At TEDxPhiladelphia, rethinking the past to envision the city’s future
It was more than an idle boast.
During its industrial heyday - the 60 years that followed the Civil War - Philadelphia rightly called itself the “Workshop of the World.”
The city was an internationally-recognized powerhouse chock-a-block with a diversity of mills, factories and manufacturers of heavy machinery. A self-confident incubator of enterprise, it welcomed scores of new immigrants and created vast wealth for many entrepreneurs. But as the Gilded Age began to fade, the nation’s center of population shifted west and other regions came to eclipse Philadelphia’s eminence.
What will it take to rebuild Philadelphia’s industrial 'workshop?'
That’s the theme of TEDxPhiladelphia, a day-long conference, “The New Workshop of the World,” taking place Friday at Temple University’s Performing Arts Center. The event is sold out but Philly.com and the Project Liberty Digital Incubator will host a livestream party from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the public space at 801 Market St. Space is limited. Tickets are free and available here.
Other venues will host parties as well: CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Building, 1315 Walnut St (Suite 320), Center City; Generocity.org, Impact HUB Philly, 1227 N 4th St (2nd Floor), Northern Liberties; Mighty Engine & PHLmade, Creative Arts Building, 219 Cuthbert St (Suite 600), Old City; and the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch St., Chinatown.
“We’re taking an old moniker, dusting it off, and using it as a framework to talk about where we are and where we’re going,” said Thaddeus Squire, who with Emaleigh Doley is organizing TEDxPhiladelphia.
About 20 thinkers and doers - drawn from an array of professions - will speak about the qualities that made Philadelphia so robust and resilient at its zenith and which of those attributes could be the keys to the city’s economic and social future.
“Philadelphia is gritty, squirrelly and difficult. But that’s all OK,” said Squire, who directs the consulting firm CultureWorks. “You have to have problems to attract people who like to solve problems.”
Those problem solvers have become the city’s greatest strength, said Katherina M. Rosqueta, founder of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy and one of this year’s TEDx speakers. With them, she says the city has evolved into a “do-ocracy.”
“We have people who saw problems in their communities and then felt there was no one to do it but themselves,” Rosequeta said. “That’s how things get done.”
A renaissance of the city is already underway. In the last 20 years, Philadelphia has become an affordable home to a new generation of artists, entrepreneurs, and makers. Co-working office spaces dot the city landscape with vibrant startups.
“This is not going to be something nostalgic,” said organizer Squire. “There’s already a huge boom in individual makers, research technology and coworking that really suggests a vision for a new workshop of the world.”
Several of the TEDxPhiladelphia speakers see the city’s rebirth as still in its early stages.
Brian McTear, a record producer and founder of the non-profit Weathervane Music, sees plenty of opportunities fueling the city’s growth. He believes the city’s vast number of vacant properties serve as fallow ground where young entrepreneurs can put down roots and flourish.
“Sometime in the last decade, People stopped feeling stranded here,” McTear said. “Where else can you live so cheap and make a living as an artist?”
The TEDx group is extraordinarily diverse, yet a strong thread binds together several of this year’s speakers. In its output of textiles, Philadelphia once rivaled the spinning mills of Lowell, Mass. And though the massive mills that once lined the Schuylkill are unlikely to return, the realm of fabric and fashion is on the rebound. Among the thinkers and makers set to discuss the resurgence are industrial designer Andrew Dahlgren, of ADMK Knit Lab; wearable technology innovator Genevieve Dion, of Drexel University’s Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory; and fashion designer Dominique Streater, the winner of Project Runway, Season 12.
Philly.com spoke with Thaddeus Squire, a TEDxPhiladelphia organizer, about how this year’s conference came to be, criticism directed at the TED phenomenon, and what it takes to be a TEDxPhiladelphia speaker. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you choose the speakers? Did you seek out folks from academia, philanthropic organizations and textiles, or was that accidental?
With some of the folks, what they’re about on the surface belies what they’re about below the surface. We‘ve been encouraging them to speak about things they might not talk about.
(Andrew) Dahlgren is a textile artist, but he won’t necessarily be talking about textiles. There are various dimensions to the speakers.
We wanted to look at the whole system of the Workshop, not just who is making stuff but who’s financing it and dealing with amenities. How do we look at the city as a system and ‘Workshop’ as a metaphor. Education is a part of that, how do we build and develop a workforce.
The choice of speaker is barely representative of the diversity and vastness of what it is out there. But we had to take 500 nominees down to 20. So by definition we’re just scratching the surface. It was impossible for us to be encyclopedic. We’ve had some people ask “Why isn’t that person included.” We just couldn’t fit them all in in one day.
Are economists and scientists going to be represented?
We have (serial entrepreneur) Chris Rabb from the Fox School of Business at Temple. He just published Invisible Capital. And we have some economics via philanthropy through Kat Resqueda who’s at Penn. In science, we have Genevieve Dion, who’s a smart materials designer, and Steven Klasko, a doctor and innovator at Jefferson. Austin Seraphin is a computer science guy.
There’s not a lot of hard science, it’s mostly applied science in this round.
Which speaker are you most looking forward to?
I have a certain affection for the ideas that Kat Resqueda puts out there: How do we define philanthropy and effectiveness. And also the reinvention of Disston Precision. Disston was one of the largest manufacturers in the city. (The company dominated the hand saw market.) Tacony was built to house the workers, a massive 200-acre complex. Unfortunately, Henry Disston lost a little bet. He was unconvinced that home tools were the future. So there’s a reason we know Black and Decker and not Disston. They’ve continued to operate as a blade manufacturer. Their signature product is four- or five-foot diameter industrial saw blades.
What has gone in to preparing the speakers?
Some of them are old hat at speaking in public. Others have never done it before and it will be their first time standing in front of 1,100 people. We’ve met with them individually and done some active coaching in the last month. They will all have done their talk two or three times in rehearsal before the day of the event. There’s a dress rehearsal the day before so they get a feeling for the space. We did a lot more with a storytellers workshop, talked about narrative structure and stage presence. And we’ve also been doing individual feedback sessions.
Are you required to follow the “TED Commandments”? (see below)
Yes. TED is very specific about the protocols. The one thing that TED wants to guard against is narcissistic talks - the presentation that goes ‘Here I am and I do this nifty thing.’ There has to be something handed to the audience, something relevant. This is not in the TED Commandments but we want to see each talk result in one or more of three things:
1) Imparting a piece of instrumental knowledge that people can apply to their lives;
2) Putting forth a view of the world that changes people’s perceptions, creating a new view of things or
3) A call to action, this is my view of the world and based on that I think we should do more of x. You don’t have to do all three, but one needs to be a goal of the talk. So there’s a sense of imparting something that’s relevant.
There’s been some nasty criticism directed towards the TED mothership. “Middlebrow, megachurch, infotainment,” was what one person called it – and that was during a TEDx talk in San Diego! Others have blasted TED for creating a false sense of optimism. Are the criticisms warranted? How will you avoid falling into those traps here in Philadelphia?
I think people always want to lay into things that achieve a popular footprint. I don’t think (the criticisms) warranted. Some believe that it was an elitist club when it began, but it’s become a much more democratic thing and encourages the wide dissemination of ideas. I think that’s a tremendous thing.
The criticisms of the dumbing down of things are, to my mind, nonsensical. We live in a media environment that is ruled by reality TV and content that speaks to below the lowest common denominator. Yes, TED packages complex ideas in a way that makes them widely accessible.
There’s a great tradition of doing just that starting with Benjamin Franklin, who published a treatise on electricity so interested people could understand basic scientific principles. He was one of the great proponents of popular science in the 18th century. That tradition continued into the 20th century when Einstein published a general interest book on general relativity. Both wanted to get complicated ideas out to a broader audience. TED follows that tradition.
Is 18 minutes long enough to deliver more than an infomercial for an idea?
I think it is. It’s enough to deliver an idea at some level. The understanding is that any idea is going to have greater complexity to it. But the goal is to focus on one idea, and that’s what we’ve had to work with on some of the speakers. A few who come in with up to five ideas, all of which are interesting. But the power of a TED Talk comes from taking one interesting idea and dwelling on it long enough to make it clear and memorable. In being very focused, people are more likely to remember them.
What do attendees get between the speakers?
There’s some light refreshment, lunch, a reception. We’ll have some artists from the Philadelphia Jazz Project do some brief performances. It’s not native to the TED format but we want to bring in a dimension that goes beyond the speakers. There’ll also be a lounge downstairs for networking.
You sold out very quickly. Will you consider a larger venue next time?
It took us about a month to sell out. The venue’s capacity is 1,148 and it will be a full house. We have over a 1,000 people on the waiting list. There was talk about moving the venue, but the next step is a 2,500-seater like Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center. But there’s a value on intimacy. I think the main TED event is about 1,200. I can’t imagine it happening in Verizon Hall because you feel too far from the speaker. Most agreed with that. The Temple facility is a very nice size you can fit a lot of people, but it still feels very intimate.
What would you like to see come out of the conference?
I would like Philadelphia to see itself as a place where leading ideas and concepts and inventions happen. I think we’ve made a lot of progress overcoming our insecurity as a city. But we still have this attitude that if you want something great we have to import it. We still don’t do enough celebrating the innovations and leading thinking that happens here. There’s a classic perennial complaint, and it gets blamed on the Quakers or whoever. There’s a sense that we’re the trial town for great things that happen somewhere else. I don’t think that’s true.
The city could do a better job of promoting itself as being a great place for thinkers and doers. We still have a ways to go on that.
Not all great ideas have to come out of Silicon Valley or New York. The goal is to put the city on the idea map.
The TED Commandments:
Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick
Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before
Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion
Thou Shalt Tell a Story
Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy
Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
Thou Shalt Remember all the While: Laughter is Good.
Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee.