For more than 3 decades now, the annual TED Conference and its many affiliated events have served as an important platform for, as their tagline puts it, "ideas worth spreading," and has inspired countless people through its fast paced thought-provoking presentations. Founded in 1984 by architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman, there have been many architecture presentations throughout the conferences—but there are even more inspirational talks which aren't necessarily about architecture. Here we've compiled 21 of the best TED Talks in recent years which, while not strictly about architecture, will certainly appeal to the architectural mindset. Covering a variety of topics such as creativity, art, productivity, technological advancements, and the science of cities and the natural environment, these videos will inspire you to become a better architect.
Which non-architectural TED talks have inspired you? Don't forget to share further recommendations in the comments below!
Janet Echelman is a world-renowned American installation artist whose large-scale productions have appeared in cities across the globe including New York, Vancouver, Singapore, and London. In this visually captivating presentation, Echelman recalls her journey from a 7-time art school reject to a successful self-trained artist who has figured out a way of creating a unique art form—all from taking imagination seriously.
Architects and architecture students are well-known for sacrificing their sleep in favor of increasing the time they can spend on their projects. In this video, Arianna Huffington speaks about her own personal epiphany regarding the importance of getting enough sleep. At what gain? She declares that “we can sleep our way to increased productivity and happiness—and smarter decision-making.”—work smarter not harder.
The process of learning never ends for architects; we are often encouraged to expand our field of knowledge in order to incorporate new ideas within our architecture (case in point: you're reading this article). But sometimes learning can be a daunting task when you are not in the environment of a classroom or research laboratory, and “learning” is not the primary task of your daily routine. How can adults continue to learn independently? This TED talk encourages us to find learning communities on the internet, and shows how one might go about doing that. John Green is perhaps best known as the novelist behind The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, but he is also known for creating “Crash Course,” an educational Youtube channel that teaches a wide array of subjects from literature and history to economics, science and philosophy.
City planners and architects today are embroiled in dealing with a retrospective problem: the urban inequality produced by the car-congested megalopolis in cities all over the world. Enrique Peñalosa is a two-time mayor of Bogotá, Colombia (serving from 1998 – 2001 and now from 2016 – 2019). In this video, he discusses the transformation of the Colombian capital through a public transportation initiative and how it is a solution against urban inequality. He suggests increased mobility as an integral part of smart cities all over the world.
Stress is public health's enemy in the 21st century, and the phenomenon continues to plague architecture schools at alarming rates. Psychologist Kenny McGonical presents new research which suggests that “stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case.” She urges the viewer to see stress as positive, so that it can actually help to improve your performance. Essentially, the talk details with how to actually achieve a well-known saying: “If you can’t change something, change your attitude about it.”
The creative process is a complicated thing. In school, architects are regularly encouraged to rely on precedents, incorporating the successful ideas of others into their work in order to guarantee success. But in the real world, intellectual property laws can make this a risky business. In this refreshingly honest talk, Kirby Ferguson makes the case that all creative works are simply remixes of things that already exist, suggesting that when it comes to creating something new, understanding this is "an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin."
Desertification is believed to be an ever-present effect of Global Warming that has been observed on practically every continent, and Allan Savory has dedicated his entire life to understanding the phenomena. In this video, he presents a startling discovery which goes against previously accepted theories of desertification. It turns out large herds of livestock and pastoralism is the “realistic and low-cost” solution to reverse desertification.
If ArchDaily’s Facebook comments are anything to judge by, architects can be a pessimistic bunch; it seems this pessimism can kill your dreams leading to... more pessimism. In this video, Bel Pesce recalls her journey to success and offers a dose of reality, making us realize how faulty perspectives can hinder you from succeeding and achieving your dreams. Pesce is a Brazilian national, who studied at MIT and had a successful career in Silicon Valley before opening a school in Brazil dedicated to helping students achieve their dreams.
In this talk design critic Alice Rawsthorn recounts the design work of "unlikely heroes" from Blackbeard to Florence Nightingale and connects these people with well-known designers like Buckminster Fuller. Rawsthorn paints a narrative of how the greatest designers are often the most rebellious. In her own words: “All of these designers and many more are pursuing their dreams, by the making the most of their newfound freedom, with the discipline of professional designers and the resourcefulness of rebels and renegades. And we all stand to benefit.”
Here, the father-son duo behind Gapminder.org present incredible insights into just how easily, thanks to today's media environment, we are led to make ignorant assumptions and how we can work towards being more aware of fact-based realities. In the first portion of the talk, Hans Rosling presents a few examples of how people seem more ignorant than chimpanzees. Then, as director of Gapminder, Ola Rosling provides 4 points on how to drop our preconceived notions and be... well, less ignorant.
Participating in philanthropy offers a sense of fulfillment for anybody, including architects. Unfortunately, the work of the architect, no matter how down-scaled, requires substantial capital which virtually disables architects from applying the tools of their trade towards positive change. With inspiration from Dureen Shahnaz, architects can be the bridge between capitalist practices and philanthropic endeavors by designing the infrastructure that facilitates a hybrid program of socially-conscious capitalism for various charitable pursuits.
At the dawn of what is known as "The Internet of Things," Marco Annunziata presents a future with exciting implications for us all. With the price of computer sensors and memory space having drastically decreased over the last decade, Annunziata declares that machines are now “brilliant: self-aware, predictive, reactive, and social” which effectively creates a world where information itself is intelligent. For architects, the implication of these changes could be that buildings are reactive to their inhabitants, and with information being provided by buildings themselves, maintenance can be performed in these structures just before they break.
One of the most debated issues among practicing architects lies in where to draw the line between working too much, and having dedication to one’s craft. Nigel Marsh of Fat, Forty, and Tired fame, is offering a new perspective on how to achieve a “Work-Life” balance. Unlike the common trope that simply consists of saying “no” to your job and “yes” to your family, Marsh is asking us to scale back our expectations on various aspects of our lives.
In the world of Architecture, one of the most popular documentaries about urbanism and city planning is Jan Gehl’s "The Human Scale" which privileges quantifiable data on cities and changes based on empirical evidence. This TED Talk by physicist Geoffrey West seems to be proposing a completely different way of understanding and thus shaping the city. He states that simple mathematical laws govern the properties of cities. Wealth, crime rate and walking speed among others can be deduced from a single number: a city’s population. In a talk that seemingly echoes Gilles Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control, West talks about how might our cities be designed differently—differently from Gehl’s happy city but also differently from the 20th century sprawling metropolis.
At the time of this TEDxToronto Talk, Rodolphe el-Khoury was directing the RAD Lab at the University of Toronto John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. The research lab is primarily concerned with providing resources and expertise on the “spatial ramifications of embedded technology and ubiquitous computing,” and habitually produces research that extends far beyond the reaches of architecture. In this video, el-Khoury goes through a project-based survey of how technology can disappear but simultaneously be adapted into our everyday lives. Rodolphe el-Khoury is now the Dean at the University Of Miami School Of Architecture.
Stefan Stagmeister is a designer that runs a creative branding and identity studio in New York. Every 7 years, he closes the entire studio for a year-long sabbatical in order to rejuvenate and revive his and the rest of his staff’s creativity. In a presentation which details the subsequent projects that were inspired by Stagmeister’s sabbatical, he urges the rest of us to see the productivity involved in taking time off and pulling ourselves away from our work—a concept which many creatives seem to struggle with.
In a retrospective talk, Anupam Mishra talks about the amazing feats of engineering built centuries ago by the people of India’s Golden Desert to harvest water which are still being used today—demonstrating their superiority to modern water megaprojects. Contemporary architecture today is interested in the adoption of local folk knowledge for the sake of architectural innovation. Ideas such as Mishra’s help facilitate this effort.
Elizabeth Gilbert is well-known for the freakish success of her memoir Eat Pray Love, and that is precisely her problem. In this talk, Gilbert reflects upon the aftermath of overnight success of creatives and transcending one’s “best work,” as well as the seeming precariousness of the lives of creatives and creativity themselves. Rooted in Greek philosophy, Gilbert's talk tries to dispel the notion of the “rare naturally creative genius” and show instead that all of us “have” a genius. An inspiring talk for those looking for a kick of inspiration.
The question: “How do we improve the city?” is common in architecture circles—in presentations, symposiums, and the classroom. In some ways that conversation has become muddled, with the same rhetoric simply being reformulated among architecture's practitioners. In this refreshing talk by the sculptor and non-architect, Theaster Gates discusses the improvement and beautification of his neighborhood of Grand Crossing, Michigan. While architecture is widely implicated in the talk, it is instead culture that is placed at the core of what Gates is talking about. It’s an interesting way to look at infrastructure, urban planning, and urban renewal that departs from the usual language of architecture. Perhaps it takes a talk such as this to state the obvious: that architecture is culture.
The idea of self-promotion is something that many architects are uncomfortable with, and as a result, few do it well. But according to Simon Sinek, there is a simple key to becoming a leader in a field and being successful, whether that's in a commercial venture or in becoming the leader of a social movement. Sinek uses this single theory to explain why Apple was able to out-compete other equally capable technology companies, why the Wright Brothers were the first to achieve manned flight despite a total lack of funding, and why 250,000 people turned up to watch Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. And the good news for architects? The key to becoming a leader is not through exaggeration or deceit, but in connecting with people over your core beliefs.