TEDx Philly 2010 report

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Thursday November 18th, 2010 marked the beginning of a new event in the Philadelphia design and technology community. Over 500 attendees descended on the Kimmel Center, a performing arts theater located in Center City, for the start of TEDxPhilly, where the X stands for an independently organized TED event. The overall theme of the event was Right Here, Right Now and showcased a variety of local educators, technologists, artists, and culinary experts.
While the overall themes at this TEDx might not be unique to the TED community, with a Philly spin they had a consistent flavor that everyone in the audience was able to respond to. Below is a recap of the TED talks as they were presented throughout the day, split over four sessions.

Session 1, Systems and Society

The first session most directly spoke to the theme of an individual’s passion, finding what inspires you and pursuing those goals. With artists, educators, and more sharing their stories, TEDxPhilly kicked off with a very strong start.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Author

Be bold, love what you love, chase your biggest dreams

Cristin opened the day. Nine in the morning, just after the attendees were asked to leave their coffee outside the theater, Cristin opened with trivia – and presidential trivia no less. She went on to share her passion for writing and her journey from a cubicle job in corporate American that, as a stepping stone, turned into an eight year hurdle. She shared with us her desire to write for herself, and the scary, thrilling, and necessary move that is to leave a stable job and to pursue what you truly want. Cristin reminded us that day jobs are not the enemy and that we should all be bold, love what you love, and to chase our biggest dreams.

Chris Lehman, Technology driven school Principal

Chris followed Cristin and within the first few moments made a clear point known. An opening slide that read high school stinks, he expressed the common purpose of school to ‘make sure you don’t suck so much at the things you are bad at’. This is inherently wrong according to Lehman. Schools should teach how to learn and open minds up to critical thinking, to teach kids to be citizens and not just workers. In the modern world of smartphones any child can look up a piece of information before an instructor can write it on the board. Lehman’s school program focusses not on rote knowledge but on the creation of whole systems. Teach for now, build real things, and share it is a theme Lehman stresses and his students don’t take midterms and finals but instead find ways to express knowledge and to teach the instructors. This active engagement allows students to find what they are good at and to ultimately pursue their passions.

Nic Esposito, Urban farm activist

Stepping away from formal education, Nic Esposito took the stage to share his thoughts on green initiatives. He made it clear. He was not going to spend 15 minutes scaring us with statistics and fear facts and the last five describing ways to save the world. Instead he focussed on what we are doing – locally and globally. Esposito believes humans are the most just, most humane now as we ever have been and that technology has encouraged our being green. Esposito described a variety of green farming initiatives happening locally to Philadelphia and how their impact has grown beyond a local community and has started to effect policy and a broader perspective. At the end of the talk we weren’t asked to change the way we live, but to change the perspective. Awareness, a key theme of TED talks, Esposito embraced the audience to share with us what is going on, and not to harp on what still needs to be changed.

Human beings are the most just, most humane as ever

Jay Coen Gilbert, Founder B Lab

Jay Coen Gilbert – if Nic Esposito wore a suit and tie and were approaching the green initiative from the corporate level – would look like this. Gilbert founded B Lab, an organization that awards certifications to organizations that meet specific social and environmental qualifications. It is not enough to purchase fair trade coffee if the employees in the shop are treated poorly and similarly the best office conditions are useless if items are manufactured in sub par conditions. The words green and eco friendly are tossed around so frequently that they lose meaning. Gilbert is hoping to bring meaning back into those words by creating standards to strive for. He continues to point out that this must be a for-profit initiative. While non profits are great for creating awareness and getting places government can’t, the scale of a for profit company can reach that much further. For actual change to occur, businesses must shift from shareholder goals of increasing profit to shareholder goals – what benefits those involved, those purchasing and using your products.

Session 2, Culture and Meaning

After a brief break, surrounded with local music and artists, we fell back into our seats for the second session. Culture and Meaning, each of the speakers shared not just what inspires them, but how they instill that into others. The importance of sharing a passion and making sure that everyone can follow a dream and can have a challenge to continue to move to the next level – physically, emotionally, mentally, or any combination wherein.

Stanford Thompson, Music Teacher

We came back from the break with a dozen chairs set up on the stage. Not a normal site for a TED talk, where the speaker stands on stage, pacing across sharing their thoughts. Stanford Thompson came on and discussed his goal to use music to inspire youth. Speaking how successful adults set goals, have patience and break up a task into small achievable goals, Thompson discusses how many underprivileged children don’t learn these skills. Tasks that seem to overwhelming or complicated are passed over in favor of quick achievements – video games, drugs and alcohol, and simple jobs. Thompson’s program, Tune Up Philly strives to change this – by engaging students with instruments at a young age and continuing to challenge them with new skills, Thompson looks to open their minds to their own potential. Now the dozen chairs he had on stage? It is not enough to speak to what children can do with music over a six week program. The final moments were spent with a group of students playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Not Beethoven’s Fifth, but they played three variations, with three different key components being shared. These children who prior to Thompson’s program never touched an instrument and, all are able to play better than myself. To set appropriate levels of challenges to encourage a continued engagement with a task – Thompson looks to encourage challenges for individuals to learn how to problem solve and strive for more.

Tanya Hamilton, Filmmaker

Tanya Hamilton followed Stanford. An independent filmmaker, she recently completed Night Catches Us, a study of the Black Panther movement in the Philadelphia community in the 1970s. Hamilton did not focus on her film though. Instead, after a brief excerpt, she shared with us the story of the White House sit-in protest, the first of it’s kind, and the inspiration she has found from those that went through that ordeal. Hamilton spoke more of the human struggle to pursue a goal and how that strengthens one resolve and her film acted as the channel, but not the focus.

Zoe Strauss, Photographer

People don’t walk under interstates expecting art. But that is where you find Zoe Strauss who, for the last ten years, has made an installation under I-95 in Philadelphia. Starting into photography with the support of her family and friends she strove to capture people, nothing more. To make art accessible and to share her, and her subjects’ emotions. There is a certain connection Strauss has to each of her photos. Each image she shared she knew the name and location of the subject, but they were all strangers. We all bring emotional baggage to situations and it is here that the truth lies. Strauss talked not of the meaning these images have to her, but instead of the meaning to others as it becomes accessible, as these stories become human.

Michael Solomonov, Chef and restaurateur

That’s a good way to create peace, with chocolate sauce

Michael Solomonov, owner of Zahav, an Israeli restaurant in Old City of Philadelphia shared with us not his cure for peace (though his quote might lead you to think otherwise) nor was he looking to inspire us all to be chefs. But he shared his story- how he became a cook and how he found cooking connects him to the things that he loves. Michael shared how his younger brother, in the final days of his military duty in Israel, was killed by a sniper. It was this stimulus, along with years of travel and exposure to different foods and cultures that lead Michael to create his business. It is his way to be connected to Israel, his family, and his brother. It is not a political soapbox, it is his personal achievement and comfort. As the final speaker before lunch, he closed the second session well as all four speakers presented their passion, their lessons, and how those might affect others are not created as their specific paths for everyone else.

Session 3, Incredible Machines

Return from lunch, and let’s zoom out from the personal goals and inspiration. The next set of speakers shared their thoughts and interest into full systems and ecosystems. Educational systems, beer brewing, architecture and research; how their development and growth incites change and inspires on a personal level.

Simon Hauger, Hybrid X team founder, Teacher

Simopn Hauger’s turn. He relates high school to torture, how we all need to find our passions. “Intelligence is not one size fits all but school is one size fits all”. Much like Stanford Thompson, Hauger looks to challenge students and to help them uncover their passion. Creating the Hybrid X Team, Hauger leads a group of high school students who have successfully built and competed against large corporations, universities, and startups in creating high efficiency hybrid vehicles. It is not enough to move students from room to room, class to class. Until they are challenged with a situation and variables vital to success, critical thinking and inspiration cannot occur. To paraphrase one of Simon’s students ‘it is a critical situation building the car, what if something goes wrong and the car crashes, or my teacher dies…’ It is not enough to teach lesson plans and facts without context and understanding the value. Simon Hauger looks to bring that to the classroom on a whole new level.

You can’t teach critical thinking without critical conditions

Robert J. Moore, Technology data researcher

Over five exabytes of information were created between the dawn of time and 2003. But more importantly over five exabytes of information is created every two days. Robert took the time to present this information to us. It is not the fact that data exists but more that with the size and scale of storage it may all be captured. “Digital exhaust” as he refers to it. Robert shared his thoughts for where he sees the potential of all data being universally captured for progress across all domains and verticals. How data enables progress and how with every credit card swipe, bus pass purchase, and vending machine transaction we build a larger network of data. Robert left us with impressive figures and questions as to how this might all be applied.

Evan Malone, Engineer, entrepreneur

The sustainment of American culture as an innovative culture. Evan Malone shared his perspective on how America has always been a place for people to come, build a business, a dream, or a process, and to continue to iterate and develop over time. Evan discusses how the commoditization of manufacturing has led to outsourcing for cheaper goods and the effect that has had, not on the manufacturing within America but on the process of innovation. Evan shares his thoughts on how feedback loops of innovation are critical to a country and how it has been on a decline in America in recent decades. He outlines the trend and the need to encourage the feedback loop that is education, technology, and design.

Bill Covaleski, Beer Brewer

“I’m going to talk about beer but I haven’t a drop of beer to give you,” is how Bill Covaleski, co-founder of Victory Brewing Company, opens. Bill shares the history of brewing in America, from over 1400 breweries before 1900 to fewer than 100 in the 1980s. He describes the political and social influences beer brewing has had on America and the return of the craft brewing movement. As far as machines go, Bill does not discuss the process of brewing but the focus that brewing has taken – from mass production with little flavor to select beers with unique tastes. Food and beer are on the same level, and Bill shares with us the ‘return to normalcy’ that is rich full flavored beer as the same return to home grown, organic foods over processed breads and ingredients.

I should note, that while Bill did not have a drop of beer to share at the talk, the reception to close out the day was full of Victory Brew draft.

Billie Faircloth, Researcher for sustainable architecture

Materials are not simple, and neither are buildings. Billie Faircloth discusses the relationship of lumber to a building, and cords of firewood to trees. She shares her childhood misonception that construction timber and firewood are two different things. And she relates them all together for us. If wood is the fundamental building block, and there is immense problem solving in cutting and measuring timber for optimal output, how does that translate to a foundation? how does that translate to an entire building? A two by four is in fact 1.5*3.5 inches. How is that change measured and how does it come to pass? Billie doesn’t discuss how to create sustainable buildings or the need for green initiatives. She discusses how the different pieces fit together and how scale and complexity of problems are not one in the same.

The 2*4 goes into the buidling but problem solving goes into all scales. Design goes into all scales.

Session 4, Between the Ears

From the enormity of incredible machines back to the individual scale of oneself. The final session of the day focussed on the human mind. Individual’s challenges and investigation with technology on the brain level, and artists’ description of themselves to the world. The day closed on a more personal scale, bringing the sessions back to the participants in the theater.

Iyad Obeid, Neural prostheses researcher

Iyad’s goal is simple, through Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) to reanimate the body with brain control of prostheses or paralyzed limbs. Ok, that is not a simple goal, but it might be broken down simply. Iyad explains the technology around measuring brain activity and translating that into quantifyable measurements to control a system or environment. What is more fascinating the the mind is moldable. A BMI does not have to be 100% efficient – it has to be good enough to function and the brain will create workarounds for the rest. Iyad shares his thoughts on the future of brain interface technology – if machines can become more human then can humans become more like machines? The cognitive processing we as humans are experts at (recognizing faces, images, etc) and the mathematical processing machines are built for – are there ways using this technology to merge the two and create more efficient systems. Is there a time, in the not too distant future where computers come not only with a silicon brain but a neural network to help additional processing? Iyad shares his thoughts for the potential of computing on human and system levels.

You don’t have to build the best Brain Machine Interface but one that is good enough

Stephen Powers, Graffiti Artist

Graffiti is a visual crime, nothing more

Stephen Powers, graffiti artist turned studio artist. But that is a matter of perspective. Are you asked to create your art or must it be completed in the dark of night, under a veil of secrecy? Stephen talks to change to context of graffiti, to expose its true form and the framework it is often created in. Sharing stories of painting the Philadelphia “A love letter for you” series and his work in South America creating graffiti to inspire a community, Stephen talks not of creating a tag or a mark for rebellious reasons but to communicate a story and a passion.

Ursula Rucker, Poet

Ursula closed out TEDxPhilly. Not with a speech on why she performs her art, or how to encourage others to be poets. Instead she introduced herself and her work and shared a collection of her poems. It is important to note, during the entire day TEDx speakers were accompanied by Johnny Goldstein, of Envizualize, where he created visual sketchnote representations of their talks. It was during Rucker’s that the audience had a chance to watch his visual interpretation be captured as Ursula opened herself to the audience. Themes of personal struggle and triumph, themes that made her what she is today. The day closed with a selfless display as Ursula exposed herself through her poems in front of the room, inspiring the audience to do the same in their own way.

Poetry is how I speak, and able to be sane

Top image: Kimmel Center

David Farkas

David is an interaction(s) designer working in the online and mobile realm. He focuses on the relation between the digital and the physical. Usability, goal oriented design, and consistency are key.

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