Don’t be afraid of taking risks,” said the first human to hike the length of the Amazon from source to ocean. “Don’t listen to negative people. Don’t be afraid.” Inside a communal teepee on a chicken farm in west Wales, ex-British army captain Ed Stafford was speaking from a roughly sawn-up tree trunk that served as a lectern.
I remember this scene from last year’s Do Lectures. Stafford had just returned from two-and-a-half years dodging arrows, befriending machete-wielding locals and – perhaps most impressively – getting online repeatedly in the jungle to upload his blog. The 100-strong audience had its collective head down, taking notes as he spoke.
Not all speakers were butch adventurers like Stafford. One night I awoke in my tent (we all stayed in furnished tents with decked terraces) with a distinct sense of inadequacy. I realised I was surrounded by all kinds of overachievers.
There slept Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the worldwide web. There snoozed Jay Rogers, chief executive of Local Motors, whose aim is to make cars that last so long that they become family heirlooms.
In another tent was Maggie Doyne, who during her gap year in a part of Nepal ravaged by Maoist insurrection was so struck by the fate of orphaned children that she learned Nepalese and raised funds to build with local people the Kopila Valley Children’s Home, in which she lives with 30 children and from where she runs a school.
The Do Lectures are the idea of ex-adman David Hieatt and his wife, Clare, who five years ago established a series of talks in the Ceredigion countryside every September. “The aim is to spread the knowledge as much and as far as possible,” David says. All lectures ultimately appear online.
In this, the Hieatts’ four-day event is a homespun version of the TED lectures. TED (it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) was founded in 1984 by US architect Richard Saul Wurman to disseminate “ideas worth spreading”. From 1990 onwards TED became an annual Californian event and later, after being acquired by computer magazine publisher Chris Anderson, spread its ideas through similar events around the world and by posting lectures on its website.
But while the TED lectures have become a glitzy, global brand, at which you might well find yourself sitting with Cameron Diaz listening to Bill Gates, the Do Lectures are a more intimate, hippyish affair where you might find yourself sharing muesli – as I did last year – with the Cambridge professor for the public understanding of risk, and looking forward to attending a jam-making workshop.
Like TED, the Do Lectures are not-for-profit and might seem to preach to the like-minded, smugly liberal. At TED an invited audience made up of 750 figures from the worlds of business, technology and academia pay nearly $5,000 each to attend. At the Do Lectures later this month, 80 guests will pay £1,500 to hear 30 speakers. The latter are, at least, allowed to ask speakers questions. Last year Tim Berners-Lee said one aim of his World Wide Web Consortium is to get the 80 per cent who don’t use his invention connected, only to be chided by a questioner who argued this would destroy older, purer ways of being. Tough crowd.
At this year’s Do Lectures, speakers will include Faisel Rahman, who developed a peer-lending microcredit programme in east London, helping hundreds of women create businesses; Gyanesh Pandey, chief executive of Husk Power Systems, which converts rice husks into electricity at affordable rates in some of India’s most remote communities; and, most intriguingly, Phil Minton, singer and co-founder of the scary-sounding Feral Choir.
And this year, the Hieatts’ rustic model of innovation-catalysing lecture weekends is being exported to California, the very state where TED was born. Shortly after the event wraps up in Wales, the Do Lectures US will begin on an organic farm and vineyard called Campovida in Hopland. Forty guests have paid $3,000 to hear up to 15 speakers, including an ex-Nasa robotics specialist who will lecture on the possibility that not only might robots interact with humans, but they might also make us laugh; and a reformed Hollywood screenwriter who will talk about Street Poets Inc, his organisation that uses writing to turn gangbangers and drug dealers into community leaders.
In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, science writer Steven Johnson argues that being tapped into a network, be it a 18th-century London coffeehouse or an online community, is to be in a fertile ecology for innovation where ideas can be freely exchanged. Spending the weekend with galvanising speakers in a Welsh wood or a Californian vineyard retreat makes that exchange more pleasurable, argues David Hieatt. His blurb says: “The idea is a simple one: that people who do amazing things can inspire the rest of us to go and do amazing things too.” True, a year after hearing Ed Stafford, I still haven’t yet conquered my personal Amazon, but I remain hopeful.
The Do Lectures (www.dolectures.com) take place at Cilgerran, in Cardigan, Wales, September 14-18 and in Hopland, California, September 22-25. All the lectures will be available online