How TEDMED ‘Groupinspire’ Could Change the World

Last week I found my usually-diverse Twitter feed had coalesced into a single hashtag, the trolley buses chugging through the streets of Washington, D.C. were sporting bold logos on their sides, and all around the city people were wearing giant nametags bearing their name, face, and three things they liked to talk about. There was no mistaking it: TEDMED was in town.

For the world of health care, TEDMED was the only party at which to see and be seen. The thousand or so delegates had been specifically “curated” to encapsulate the epitome of health care innovation. For 3.5 days they basked in cutting-edge, quirky talks by people “shaping and creating the future of health and medicine,” punctuated by lavish dinners and parties, TEDMED-themed M&Ms, and morning runs, as sanctioned by the Cookie Monster (one of the celebrity speakers at this extravaganza). Meanwhile, the rest of the medical world followed the #TEDMED hashtag on Twitter or soaked up the inspiration in real time at one of TEDMED’s mostly academic simulcast venues around the U.S.

And as for me? I threw myself into getting invited to the cool kids’ party. Or to be more accurate, the cool, privileged kids’ party. Because as well as being accepted on merit, attending TEDMED in person costs an eye-watering $4,950. A wealth of sponsors paid for 200 people to attend on scholarships (and for the Simulcasts), but by the time I’d realized this and persuaded them of my innovative brilliance, they’d already allocated their funds and I was consigned to their priority waiting list. But at the last minute, delightfully, my persistence and anticipation were rewarded with a pass for the Thursday night party and the final Friday morning session.

Perhaps surprisingly, TEDMED actually lived up to its hype… but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The Thursday night party, in the National Building Museum was fantastic: cool Parkour-style dancers, open bar, 12 different dessert stations sporting quirky free desserts (of which I sampled almost all). And most importantly, a lot of people who work in health care, reveling in this moment of being in the cool gang. Over liquid nitrogen lollipops, they braced me for the inspiration revolution that was going to hit my brain the following morning at the Kennedy Center.

And it did, in a way. As an online TED talk fan, I wasn’t surprised to find myself dazzled by some inspiring, innovative presentations that challenged the norms and teetered at the very cutting edge of health care thinking. However, it’s important to remember that the best talks are selected for the website: not every talk is pure gold. And yet, regardless of whether the presentation sparkled with genius or started to plod a little, the audience gazed, rapt, at the speaker and were resolutely inspired. It made me realize that the magic in the TED phenomenon does not reside specifically in its largely-impressive speakers; rather, it’s in casting a spell over its delegates.

During the break, I watched these delegates vigorously raving about the inspiring speakers from the previous sessions and bouncing their ideas around the room until they hit transformative innovation. Certainly many of the speakers had been inspiring. But I wondered whether the magic arose from these speakers, or rather from convincing the delegates that (1) they were part of an elite, exclusive, “curated” cadre of innovators, (2) they were being inspired, and (3) together they had the power to turn inspiration into innovation to change the world. And by persuading them that it was so, TEDMED actually seemed to be making it happen. I found that despite my late arrival to the party, I too was rapidly falling under the influence of a special category of groupthink: groupinspire.

As I submitted to TEDMED’s spell, the idea of groupinspire, well, inspired me. In a modern world full of technology, it’s increasingly hard for people to justify flying thousands of miles, paying bags of money, and taking chunks of time off work to attend expensive professional conferences and meetings whose content and delegates could be accessed online. There needs to be a value-add besides content and making contacts. If conferences can learn how to evolve beyond their standard levels of moderate, intermittent, individual-level inspiration to deliver a potent, heady shot of groupinspire, getting together physically, intensively, even expensively, starts to makes sense. Making delegates believe their attendance at a conference will change the world — and dashing off to do it as a result — is surely the Holy Grail of conference organizers. Perhaps they should be looking to TED/TEDMED for clues to the formula.

However, even as I reveled in this groupinspire phenomenon, I couldn’t help noticing that someone was missing from the party. In my opinion, policymakers and even politicians are often a critical, missing link between invention and large-scale innovation. It’s been suggested that one of the key reasons for relocating TEDMED to Washington, D.C. this year was to engage them. An event with this much hype, inspiration, motivation, and innovative focus should have the policy wonks, politicos, and Hill staffers fighting over tickets and emerging from the groupinspire spell bursting with transformative policy ideas and resolutions to partner and innovate at scale, from the very center of government. And yet, national and regional policymakers and politicos were conspicuous by their paucity at D.C.’s first TEDMED. Bringing these people under the groupinspire spell really could change the world.

Or perhaps that’s the groupinspire talking.

Dr. Layla McCay is a physician, healthcare leader, and global health specialist. She has held numerous positions in the realm of healthcare, including advisor to the WHO and the UK’s Department of Health, and assistant medical director of international healthcare company, Bupa. She is a Visiting Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Global Health. She also blogs at The Huffington Post, where this piece was originally posted.