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Seth Godin, and movements worth starting

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Saul Griffith has always enjoyed playing with kites. He’s a recreational kitesurfer, and a relentless tinkerer, responsible for a wide variety of technical thinking and innovation. (He tinkers well enough that the MacArthur gave him a genius grant.) And how he’d like people to take kites seriously, and not just as child’s toys.

He’s inspired by a paper by Miles Loyd, which saw the potential to generate electricity by putting airplae-sized masses on long strings. The principle of the paper is that more sky generates more power – if you can build a bigger turbine, you generate more power. But a mass the size of an airplane is much bigger than any turbine in existence.

To generate 10 trillion watts of new, clean energy, we need to look to sun and wind – and we need that much new clean energy to stop the increase of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm. There’s 3600 trillion watts of wind power available, most of it in higher altitudes. We don’t currently have the tech to capture that, but Saul’s building kites to get us there. A kite currently is in testing in Maui which can gereate 10 kilowatts, using kites the size of piano flying at 2000 feet.

Creating thousands of these kites is a pretty audacious idea – it’s a new technology and we don’t know how to build these kites on a huge scale. But Saul points out that refrigerator factories were turned into airplane factories when we neded to win WWII. Big problems demand audacious dreams, and Saul is dreaming big.

Seth Godin is a marketer who wants to change the world. Specifically, he’d like everyone – Saul, you, and me – to start movements to change the world. And Seth thinks he’s got a formula that lets people make big, disproportionate changes by bringing groups of people together.

He tells the story of Nathan Winograd, who was second in charge at the San Francisco SPCA. He believed the mission of the organization shouldn’t be the killing of dogs and cats in the city – 4 million a year, most of whom are killed within 24 hours of reaching a shelter. He advocated for making San Francisco a non-kill city, and faced enormous pushback from professionals in the field. But he got great grassroots support and was able to change the ruleset for San Francisco, and then again in Tompkins County, NY; Reno, Nevada and in North Carolina.

We’re living through a change in how ideas are created, spread and implemented. In the past, you got an idea, built a factory and produced it on a very large scale. Then you got an idea and put it on television so you could spread it to millions. And now, we spread ideas by leading.

Henry Ford introduced a business model that required ever-faster machines and ever-cheaper labor. We’re running out of both. In television, you need to tell eople that you’re in charge and tell people what to do. Mass marketing requires average ideas, and plenty of ads, so you can hypnotize people into buying our stuff, supporting our cause and voting for our candidate. And it isn’t working anymore.

Seth’s new idea – we need to make change through building tribes, leading and connecting people and ideas. In a connected world (my term, not his), you can find Ukranian folk dancers and connect with them. Every town’s volunteer fire department is based on this principle. Tribes, not money or factories, can change our world because people want to connect. Find something worth changing, he tells us, and then assemble tribes to spread the idea.

You don’t need everyone to adopt the idea, Seth tells us – you just need a thousand people who are true believers.

Seth wonders why we don’t build tools that make it easier for us to connect. “What if your Kindle helped you see veryone else’s notes on a text,” bringing people together around those texts?

“The Beatles did not invent teenagers – they merely decided to lead them.” To change the world, you just need a few people who realize they don’t like the rules and want to connect with one another.

In starting a movement, Seth advises you to ask three questions:
Who are you upsetting? If you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re not changing the status quo.
Who are you connecting?
And who are you leading?

To build tribes effectively, you need to understand how to leverage culture (the culture of a group), their curiosity, the power of connecting (people want to be missed), charisma (which comes from being a leader, isn’t a precursor) and commitment. And he invites us to pick something to change and build our own movement.

1 thought on “Seth Godin, and movements worth starting”

  1. Pingback: michelle kaufmann’s blog » Blog Archive » ted ‘09, seth godin, and modern day tribes

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