By Philip Lauri, October 22, 2009
So TEDx, what the hell is TEDâ€¦ x!? Is Ted a human? No. Does Ted wear argyle socks? Highly unlikely. Does Ted have bad breath? Nope.
So, this TED thing, well, from their website, â€œis a small non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.â€ One thing led to the other, TED.com was started where videos of all the talks were available for free online, and then they started adding the â€œxâ€ to events. This brought on a community program of independently operated events in cities all over the world where people would come together and discuss localized ideas for the world within the template of technology, entertainment and design.
TEDxDetroit took place on October 21 discussing the massive potential of a city presented through the prism of those on the ground that are making a difference changing the economic and physical landscape. In total there were 26 speakers and performers– CEOâ€™s, poets, visionaries, artists, professionals and everything in between. The crowd was 200 strong in the Science Building auditorium at Lawrence Tech, a complete sell-out, and ranged in background the same way that the speakers did.
I stormed through the door about one minute shy of being late and quite clearly running the risk of sweating right through my button-down shirt. I had just consumed 16 ounces of coffee in 11 minutes on the way there. I immediately noticed the inordinate amount of iPhones and dry-cleaning in the room. For so long I have abstained from a phone that reports Facebook status and/or notifies me of new email transmissions to my inbox for fear that I would never pry my face away from the thing. And then I would never be able to go back to the Motorola phone that I purchased in the checkout aisle at Kroger.
I took my seat (fourth row, perfectly eye level with the speakers, these are oddly the things that I spend way too much time contemplating), shook a few hands, introduced myself here and there, talked about DETROIT LIVES! and generally acted like I was much busier sitting in that seat than I actually was. See, in order to have attended the conference you had to apply, so everyone had a purpose there, which was both exciting and kind of weird. The social situation of a room full of interesting people that, for the most part, are relatively unaware of many of the others in the room while simultaneously knowing that everyone has something to discuss, promote or converse about presents an odd environment. Sharing a casual glance with the guy next to you almost immediately means that you must prepare to give your elevator speech. And so we were all kind of starting from ground zero together, casually just sort of falling in to each otherâ€™s laps as we sort of tip-toed in to those conversations. We were getting warmed up.
Dr. Gary Gable, with Infinite Learning, stormed on to the stage first, an admittedly tough position to fill. He was succinct, clearly comfortable on his feet and possessed an enormous hourglass that he had on stage with him. He painted pictures with stories from his childhood that involved roller coasters and the possibility of throwing up a hamburger lunch at the cost of that first drop. The rolling metaphor was how terrified he was to ride the roller coasters at Boblo Island as a kid, but all it took was his outlaw childhood friend to drag him on. At the risk of looking like a complete wuss, he got in line to ride. As soon as he hit that first hill and his stomach was orbiting some 200 feet above him, the rush had set in, the feeling was incredible. So, said Gary, if you donâ€™t take that risk and step over the edge, youâ€™ll never get the chance to feel the exhilaration of the ride.
Truth be told, from the moment I heard Garyâ€™s hearty laugh– it rivaled the decibel output of a jackhammer effortlessly sawing through asphalt– he somehow seemed like a pretty fun guy to get drunk with. I sort of wanted to scrap the whole TEDx thing and just go have 14 beers while discussing the possibility of doing things we might not care to repeat– all in the name of taking that risk and (hopefully) feeling the thrill of the ride.
So maybe I had the wrong idea.
Dawn White of the startup Accio Energy, talked about lacing Detroitâ€™s industrial complexes with the manufacturing capacity to produce her companyâ€™s non-turbine wind technology. Essentially, there would be no monstrous windmills or noise created with this source of green energy. Instead, they could go behind things like store signs or craftily placed in areas of high traffic without people even knowing. They could even be put in their soles of your shoes. Well, probably not, but the idea is that they are not intrusive to everyday life like a lot of wind-based energy solutions are (25% of wind harvesting initiatives donâ€™t happen because of rejection from people in the area because of perceived noise pollution and intrusion in everyday life). All in all, she painted a picture where we could all begin to envision a shift from the world craving our automobiles to now needing the green energy solution that we could be producing.
We broke for lunch at midday. Somehow I found myself making a very, very questionable decision ending up at Baja Fresh for lack of better options that would have me in and out in about 30 minutes. I distinctly recall my last visit to that establishment and having to â€œtake the night off.â€ And by that, I am referring exclusively to a horrendous bout with lightning bolt defecation. But there I sat eating a couple tacos and sampling something like 14 salsas with names like â€œMojocateâ€ (arguably the best tasting option– somehow the â€œhotâ€ salsa actually tasted like hand soap) with my meal. Business lunch was in full tilt, and I immediately recalled my time in a cube where conversation with other males was strictly limited to sports, women and the shortfalls of corporate policy as it related to internet surfing or parking lot restrictions. Buena Vista Social Club blared in my eardrums as I casually observed and thoughts about the black and white checkered pattern tiled on the floor of the restaurant. I therefore walked out when I was done thinking about chess, the possibility of catastrophe in my intestines, TED, Detroit and the distance chance that somehow these things all fit together. Pragmatic? HAH!
Chazz Miller, the fellow at the wheel with Public Art Workz, took the stage to resume things back in to the second session. He talked about his mural paintings and community efforts with the Artist Village in the Brightmoor neighborhood. He was humorous to say the least, cracking jokes and flashing his pearly whites while talking about some of his innovations in the neighborhood: Poetrees (Pronounced like â€œpoetryâ€, are trees where you press a button and a poem is read to you), Mood Swings (porch swings with solar panels on top to allow for a cell phone charging outlet on the side) and Solar Brick Paving (bricks with lights running from solar energy to light up pathways in the neighborhood). Here is a guy with a vision and a knack for using art and technology as motives for change in the neighborhood. And itâ€™s working, too. He is sending kids off to school and opening a lot of eyes. Chazz Miller will change the city of Detroit and beyond. As he finished up his dialogue, he paused for a second and looked out, â€œthese are my ideas for Detroitâ€¦ and the rest of the world.â€ So simple, but emotionally the crowd was with him the whole way through. The room erupted with applause and a standing ovation.
Dan Izzo stepped up to the plate a few speakers down and brought his brash, comedic style as a breath of fresh air. Pretty sure he said the â€œFâ€ word 12 times which actually made me really happy. Dan is with Bizdom U, the non-profit that aims to incubate small businesses in the city of Detroit through an intense four-month program that aims to get peopleâ€™s enterprising ideas off the ground. Four different startups have come from the training, all of which are altering the state of commerce in the city limits. Danâ€™s message was to get up and do something. Make it happen. Be a doer, not a dreamer.
Cookie break. Yes, they incorporated a cookie break in to the afternoon. Great move. I was left with a lap full of oatmeal and raisin crumbs and the realization that this event was actually becoming something larger than I had expected. The thoughts had evolved beyond daydreams of drinking with Gary to actually envisioning some of the forward progress. I think about change daily, talk about it, visualize it, but I felt in that room like maybe I had just gotten four steps closer to a realized difference.
Paul Schutt, CEO of Issue Media Group was potentially one of my favorites, if only because quite frankly every word the guy said was a page out of the DETROIT LIVES! play book. Issue Media Group is the honcho behind Model D and MetroMode but also other similar sites in cities all over the country– Pittsburghâ€™s POP City, for example. Issue Media, similar to DL!, aims to balance the media spectrum with news about development and positive growth and then infiltrate those newsworthy pieces in to other traditional news sources. So, it becomes the art of shifting the way that the media, by default, reports the despair and the downfall. Paul delivered the package well, with compelling data to show how Model D is craftily changing the landscape on reporting in Metro Detroit. Itâ€™s making a difference in Detroit undoubtedly, but even further beyond with other cities across the country. Umm, yep. Sounds good to me.
One of the other redeeming components of TED aside from cookie breaks is how the events sprinkle music and the arts in to the whole delivery of the affair. D. Blair, a touring poet and singer born in New Jersey and raised in Detroit, took the stage to read a poem titled â€œDetroit, While I Was Away.â€ It was a blistering assault of words drenched in emotion and nostalgia that explained the artistâ€™s love for his city while sitting in a distant hotel room in another town. It was compelling and full of bona-fide desire, the crowd clearly latching on to his every syllable as a standing ovation unfolded when he was done. Truly a spectacle. Blair stumbled off the stage to his seat and sat amongst the rest of the crowd who was standing for him. It had to have been awe-inspiring. Look out for this guy; go support him locally when he plays live.
PJ Jacokes, owner of Go Comedy, took the stage shortly before the end of the afternoon, with a youthful approach to creating change. We imagine and dream as kids then are somehow taught to stop doing this when we get older through a myriad of ways. He attempts to reclaim that sense of childhood for his improv comedy students, teaching them the power of imagination and using your mind to actually create something totally new. The room is covered in hot lava. How do you act? T-Rex is about to eat your torso. What do you do? As a child, these manifestations were happening everyday, well, for me at least, and so says PJ, as adults, or perceived adults, we have to reclaim some of that youthful spirit in imagining a new future for Detroit and beyond.
The end of the afternoon came with Charlie Wollborg of Curve Detroit and lead producer of the entire TEDx affair, talking about taking the leap and watching net appear. It was a perfect sewing pattern connecting the pieces of the day. There were grand ideas and thoughts on the little steps you can take to get them off the ground. There were people already making a difference and ways you could join them. There were visionaries enlightening on possibilities. Most of all, the room just wreaked of change and transformation and it all provided a visual in to the faces that will guide the way.
I exited the auditorium plotting my next chess move, thinking less about beers with Gary at the TEDx after-party but more dwelling on the surges of electricity racing through my body as I reflected on the seeds that were planted in roughly 200 bodies that day. DETROIT LIVES! through the powers of these people and our fair city will never be the same in some capacity as a result. This TED guy, this Ted thing, the human-in-a-not-so-human kind of way was remarkable in its delivery of such a powerful message. So inspiring in many ways– not at all like the cheesy picture of a rowing team demonstrating PERSEVERANCE in the waiting area of your doctorâ€™s office. Oh no! TED was real people with real ideas making a real difference gathered in that room.
And now itâ€™s safe to say you had better strap on your seatbelt.
Comments? Philip can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org