Richard Saul Wurman at Cal Poly Pomona

Richard Saul Wurman (RSW) the founder of the TED conferences (and former dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly) is about to give gave a rare public appearance at Cal Poly Pomona this evening (tweeted as #RSW_ENV).  I’m going to live blog his talk.   This post is a (mildly) edited live transcription of his talk.

Richard Saul Wurman – information architect

RSW: Lovely to be back in a place that rescued me from bankruptcy, had the job for a year then was fired. Loved all the students, the president was terribly gracious. Taught one class that was open to all students  – ‘Passion in Pomona’ what his friends were passionate about. Francis Crick, Frank O. Gehry, a kite maker – the collection of odd people was a continuation of my curiosities – I’m not very bright, but shallow, and broad looking into lots of connections. Didn’t want hyperbolic introduction.

Dean Micheal Woo:  Tonight we’re having a dialog between me and Mr. Wurman, then open it to audience questions. [Continued on verbatim repeat of the email sent out about the event]:

I first learned about Mr. Wurman in the early 1970s, when he published a series of books which attempt to explain the physical environment and explore the ways in which people understand how cities and designed environments work [Our Man-Made Environment — Book Seven (1970); Making the City Observable (1971); The Nature of Recreation: A handbook in honor of Frederick Law Olmsted, using examples From his work (1972); Yellow Pages of Learning Resources (1972)]. He was educated as an architect at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked with Louis Kahn and later co-edited The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis Kahn (1973).

This is like interviewing Charlie Parker or Robert Johnson for a music lover.  [ Gave away a book to a student that rsvp’d via facebook]

RSW: I write about things that I don’t know about. As a 76 y.o. I needed to know about the medical system so I wrote about it. Wrote about children cause I have several… Singular passion to learn about what he doesn’t know and wants to learn about. Sold TED it in 2002. Reinventing several conferences about innovation. Defining innovation differently – need to do more than that. Incremental change – nobody invented a car – it was a bunch of additions and combinations. TED was subtractions: got rid of suits, panels, long speeches, silos around disciplines… like Passion at Pomona.

[giving away the book ‘understanding’ and ‘33‘]

RSW: Went around to a bunch of CEOs and collected $1m to write about Information Architecture, all I did was the cover for this annual report on America. ’33’ was written in three days, was chairmanship of the AIA convention in 1977, actually did something not just honorary. Didn’t allow exhibits, no meetings in hotels, or key note speech, or hotel parties. Raised own money – got 100 board rooms around Philadelphia donated (mostly banks), Eugene Ormandy gave concert. Conference titled the architecture of information. Wrote a keynote fable. got a reputation beyond it’s circulation – about a place called ‘what if’ and hired commissioner of curiosity to fix place, museum of failure… 33 years later they want to get him back after he is banished. Old book is included in new book [grabbing the book back from the student that won just it and holding it up], this is written around the old book, 33 bones in the spine, et cetera… the protagonist is exiled to Kapingamarangi atoll  – everything is true but the story – the facts are true but the story is made up.

Dean Woo: question about new conference ‘WWW‘ . [Joke about microphone]

RSW: no best way to do anything in the world, lots of ways of doing stuff. Thinking can subtract more stuff from TED, Q&A back and forth (like this) is more genuine then a prepared 18 minute talk. You know when folks are lying, like a CEO that has to lie to the shareholders or break the law. Would subtract out of TED, no presentation, no selling stuff, just talk about ideas. People fall in love because of good conversations. Get most amazing folks 66 folks and have 33 conversations, posed premise, let folks talk. In between conversations, music will be directed by Herbie Hancock and Yo Yo Ma – some of the best folks in their fields are invited. Not folks like Pres. Clinton or Tony Robbins – who only can give speeches and presentations, not hold conversations. You can’t come, only the 66 folks invited, plus the team of folks producing the event – to pay for it, we’re creating an app, that transcribes and interact with hyperlinks to everything said and heard…  app will be much cheaper than a $25k conference ticket to provide broad access. A few three star generals, and more folks that are all my friends. Will be held in Redlands in September.

Prophecy 25, five weeks only Monday, moving around the world to different cities – reflect ideas about the world. 5 prophecies each week.

Geeks and Geezers – only folks over 75 or under 30 only allowed to attend.

& FedMed is the other conferences.

Dean Woo: What do you think about powerpoint? My students in my seminar found that Steve Jobs didn’t like PPT? Will folks be allowed to use visual aids in your new conferences?

RSW: No. don’t like typing or technology – can’t often figure out the light switches in his hotel rooms.

Dean Woo: What’s your sense about the health care systems?

RSW: I asked Herbie Hancock to explain health care system (as somebody who hangs out at the whitehouse, he should know something) but he couldn’t.  Pres. Obama doesn’t explain things, hasn’t been explained, so nobody can understand it. In 33, understanding is power. In the US, maternity leave is 12 weeks unpaid, in Norway 46-56 weeks paid. Every country is different. Costs are different everywhere. nothing is understandable. In the New Hampshire primary, candidates describe ‘trillion this’ ‘trillion that’. What is a trillion? If we lost $1m day, it would take 638 years to lose $1 trillion. we don’t understand most things. Only remembers how many days are in each month, except by singing that ditty. In ’33’ changes each month to 33 days, gos rid of July and August cause they are named for despots (Julius Cesar and Augustus), so September was the 7th month, and October was the 8th again, with the 2 days leftover for New Years – called that remainder, ‘the bender’.

Dean Woo: Describe the 19.20.21 project?

RSW: Just a clever title, not about number of cities with pops of 20 million. Partners with Jack Dangermond (ESRI) and the Jon Kamen owner of @Radical Media, proof of concept – no city uses same scale or legend for any map. boundaries are not standard, can’t calc density because where do cities end? Every pattern of every city is different. Half of people now live (supposedly) in cities, but nobody knows how big a city really is. 6 different maps of Tokyo with different population figures. Google map is just a photo, not information. So trying to understand cities. 50 cities all to the same scale, in 1976.

Dean Woo: does the book have a future?

RSW: No. we’ll worship books, but books will go away. Tenuous of media, after three TED conferences, asked to do one in Japan. Year planning, only happened through fax machine – haven’t sent a fax in three months. was indispensable, now obsolete. Twitter, Facebook, cloud is here forever, they will all change. nothing now will we have in 10 years. food has changed since his childhood – in Philly, no Mexican food, Japanese food, no avocados until I was 16. Remembers my first McDononalds – thought yellow arches were really ugly. Nobody has corner on market so things change and get ripped off.

Dean Woo: About working with Louis Kahn?

RSW: How many folks don’t know who Kahn or Salk was? [shocking number of folks raised their hands, guess architectural history isn’t taught at CPP] Mohammed Ali was the most famous person in the world for a few years. Salk was the most famous for a few years too for curing polio through vaccination, like small pox (killed millions). Jonas Salk, a simple doctor, developed a vaccine through persistence. The Salk Institute, just down the road in La Jolla, was designed by Louis Kahn – the architect’s architects. A style developed at UPenn – the ‘Philadelphia School’ – RSW worked for him. Louis is with him every day. only worked for two people in entire life – Kahn and Eames. In  “My Architect” Nathanial Kahn and in the new Eames Film. Folks he know, know everybody, RSW doesn’t know everybody. Met with Norman Lear, ‘all in the family’ with archie bunker, changed what could be said on TV. Most shows on TV owe debt to Norman Lear. One will get brad pitt, another get colin powell…

Dean Woo: Speculative question if 20 years old today, what you do/be? [seeking words of wisdom]

RSW: When I was 21, was in the jungle in Techal mapping ruins. Will answer privately sometime.  Buy low, sell high.

Questions from Audience?

James Beccerra (Landscape Arch faculty) – What about the gullibility of audience in accepting false statements by politicians?

RSW: Good question, don’t have a good answer. Trying to make complex things clear without reading a hard book. I’m a schlepper… Not sure how to answer, but virally folks learn about things. Never officially announced WWW, but gets tons of emails about it. Clarity of ideas can expand virally. Folks are gullible. Snake oil salesmen and sociopathic. Politicians can say what folks want to hear. Can’t beat that system – can’t tell when folks just say what the audience want to hear. Politicians tell automatic lies and do it without thinking. Meaningless questions require small lies: ‘how are you?’ ‘how’s everything going’, answer ‘keeping busy’ what does that mean?

Q: Since you study cities – what is your biggest fear for future of American cities?

RSW: [sigh] like a question you ask a beauty pageant. I grew up with the notion that every problem can be solved. At the cusp of having problems that can’t be solved. historical cycle – perception of catastrophe or actual catastrophe.

Economic catastrophe can’t get out of debt. not brain surgery. Don’t want to understand viscerally that gov’t isn’t fungible. We’re in a spiral of going bankrupt. Nobody want’s to deal with a pervasive problem. Cities and states and countries that can’t provide services. Candidates don’t have any conceivable solution. Cut all services still in debt.

What isn’t calculated is another $15T in debt not included in federal deficit. Gave up and went to play with dogs. 78 million dogs in the US – two categories out of seven: sporting dogs, non-sporting dogs – no other dogs left. now miscellaneous. there entire life is about observing people.

[maybe we should just go play with dogs]

Q: what advice for young designers? knowing list of tools and skills, yet end up getting paid $10/hour?

RSW: No compassion for that question – my life was not financially driven. At 44 was destitute and several times too. Tried to do good work and interesting life, not make money. Had many different menial jobs. Now a 76 y.o. rich person, but wasn’t rich at 44 or 25 (and still doesn’t own a suit). A better question is how to have an interesting life. Has one sponsor for WWW conference, and needs another just to$750k to break even. Keeps on doing it because it’s so interesting and believes that he’ll find the way to pull it off. Having an interesting life is what it’s all about – think about the opposite of that. Emo Phillips ‘brain was most interesting organ, hmm, look who’s telling me that’ – so look at who’s telling you stuff. think about what you’re telling yourself, what truth is your gut telling you. four months ago, asked how is he prescient? what is next commodity? the truth is rare, can’t be found, the less there is.


Q: Have he failed?

RSW: I have failed all the time, walking is failing/falling all the time. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.  Won’t publish list of folks that say no. Fail consistently and constantly or when folks screw me over, I get my best ideas.


Selection of the 81 Books by Richard Saul Wurman

(links to Amazon)

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