Excitement levels were high Thursday morning as Ted x Philly guests were milling around the Kimmel Center. The buzz continued until we were all secure in our seats, and ended in applause as the hosts, Roz Duffy and Chris Bartlett, came out for a brief welcome. They challenged us to take a break from technology for the day, to turn everything off and meet new people. “Instead of tweeting, turn to the person next to you and start a conversation,” Chris encouraged.
After a message from TED Curator Chris Anderson, we were thrown right into the day’s speakers, the first section of which was entitled “Systems & Society.” It started off with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, a recovering cube worker who dreamt of becoming a writer and decided to make that dream a reality. Opening with some presidential trivia and a poem, she explained her discouragement: “Being a writer was as realistic as being a princess – I knew it could happen, but it didn’t happen to anyone I knew.” Aptowicz now works as the ArtsEdge Writer-in-Resident at the University of Pennsylvania and is working on a book about Thomas Dent Mutter, founder of the Mutter Museum.
Chris Lehmann, founder and principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, was up next. His great message was that our high school education system is set up like an assembly line in a factory – but it doesn’t have to be. The purpose of school should be to learn how to live, not how to work – if we train kids to be workers, that’s all they’ll be; the goal is to train them as citizens instead. His own students were in and around the crowd, videotaping and photographing guests and speakers all day.
The third speaker was urban farming activist Nic Esposito, the co-founder of Philly Rooted. Instead of scaring everyone with doomsday scenarios, he planted his ideas with enthusiasm, encouraging everyone to think pragmatically about sustainable solutions.
The final speaker from the first group was Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of a B Corporation entitled B Lab. He explained how B Corporations evolved from the idea that government and nonprofits are necessary but insufficient means to solve social and environmental issues, and that the answer lies with harnessing business power.
That was a lot for the first hour and a half. Emotions were already running high. A half an hour break was barely enough time to catch my breath and head back inside for more.
Round two was entitled “Culture & Meaning” and began with Tune Up Philly director Stanford Thompson. He showed a video of his students, first as they started using their instruments and later as they had progressed with their practice. He then came out on stage and talked about the poverty situation in Philadelphia – 1 in every 3 children are in poverty – and went on to discuss the idea that we need to capture them when they’re curious, when they’re 8 years old, before they’ve had a chance to be too beaten down by disappointment, or become distracted by drugs or sex. He then brought out a group of his students to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, to a standing ovation.
Anthony Mackie in Night Catches Us
Tanya Hamilton, director of the upcoming movie Night Catches Us, came out next, after a preview of her film was shown on the screen. Set in Philadelphia in the 1970s, Night Catches Us is about the Black Panther Movement in Philadelphia. Tanya discussed a figure from her childhood and her inspiration gained from “ordinary people changed by blips of extraordinariness.” After that was Zoe Strauss, local artist who dedicated the last ten years of her life to an art project that she showcased under I-95 in South Philly. She discussed the journey it has been, from the inception of the project, to the art shows spawned by it, to her upcoming inclusion in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to which her only words were, “Super dream come true, what’re you gonna say?”
The second group ended with a touching talk by Michael Solomonov, a local chef who is the co-owner of Israeli restaurant Zahav, Xochitl, and the recently opened Percy Street Barbecue. Michael’s story described his journey of discovering his calling in cooking, leading into the tragic death of his younger brother and how it changed his life. The second session ended with another TEDTalk video, this one on “How to start a movement” by Derek Sivers.
Lunch was a somber but necessary break from the intensity of the first two sessions. We had time to run out to Fado and eat a quick lunch while discussing what we’d seen and heard so far. Chris Bartlett had encouraged us to meet 5 new people that day, and I tried to fill my quota but fell short at just 3. We got back in time to listen to a little music by Cheap Dinosaurs, and then we headed back inside for the third session, entitled “Incredible Machines.”
West Philly’s Hybrid X Team
Simon Hauger lead the way with an incredible story about the job he has done with Philadelphia high school students. A graduate of Drexel University’s engineering program, Simon wanted to teach, but he wanted to do more than just teach math and science, so he started an after school program at West Philadelphia High School to work with students who wanted to do more. The team worked their way from first place in the Philadelphia Science Fair all the way up to placing in national and international competitions against universities and major corporations – in fact, in situations in which they were the only high school involved. The Hybrid X Team even got to meet President Obama a few months ago.
Robert Moore, creator of RJMetrics, came out to discuss today’s ever-increasing scope of data and information. With concepts like the trails of “data exhaust” we leave everywhere to the description of the 5 exabytes humans produce every 2 days, Robert himself was laying a lot of heavy information on us, discussing how as the cost of storage goes down, both our data density and bandwidth go up.
Evan Malone,co-creator of the FabHome Project, was up next. Evan discussed the kind of innovation that has been lost in America due to our stringent immigration laws, and how since 9-11, our student immigrants have gone up, but work visas have gone down, indicating that while students come here to learn, they don’t stay here to work, creating brain drain.
And then the crowd was cheering before Bill Covaleski, co-founder of Victory Brewing Company, was even out on the stage. This charismatic brewer took the audience through the timeline of American brewing companies, proving to us that craftbrew wasn’t just on the rise – it was here to stay. He gave us a great quote by brewmaster Garrett Oliver which also lead to cheering: “The fad was fake food and fake beer, and that fad is over.”
The third session ended prematurely due to some technical difficulties, bumping Billie Faircloth into the final session, entitled “Between the Ears.” Billie is in innovative architect, studying the question of why we do what we do. She walked us through a beautiful and existential description of where the 2×4 – in reality only 1.5×3.5 – comes from, and how trees and wood have influenced her life and her decisions.
Iyad Obeid was up next. Iyad works at Temple University in the Neural Instrumentation Lab, researching how people can control prosthetic devices with their brains. He described the brain, among other things, as a processor – like a computer but different in that it’s good at different kinds of things. For example, he explained how his 4-year-old son could find Waldo in a picture – but that a computer would need to be programmed to do so. But he has no doubt that what makes us human will always stay the same, even though technology may eventually improve us.
After that was Stephen Powers, graffiti artist and creator of Philadelphia’s “A Love Letter to You,” a series of murals in West Philadelphia that have garnered a lot of attention. Stephen discussed his experience as a graffiti artist and shared a project he recently did in Brazil that was very similar to “Love Letter,” bringing together a community and immortalizing them with his creative artwork.
The final guest of the night was the musician Ursula Rucker, who performed several songs from her upcoming album “She Said.” The deep and moving songs sent out powerful messages, with lines like “unpixilate your brain,” encouraging people to meet outside of the Internet and interact more in real life.
After a brief closing ceremony, the event moved to the University of the Arts, where a reception was held for the attendees. Live music was performed as guests nibbled on fruits, vegetables, and bread with a hot cheese sauce, and enjoyed various beverages ranging from soda to wine. The buzzing excitement from the morning was still there. I couldn’t believe an entire day had passed so quickly. While I can’t envision myself starting a garden tomorrow in my studio apartment, I was inspired by much of what I saw and heard at Ted x Philly, and I plan to turn these feelings into actions.