Opinion: Beyond TED

By Rachel Signer [[{"type":"media", "view_mode":"media_large", "fid":"60", "attributes":{"class":"media-image aligncenter size-medium wp-image-277", "typeof":"foaf:Image", "style":"", "width":"300", "height":"124", "title":"imgres", "alt":""}}]]Through the glass windows of the event space Galapagos, we the attendees of the TEDx DUMBO Cities 2.0 conference watched the children playing at the street fair. They jumped carelessly on a blown-up bouncy structure, ate cupcakes, and got their faces painted. Inside, we shifted in our seats and listened to presentation after presentation—all, of course, by brilliant, enthusiastic, unique, and charismatic individuals with innovative projects having real social impact. But in some ways, the kids won that day, because they were putting all their energies into practice. We only listened.

Conferences are not all bad. It’s great to sit back, relax, and observe a well-crafted presentation. (And sometimes there are cupcakes, too.) But the technical difficulties at the outset of last weekend’s TEDx DUMBO--a faulty clicker made the slideshows stutter, which frustrated presenters and tested the audience’s patience--proved that it is dangerous to position an idea in attractive packaging. The essential element of TED events is performativity; speakers aren’t just lecturing or discussing, they are speaking artfully with scripted rhetoric, alongside carefully-chosen visual cues and pointed body language; and all of this is captured on film and live-streamed. This virtual and performative aspect of TED is what allows these presentations to be exported to millions everywhere. TED is about sharing ideas, far and wide. (Their slogan: “Ideas worth spreading.”) And yet at the DUMBO event, the presenters onstage without functioning technology seemed less sure of those ideas.

Looking at the kids outside, I wondered, how could we as an audience be walking the walk, instead of only talking the talk? The event could have been more like a design charette. So, instead of listening to the OurGoods founders talk about how barter works, we would have walked around and tried to do it (to their credit, they did do an online activity by having people tweet a barter offer with the hashtag #OurGoods). Generally speaking, there ought to have been more audience engagement throughout the event. Every single person in the audience (selected through an application process) was qualified to do more than listen; none of us was hearing about innovative urban design, the problem of urban social alienation, or the sharing economy for the first time. We should have been invited to respond—verbally, physically, digitally, artistically—throughout the conference. That’s collaborative consumption; it’s collaborative knowledge production, as well.

Or the event could have been more tactile. I would have liked, for example, to see, and touch—perhaps even purchase!—some of the beautiful fashion pieces presented by the “Afropolitan” design advocate Atim Oton. We could have had a model of one of the innovative architectural plans discussed by Dong-Ping Wong or Marcos Zotes. Hey, LifeEdited could have offered free consultations to attendees; I’d love to actually see them at work on simplifying individuals’ lives. There could have been iPads throughout the venue—a place to see what was going on in Twitterland (not everybody is a SmartPhone owner (Disclosure: I do not own a SmartPhone.)), sign up for e-mail lists, Google stuff, and just play around. We’re Millennials—we need distractions! Not exactly. But we do need variation. A series of people talking and showing slides is an outdated model for learning, for absorbing information, and for generating social change.

The TEDx DUMBO conference culminated with three “action pitches”—brief presentations of business plans, with commentary by some of the speakers. Attendees were given cards with the three action plans on it, so they could decide to join their mailing lists, donate to the projects, or otherwise contribute to them. This is a great addition to an event focused on ideas-sharing. But compare the action pitch segment of TEDx DUMBO to what Brooklyn’s FEAST & Detroit’s Soup have been doing for years: they cook up a bunch of locally-sourced soup, salad, and bread, get some beer or wine donated or purchase it cheaply, and charge people something reasonable ($20 in Brooklyn and $5 in Detroit—reflecting differences in local incomes and costs-of-living). Attendees socialize a bit and enjoy their meals while listening to action pitches by local start-ups—then they vote on which project will receive all of that evening’s proceeds. So, the winner walks away with cash-in-hand; to boot, people have fun and it’s an opportunity to network.

TED talks have helped spread a lot of ideas—and the organizers of the DUMBO event should be congratulated for bringing together an incredibly diverse group of panelists and attendees, in a beautiful setting. But now it’s time to focus on creating a forum where ideas can be prototyped, experienced, and critiqued, in addition to just sharing them.

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