TEDx talks: Rethinking the future and being of Philly

Helen Gym, a Phila. schools activist, at a TEDx workshop at Temple, warned of a national corporate attack on education.
Helen Gym, a Phila. schools activist, at a TEDx workshop at Temple, warned of a national corporate attack on education. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 30, 2014

TEDx is - first, last, and always - about talking. Talking originally, surprisingly, persuasively, and concretely about something new - a new way of thinking, of making things, or, in the case of Friday's TEDx Philadelphia, titled "The New Workshop of the World," a new way of being this city.

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a worldwide series of forward-thinking interdisciplinary conferences. It's turning 30 this year, and a TED birthday bash just went down in Vancouver, British Columbia. TED is famous for the celebrated 10- to 15-minute "TED talks," in which a gesticulating whiz thrills the crowd with a mini-seminar on his or her passion, project, scheme, or dream. There are exhibits and meet-and-greets. Folks sit around and talk, originally, surprisingly, persuasively, concretely. The air vibrates with what's next.

That little x after TED means a conference that's independently organized for here, now. In Philadelphia, a diversity of local speakers included Nikki Adeli, a junior at the Science Leadership Academy; education activist Helen Gym; poet Sonia Sánchez; Brian McTear of nonprofit Weathervane Music; and design thinker Natalie Nixon of Philadelphia University.

All came to the Temple University campus to rethink aloud something crucial about Philly. Stephen Klasko, CEO of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital System, dated his talk 2024 and described all the changes in health care. Andrew Dahlgren talked about community-connected start-up factories, and asked: "What if Philadelphia was made of communities where people loved to work?"

Nixon, in perhaps the day's most astonishing talk, applied the principles of jazz to redesigning a corporation. You can create "minimal structures" that people with various skills and viewpoints can flesh out. You can stress "hanging out," listen to the watercooler and hallway chat. Improvisational relations can let some players "solo" and others "support" them, and then reverse roles.

"The future of work," she declared, "will look like jazz."

As the day went on, a vision emerged of Philadelphia as a center of 21st-century manufacturing, business, medicine and science, music, education, civic commitment, and sustainable economic growth.

Gym bemoaned an "upside-down world" in which public schools, the "institutionalization of a society's love for its children," are at the mercy of a national corporate attack on public education.

Adeli contended that the U.S. system, heavily weighted toward tests, undermines the goal everyone says education should have: creation of independent, self-actualizing citizens. She called for everyone "to really believe in this generation in Philly right now. ... If you invest in the present, the future will take care of itself." That got the biggest cheer of the day.

Dominique Streater, the Moore College of Art and Design graduate who won the competition in the 2013 season of Project Runway, spoke of ways to rethink design and the entire concept of making things. In a dressing-room chat afterward, she took the idea of design beyond fashion to Philadelphia's plans for itself.

"When it comes to trying to build up neighborhoods and communities, it's very smart to ask the people who live there what their input is."

Thought you knew what a "garment" was? Genevieve Dion asked the crowd to rethink with her. She directs the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory at Drexel University, where people study the design and manufacture of "wearable technology," or, as Dion put it, "garments that can emit, transmit, and communicate." Dion and team learned "to think of the garments not as containers of technology but as the device itself."

McTear spoke of the music company of the future. "Your content is worthless," he said, startling the crowd. "Community is king." He described a music company that doesn't so much sell records and videos as it "connects members of a community with one another," with events and activities centered on the music. He called on music companies to "own your connection to the community." Big cheer.

In a dressing-room chat later, McTear said, "Think of music as the beacon that draws members of your community together. We think this makes sense, not just for nonprofits like ourselves, but also as a model for for-profit companies."

 Original, surprising, persuasive, concrete. Dozens of future Philadelphias. "We aren't taking creativity seriously enough," said Nixon. But Friday was one day on which creativity, like community, was king.


215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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