Wednesday, April 2, 2014

TED Comes to Philadelphia

I've always wanted to go to a TED Conference but didn't know it was possible. Then a little blurb in the local paper said TED was coming to Philadelphia (TEDxPhiladelphia 2014: The New Workshop of the World, March 28, 2014 at Temple Performing Arts Center). I was one of the first to sign up, and over a thousand more people quickly followed. And there we were, in Temple University’s Performing Arts Center, hunkered down with water and snacks for a day of talks about Philadelphia, its history and its possibilities.

For those who haven’t encountered one of TED’s short video talks (usually less than 18 minutes), TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is a non-profit organization that organizes conferences around the world on topics that have to do with the technology, entertainment and design, as well as education, business, global issues and more. Local spin-offs, referred to as TEDx, cover topics of interest to local communities or centered around a particular issue.  

TED’s beginning has a Philadelphia connection. Started in 1984 as a one-time event conceived by Richard Saul Wurman, a Philadelphia-born architect and graphic designer who is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and his partner Harry Marks, the first TED event lost money. Six years later, Wurman and Marks tried again and succeeded in creating the conferences that we know today, although TED has since been acquired by media entrepreneur Chris Anderson’s Sapling Foundation.    

This TEDx conference which focused on local makers and doers harked back to the idea of Philadelphia as the “Workshop of the World,” a nickname that had once identified the city from the post-Civil War period till the 1970’s as an industrial, entrepreneurial center with such companies as Baldwin Locomotive, Stetson Hats, and Disston Saw Works, as well as many small- and mid-size manufacturers. The numerous empty factories being turned into loft living accommodations bear testimony to the extent of the industry which once existed within the city. For me as a recent transplant to Philly, it was a wide-reaching introduction to the city I now call home.

The speakers challenged us to look at Philadelphia with new eyes. “What is the Philadelphia you want to live in? asked Geoff Di Masi who talked about Indy Hall, a coworking space that exists on N. 3rd Street, getting to be known as N3RD street. Masi, a co-founder of Indy Hall, asked us to consider how our work aligned with our values, while Chris Bartlett of William Way LGBT Community Center talked about how a vision and passions about neighborhoods saved both Chinatown and the Gayborhood as viable, livable communities.

Dom Streater, of Project Runway fame, who changed from sweats and sneakers into a dress and heels before our eyes, asked us to consider what we value. What if we put the makers name on the clothes we bought instead of a brand name? Would that change our connection to the things we own?

Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of The Center for High Impact Philanthropy, part of the school of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, challenged us to take a look at how we do philanthropy. Given a chance to donate to a food bank or a food drive, she asked, which would make a bigger difference? Turns out a dollar to the food bank with its purchasing power means much more than dropping off a can in a food drive.

We also were asked to reconsider some experiences that we had taken for granted that were changed forever by technology. Industrial designer Mathieu Turpault pointed out how what used to be designing a thermostat hanging on the wall has now become designing a technological interface, and musician Brian McTear talked about new ways to fund musicians since we no longer buy records.

Some speakers stood out because they just blew us away with who they were. Nikki Adeli, a junior at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, who went from the conference to her prom, was incredibly poised as she challenged us to think about the value of education in growing citizens instead of test-takers. And Austin Seraphin, who has been blind since birth, talked about how important accessibility is to those with disabilities.

Each speaker had something valuable to contribute. Each not only talked about the issues confronting Philadelphia but offered challenges or steps we could take to make things better. 

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