ago, a major earthquake brought my home city of Christchurch, New Zealand, to its knees.
The official death toll sits at 159 with another 100 bodies yet to be found or identified. A third of our central business district is demolished — including my office, which you see here, and 60% of the city — including my house — is still without water.
And beyond the immediate crisis lies a more profound one. The population is skittish. The ground is unstable. Already, 70,000 people — nearly a fifth of the population — have left, either temporarily or permanently. It is not hyperbole to say that this event may be the beginning of the demise of Christchurch.
But the rubble of our city may also contain its promise. A totally unique, unprecedented, and extraordinary opportunity lies before us.
We have, in idea, in population and in spirit a city that is waiting to be built, and we can reimagine it in any form we choose. And so I invite you to imagine. Imagine if every office building had a renewable power supply and were able to contribute to the grid. Imagine if every house were built as a part of the landscape rather than on top of it. Imagine if we became global experts in environmentally and financially sustainable living and exported our model and our expertise worldwide.
That brief talk kicked off a flurry of outreach and conversations. I landed back in Christchurch on March 7, and on May 21—just shy of three months after the quake—we ran the first TEDxEQChCh: an event focused on the future of the city post-quake.
That event exploded. We went from 100 people to 700 people. Featured people doing incredible work on the ground in Ōtautahi, people like Ngāi Tahu strategist Sacha McMeeking and urban designer James Lunday. Hosted Cameron Sinclair, the founder of Architecture for Humanity, and Art Agnos, who had been Mayor of San Francisco during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. BNZ stepped up as a major cash sponsor, and volunteers came out of the woodwork.
The following year, we ran another TEDxEQChCh; we were still deep in the aftermath of the quake. The year after that, we became TEDxChristchurch—and never looked back.
Over ten years, we’ve given more than 140 extraordinary speakers and performers a platform to share their ideas. Talks from our events have been viewed more than 30 million times.
Our speakers have gone on to accomplish extraordinary things. They’ve written books (looking at you, Matt Brown and Julia Rucklidge), created multi-award-winning movies (hi there Slavko Martinov), and been featured in the New York Times and Time Magazine (well done, Ryan Reynolds and Coralie Winn). Three talks from our events—Ernesto Sirolli, Marilyn Waring and Lucy Hone—were featured on the home page of TED.com.
We’ve done some pretty random stuff. In 2011, a Dutch artist named Jeroen van der Most created a stylised image of the Anglican Cathedral made out of tweets from the immediate aftermath of the quake; it’s part of Te Papa’s digital collection. In 2017, we ran TEDxScottBase in Antarctica with Antarctica New Zealand. In 2019, we served an award-winning hāngī to 1,400 people. We got Christchurch audiences — Christchurch audiences!—to give standing ovations.
As the curator and licensee, I screwed up in a million ways, big and small. I screwed up in how I led the team. Made mistakes with the money (TEDx events run on a non-moneymaking basis; any surplus was held over until the following year, while any loss came out of my pocket). Took big risks without entirely understanding the potential ramifications. We once created a giant TEDx logo out of fireworks and set it off onstage — it’s a full miracle we didn’t set off the fire alarms and have to shut down the event.
It’s been a wild ride, and I don’t regret or begrudge a moment or a penny I’ve spent. Many of my closest friends and a number of my colleagues are in my life because of TEDx. And when I look at the positive impact our speakers are having in the world I feel so proud I could cry (and often do).
And now, after ten years and many thousands of volunteer hours, it’s time for me to relinquish my TEDx license and give my full attention to my company, Boma.
Does this mean TEDxChristchurch is over? No, not at all. You see, the event was never mine in the first place.
The good folks at TED entrusted me with the license. I stewarded it with the sole ambition of amplifying important voices to make a positive difference.
Whether someone else — maybe you? — steps in to pick up the baton is not for me to say.
What is for me to say is thank you.
Thank you to the hundreds of speakers and performers who have graced our stage since that first event in 2010.
Thank you to the thousands of volunteers who freely gave their time every year to pull it off. Thank you to every member of the team who stuck it out as I fumbled my way into leadership.
Thank you to every sponsor who believed in us and gave time and treasure to make the events happen.
Thank you to Lara Stein and Kelly Stoetzel and Will Davis and Jay Herratti and the whole team at TED, who did an extraordinarily brave thing in letting strangers from around the world use your brand.
But most of all, thank you to every person who formed part of our TEDxChristchurch whānau. You fed this event, nurtured it, grew it into something special.
I was gifted the privilege of a front-row seat to this extraordinary community for ten years. I will never be able to fully articulate the length and depth of my gratitude.
And when someone puts their hand up to lead the next stage in the amazing TEDxChristchurch journey, I will be the first one out of my seat for the standing O.
With huge love,