Thinking Digital – TED for the UK


I spent a few days in Newcastle (England) last week at Thinking Digital 2009 (TD) and it’s taken all weekend for my brain to defrag the amount I took in and give you my measured view on the event. Before I do, I’d like to acknowledge what Herb Kim and the Codeworks team are trying to do here. It’s nothing short of bringing a TED like conference to the UK….and they’re doing it outside of London.


For those who follow TED, you’ll know it’s a gathering of some of finest speakers/thinkers of our time who are challenged to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. It has played host to some of the finest speeches & demonstrations you will likely ever see and has been doing this for 25 years. Thinking Digital is following that bloodline nicely and Herb makes no bones about copying from the best. One thing they haven’t (yet) copied is TED’s invite only approach…for now. Thinking Digital attracts 400 or so paying delegates but my guess is that only has a few more years before they have to change the model and hold back the crowds. More on that later.


Last year I said TD was the best conference I had been to all year and one of the best I’d ever attended in my career. Though my current role sees me at less conferences, I can safely say that TD09 will be the best conference I will attend this year. I simply can’t foresee another gathering of such diverse, entertaining and thought provoking speakers in the UK. Sure some of the talks were a bit US centric, of course some (one) of the talks were a bit too corporate but ignore that and consider that we got  everything from The Beatles as your business plan, Hans Rosling (of TED fame) to Matt Mason on the piracy dilemma, Tara Shears on particle physics through to Caleb Chung (another TEDster) of Pleo and Furby fame. That’s just a sampling. To totally screw with your mind, you can add to this Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume critic who I had a very curious dinner with, Alex Hunter of Virgin, the inventor of Worldwide Telescope, Curtis Wong, my pal Dan Lyons (Fake Steve Jobs), Ben Hammersley of Wired UK and the force of nature that is Tara Hunt….and I still haven’t listed them all.


Oh and then to totally blow your mind there was music this year from the astonishing The SanchoPlan and the breathtaking Oonagh Cassidy. I would have paid 50% of my ticket price just to see these two acts. 


I had the pleasure to speak at TD08 and am a self confessed fanboy but that doesn’t mean I don’t think there is room for improvement. This year the timing was poor on occasion with over-runs of almost an hour, the Q&A didn’t quite work and it’s too hard to see who other attendees are on their badges. What I do know is that Herb and Co and continually seeking feedback and wanting to get even better. Just a few days on from closing the event, they’d emailed me to acknowledge these and ask where they could improve further. No self congratulatory back slapping here – this team is hell bent on making this THE conference to be at. That’s why I spent 40 minutes this morning giving them a backslap and then a whole host of ideas for next year. Why? Because they did the same last year…they listened and improved based on stuff I and others asked them for. Perhaps it’s because this isn’t a money making conference but I suspect it’s more because they know they’re building something great and they’re relentlessly pursuing that vision. 


I’ve not told you much about the actual speakers and session I know….that’s because I’m going to do a few specific posts on many of them so rather than give them short shrift here I’ll offer some thoughts later this week. If you want to sense the vibe of the event, check out the #tdc hashtag as Twitter was in full effect at TD09 and you’ll see the level of engagement & entertainment at all hours of the day. For me it was a welcome two days away from the office to fill my mind with thoughts that were not Microsoft based, from many different angles and a it challenged my thinking. Non more so than Matt Mason who I’d assumed I was likely to disagree with on IP and piracy. How wrong I was.


That’s what this conference does. It challenges you to think different as much as think digital.


What I’ll leave you with is my Top 10 reasons to book early for Thinking Digital 2010


  1. A guaranteed line up of great speakers, musicians, delegates – not just tech, not just creative….just a whole mix like your favourite bag of Jelly Belly’s
  2. A great networking opportunity given the 3 day village atmosphere that is created
  3. If you get in early, you get in for <£300 which is amazing
  4. It’s not in London. I live in London and trust me, it’s brave and brilliant to see something so good, so north
  5. Music – they’ll be hard pushed to beat The SanchoPlan and Oonagh Cassidy who I suspect will both make Glastonbury and be big
  6. A very fine venue – The Sage is a lovely building in a great city. I hope they stay there and resist the temptation to grow the village….which means it’ll become even harder to get in
  7. They listen to your feedback – that’s why the food was better this year…and there was power. and a live lounge
  8. Codeworks – they’re just bloody nice people running a brilliant conference…check out Ian Forrester’s photos for a taste.
  9. This will become TED for the UK…I’m sure of it. So get in early and in 20 years you can say you were there at the start
  10. There can’t be a better way to get an injection of ideas, fresh thinking, new friends and new perspectives in 3 days for such a little amount of money. It’s a bargain!


Did you make it to the end of the post? If so, here’s a special treat…if you believe my hype you can get a super early bird registration for £229 + VAT for Thinking Digital 2010 at The Sage Gateshead from 25th – 27th May 2010.

Head to and enter TDC_class2009 into the promotional code area. Available until 29 May, 2009


thanks Herb and everyone involved. See you all next year!

Comments (9)

  1. Agreed on all the above Steve. Almost to the person, every time someone asked where I was going on Friday, I described TD as "TED for the UK" – couldn’t think of a better way of describing such an eclectic mix of invention, ideas, inspiration and community.

    Defo booking ahead for next year. £269? It’s a steal.

  2. Sam Michel says:

    Thanks Steve – didn’t have time to write up my thoughts, but I think you’ve covered everything I was thinking. I’d also add for next year, book accommodation early, too, as there’s great deals to be had.

    I don’t remember being so well looked-after at a conference, and, yes, the overruns were very long on one of the days, but I was there right until then end (7.30pm) I think, completely enthralled by Caleb Chung on the development of the Furby and Pleo.

  3. Andy Goodwin says:

    Thanks Steve for writing such a spot on post.  You have very neatly summed up exactly what I was thinking.  

    You are a day or two ahead of me though – my head is still processing it all – and I imagine I will keep chewing over bits for several weeks to come.  

    Are they taking bookings for next year yet?

  4. Andy Goodwin says:

    Sorry – I really should pay more attention!  I didn’t see the link to the registration link.  I did say my brain was overwhelmed.  

  5. @lewis_duck says:

    Wow, thanks for such kind comments once again Steve.

    And thanks, as ever, for your suggestions. I think perhaps an almighty gong or airhorn will be in order next year to keep from overrunning!


    Lewis @ Thinking Digital (

  6. david coxon says:

    Excellent post steve, and great to see you at TDC,(i thought we were both going to end up falling off our chairs lauhing at Dan lyons at one point).

    I’m also a self confessed ‘fanboy’ of thinking digital and thoroughly enjoy the conference again this year. I have been struggling to write my own post on it this without sounding too over the top,but you summed it up really well.

    The only thing that i’d add, is how impressed i was with the quality of the delegates at TDC, there was a great mix of academics, entrepreneurs, technologists, industry leaders and creatives. The fact that i recognised so many familar faces from last year speaks volumes about TDC. Look forwad to seeing you again next year.

  7. I agree with everything people have said. It was refreshing to see new speakers and international speakers, along with old favourites like Russell Davies. And to experience such a range of thought was mind-bending.

    But if you could pass on to Herb and the organisers that it would be great to see more women up on that stage. The quality of Tara, Oona and Tara  was fantastic but there are more interesting, innovative female speakers and performers than 3 out of a cast of 28 and it would be great to here what they have to say.

    That really would be my only comment –  I’ll definitely be booking for next year.

  8. Herb Kim says:

    Thank you for your comments everyone. They are greatly greatly appreciated. Obviously we are really happy that the content and environment we’re producing are having the kind of impact we were hoping to achieve!

    But we also realise things tend either to grow or die and we’d prefer the growth option over the death option. By growth I don’t necessarily mean size. We want Thinking Digital to grow in size but "organically".

    We do want it grow further by ensuring the quality and variety of what we deliver and what kind of community we can attract.

    So Katie & all others I’m definitely all ears and right now is the best time for suggestions. Katie if you want to speak via the blog or offline be seriously very happy to make sure that I’m looking at all the possible talent groups out there. Unlike Microsoft’s Worldwide Telescope my field of vision is much narrower.

    This year as well we are starting the planning process much earlier than for the 2009 conference.

    Thanks again everyone. Again, we really appreciate you taking the time to comment. Realise we’re all super-busy but it’s your feedback right now that will help us grow the conference and community we’re trying to build around it!


  9. Herbert Kim says:

    BTW, I should further add that while the description of being the TED of the UK is very very flattering there actually has been a TED in Oxford and it’s returning in July.

    I don’t see Thinking Digital competing with TEDGlobal in any way. The UK is a big market. Oxford & Gateshead are very distant from each other. I completely support Bruno & Chris and their efforts to establish a new annual TED in the UK. In fact I’ll be among the attendees.

    Bruno produced TED University this year in Long Beach and it was excellent and exceeded the main conference at points so I’m very much looking forward to his rendition of TED soon.


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