At TEDx Philly, rethinking the city

Posted: November 08, 2011

Three big letters graced the stage at the Temple Performing Arts Center on Tuesday: capital T, capital E, capital D.

The event was TEDx Philly: The City. A crowd of 600 had come for a global exercise in fresh thinking, to re-envision Philadelphia as, in the words of kickoff speaker Mayor Nutter, "the city of the 21st century."

In a town long a culturing medium for new ideas about urban life, TEDx Philly came at an energized moment. TEDx was on one part of North Broad while Occupy Philadelphia (also a call to think again) was happening on another, at City Hall.

An hour before the doors opened, excited attendees collected on the sidewalks around the former Baptist Temple, many engrossed in hand-held tech. Buzz bounced among favored speakers: the bards from Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, say, or SEPTA technologist Michael Zaleski, or Jennifer Pahlka, local director of Code for America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides technology assistance to cities.

At 8:30 a.m., events manager Sean Rogers cried, "Open those doors and let people in!" Enthusiasm was at such a pitch that when host Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way Center, said, "Let me hear right now the warmest welcome that you can give to me," he visibly started at the roar.

Nutter quipped that he had never seen anyone so good at asking for applause for himself. But it wasn't for Bartlett himself so much as for TED.

TED has become so famous many don't know its letters once stood for Technology Entertainment Design. Fledged in 1984, TED is a "leaderless movement," a flea market of ideas, a creativity mall for visionaries, artists, tech masters, and everyone else, springing up from time to time throughout the world. Most important of all letters was that little x, floating like an exponent behind TED. X marks the fact that this was a locally produced discussion.

In the "Engage" segment, Jeffrey Brenner, a physician in Camden, devastatingly analyzed the U.S. health-care system and recounted his efforts to "bend the cost curve" down in his town. "Check back with us in a year," he said to cheers. Pahlka said the economic slump had forced cities to improve with less, making them more responsive, more eco-friendly, more productive systems, "better places to live."

Pahlka gave credit to the "millennial" generation (born since 1975). "Surprisingly, they are the most pro-government generation in decades," she said. "Thanks in part to the Web, every system they've encountered has given them a voice, has been mash-up-able, optimizable. They come to local government the same way: as a system to hack, to fix."

Amy Hillier, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Penn, spoke during the "Converge" segment. Before her talk, she said, "I've come because I'm worried about how we're failing our children in the environments we're giving them to grow up in. Soft-drink ads are all over the city, and we say nothing. There are tobacco ads across the street from grade schools. Are our kids walking to school fair game for these corporations?"

Michael Brennan, a computer-science grad student at Drexel, said he came "because I'm interested in becoming more engaged with Philadelphia . . . particularly areas of technology and civic engagement." He called the diversity at TEDx "inspiring."

At one point, Kai Davis and Charmira Nelson, of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, had the audience on its feet with their poem "Femininjas" - "Women of the world! Just call us when you need us!" - that helped PYPM win first place in July at the Brave New Voices poetry slam in San Francisco.

Each TEDx speaker, from The Inquirer's architecture critic, Inga Saffron, to the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, turned a different corner of human life inside out, challenging received ideas.

TEDx is designed so that attendees will carry the new ideas they hear into the wider world. But how do you get from being a person who doesn't think much of such ideas to being a believer?

"I think the way . . . to change how you think and be optimistic about the world," Pahlka said, relaxing after her talk, "is to see through somebody else's eyes."

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or, or follow him on Twitter at @jtimpane.

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