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Stephan Balzer


Stephan Balzer | "X is for Independence"

       16. January 2012       

Stephan Balzer is the head of Red Onion, a Berlin based company that has been organizing events for socially relevant topics for over ten years. Balzer brings together international researchers in “TED X”-conferences (Technology, Entertainment and Design). This year, Balzer – who recently worked on an interview project with David Lynch – has more than eight conferences lined up in his calendar.
You moved your company around a couple of times within the city, but you always stayed in Mitte.
I myself and most of my employees live here.
How many employees work at Red Onion?
Usually around ten. For the David Lynch project last year we were about forty people. But that was just for four months.
What is the David Lynch project?
We shot fifty web episodes with him last year. We called it Interview Project Germany. His team conducted the interviews and we took over the post-production and made it into a 50-part web documentary.
Will there be a follow up to the David Lynch project?
We're currently preparing a national campaign. We're planning to launch the project on its own website. We'll send people two questions and ask them to film themselves and upload what they've come up with.
So you're making pop culture.
Pop is the wrong name for it. We've opened the project to the online community, so it's more of a social media project.
Another Red Onion project is the Ted X conference. You have eight planned for this year so far.
TED conferences have been going on in the United States since 1984. TED is the world's most well-known conference for ideas and innovations. People from very different professions have come together at these conferences from very early on. Designers can meet architects, architects can meet a program designer, etc. The main idea behind TED is that the more ideas you see, the more you'll be inspired to do something yourself. Ein Designer trifft auf einen Architekten, der trifft wiederum auf einen Programmdesigner usw. The TED founders have thought about how TED conferences could be held at a national level, so they launched the TED-X program. The X stands for the local conferences' independence from the TED office in New York.
Which are the most important TED countries?
The big industrial nations are on top of things. Germany is an innovation standpoint, as are the US, especially with technology. With medicinal products, it's Skandinavia and France. And in the future, we're going to be seeing a lot more of the pan-Asian countries: China, Japan, Korea – just look at what Samsung is doing with patents, they're extremely strong. But TED is also about humanistic ideas, like if someone wanted to found a profitable organization but use the profits for a good cause.
So it's o.k. for social entrepreneurs to make big bucks?
If there is profit maximization, then only if this is for the good of the foundation. We're talking about projects that will help people in Africa have electricity. For this to happen, you need to develop a very affordable type of battery that will keep the power running there. The people behind projects like these are social entrepreneurs because they help make the world a better place with new ideas and affordable technology. Those are the type of projects that belong on our radar.

How fast are you able to react to current situations like the euro crisis? How do you deal with young generations that have trouble building up businesses in Greece, Spain or Portugal?
Many people want to combine their personal passions with their professional careers. Our generation has been trained that way because that's how we've been raised for 30 years. It would be weird if we were to say “sorry, no can do, you'll have to find something else to do.” Thoughts like these are very specific to Germany. In the short run, we don't react with a conference but by incorporating these issues into our social program. We also have small-format TED events like the Salon, a 90 minute event with just a couple of speakers. In Frankfurt, we had a professor come in who told us that the euro was the best thing that ever happened to us. He explained that if you look at it historically, what we're going through now is really a mere trifle.
Where do you find these experts?
We're permanently on the scout for them. As you can see, my desk is full of magazines and daily papers, I'm very old school in that sense. We work almost like an editorial office, so we'll find psychologists or sociologists in Konstanz or somewhere that no one may have heard of. They might be working on figuring out how nutrition influences our instinctive our logical decision-making. Or what happens neurologically when we think we're making “gut decisions”.
Scientists on stage don't sound like the most exciting thing in the world.
We get outstanding scientists together, and usually they'll have great rhetorical skills. The more intelligent you are, the easier it is for you to explain a complex set of facts in a way that everyone will understand it.
It's similar in journalism: How do I explain something complicated to a reader who's browsing through the paper on their way to work?
That's a huge problem. I always explain to the lecturers that the first thing they should do when getting up on stage isn't to whip out a bunch of formulas. Our strength at TED is that we combine a topic with our passion. Someone will explain not only what he's researching on but why. There are people that spend their lives researching just one molecule. What motivates these people? There's one woman who's a specialist on spider webs. She's trying to figure out, which tissue it is that makes them so flexible and able to support such large weights. The fact that our lecturers explain why they're doing what they're doing is what separates our conferences from any normal business conference.

(Interview: Eva-Maria Hilker)

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