What do a German designer who finds ways to make animal superpowers available for humans, a young MIT professor designing structural components that can self-assemble into entire buildings, and a Bahraini youth activist trying to protect and promote the rights of ethnic minorities in the Middle East have in common? They're all TED Fellows this year.
TED first began experimenting with a fellowship program in 2007, when organizers decided to bring emerging leaders to their event in Africa. Two years later, TED made the program an official part of the annual conference in Long Beach, California. The fellowship is meant to create an avenue into the exclusive event for creative thinkers, from artists to scientists to activists, who couldn't otherwise afford to be there. It is also designed to create a community of mutual support that can amplify the work of all who participate.
The TED Fellows Program is one of the leading examples of an increasingly essential type of community for young leaders. In the past five years, we've seen the emergence of a number of programs that help young entrepreneurs. In the web technology field alone, Y Combinator and Techstars have spawned an entire industry around star-tup incubator programs. The PopTech Social Innovation and Science and Public Leadership Fellows, the Unreasonable Institute fellowship, the Global Health Corps fellowship, the Global Citizen Year fellowship, the Singularity University program, and more, help foster innovation in other fields.
These communities tend to promise their participants two types of value. First, there is some specific value related to each unique event: being able to attend TED in one case; having access to the mentors and funding of Unreasonable Institute in another. But there is also a second equally important value, which is the value of the social capital that flows between members of the community. When a company, nonprofit, or scientific lab is fully mature, it can deploy its extensive team and existing financial capital to get things done. Lacking these resources, start-up projects need communities of support such as fellowships to provide encouragement, resources, and validation.
This year's TED Fellows class will add 19 new fellows to the 29 returning from previous years. Together, they represent more than 20 countries. The cohort includes scientists, designers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other innovators, such as:
• Sumit Dagar, an entrepreneur and inventor from India working on a mobile phone designed specifically for the blind.
• Camille Seaman, a photographer who captures images of icebergs.
• Marcin Jakubowski, a physics Ph.D who is building open-source hardware for starting more sustainable civilizations from scratch.
• Joshua Roman, a cellist who at 22 was the principle cellist of the Seattle Symphony.
The TED Fellows program is emblematic of the TED community as a whole. Its members represent a variety of fields, backgrounds, and experiences, but are all passionate about understanding, interacting, and shaping the world around them. In their participation, these young innovators are not just taking advantage of an opportunity to improve their work; they are also investing in their communities of peers.