I just returned from TED India, where I was one of the 100 TED Fellows invited to attend the event. My head is spinning with all the new ideas and my pockets are heavy with business cards.

This was undoubtedly the best networking event I’ve been to. The people on stage were only marginally more spectacular than the people I turned to for chit-chat on the police-escorted buses from Bangalore to Mysore, where the conference was being. The chap sitting next to me, for instance, told me as an aside that he had invented a needle that can only physically be used once (see PointCare — its needle retracts inside the case after one use and can’t come out). His invention saved millions of lives in the developing world, and caused policy changes In India. We then proceeded to discuss Indian handicrafts. Such is a typical TED conversation.

There are a million things one can write about after attending TED. I choose to write about my experience being a TED Fellow from the non-profit sector, what it’s like to meet so many technology companies and have the possibility to “pitch” your work to them.

Citizen Journalism for the Disadvantaged

For Video Volunteers, being at TED was amazing in several ways. My goal was to connect with people who could help us develop the business model of citizen journalism for the disadvantaged. It was therefore fantastic that companies such as Nokia, Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Reuters and various media organizations were in attendance. I had a brief chat with all of them.

For my talk on the TED Fellows stage, I explained why I feel that content produced by poor communities could be monetized. I also expressed my hope that citizen journalism might allow the next TED India conference stage to reflect the kind of diversity of voices and economic backgrounds that this one (like all conferences, unfortunately) lacked.

Talking about our work with various companies was a real learning experience in how to communicate with corporations. VV’s strength has been in engaging the NGO community and doing community-level work. We need to learn to better engage the corporate world if we are ever going to scale. All of the companies I previously mentioned are investing heavily in rural markets. They are likely spurred on by the obvious size of the population at the “base of the pyramid” (and hence its potential), and by the huge success that cell phone providers have seen rural markets.

Company Talks at TED India

Nokia was at TED to share its experience with Nokia Life Tools. Reuters talked about Reuters Market Light, and Cisco focused on its technology and education programs. The many people from Google.com and Google.org were talking about their translation tools and their local language search. These tools have made an impact on our work. I just returned from three weeks working on our program in Brazil, where Google Translate provided us with instant translations of the scripts and story pitches the Brazil producers made.

The ability of Google to search content in various Indian languages has also helped some of our community producers — who had no concept of or interest in the internet — to get excited about the online world. It has huge potential for research in rural areas on issues like health, water, and education — and thus can improve the content produced by community journalism.

But a huge problem is that most searches in the regional languages end in frustration for our community producers because there is so little content that is digitized. Local newspapers and local government offices don’t put their info online, and key data — such as World Bank or WHO data on health issues in India — is not translated. There needs to be as much investment in offline activities as there is in developing software or applications, or else there will be lots of great software for rural markets, but few people able to use them.

Another thing I observed in my conversations at TED with different companies is the possibility of corporate partnerships to drive you off-mission. Like me, many of the other TED Fellows running NGOs were eager to connect with these companies. In general, the corporate folks seemed open to having NGOs help them in spreading their technologies to rural markets. NGOs eager for partnerships will be tempted to create technology projects tailored to the companies’ needs just for the sake of “getting a foot in the door,” but this can drive one off-mission. At the same time, the corporations, who seem to have lofty ideals of creating systemic change at the base of the pyramid, would make more impact by trying to tackle the root problems, rather than focusing on tailoring their technologies to meet a smaller technology need.

Culture, Corportations and Activists

TED India struck the right chord between culture, corporates and activists. Because it was held on the campus of Infosys, one of the most iconic companies in “shining India,” and because of the conference theme (“The Future Beckons”) one might have expected it to be all aglow about India’s growth and future prospects. But it wasn’t, and there were probably as many representatives from “civil society” as there were from corporations.

The most popular talk (as far as I could tell) was by Sunitha Krishnan, a young woman who has rescued thousands of women from human trafficking, and whose very pointed talk got a very emotional response, as did Eve Ensler’s talk about the “girl gene,” which I will remember forever.

The TED Fellows program brought people between 20-40 years old into the TED community from a really wide range of interests and backgrounds. There were rockclimbers, a pastry chef, writers, musicians, magazine owners, and many others. Like the Knight Foundation events, there were also a lot of extremely interesting people who ran non-profits (and particularly technology nonprofits) in areas like using cell phones to disseminate information in rural areas. Every time I come to a forum like this I’m struck by how many people are working in the information space for social change, and what a positive development that is.

Some TED Fellows wondered at the absence on the stage of some of the most prominent and outspoken activists, people like Medha Pathkar who led the struggle against the Narmada Dam, or the writer Arundhati Roy, and people who worked on issues of Hindu-Muslim tension. These are some of the people who are most critical of India’s current, pro-business direction. Did the organizers have to choose between the two opposing points of view? Would either business leaders or the more radical activists have refused to come if the other “camp” was present?

Some people said yes, there must have been a compromise. I felt that probably there was not. Such is the power of a space of dialog like TED, that today, at least in relatively peaceful places like India or the US, even the most contrary people would be willing to share a stage. they do so because they know that the audience is open-minded, curious and non-judgmental. This was the beauty of TED India for me, and I wish it could be an annual event.

Or better yet, I hope that it spawns lots of TED X events, which are the independently organized TED events where people take it into their own hands to spread ideas and create dialog.