TEDx Detroit 2009 Highlights

Chris Spiek
The AWS Blog

If you’re not a fan of the videos at TED.com: Ideas Worth Spreading, I’d be willing to bet that it’s just because no one has introduced you to the site yet.

If you’ve never heard of TED.com, drop whatever you’re doing for the next half hour and watch the videos in this post.

Yesterday, Ted’s ideas spread to Detroit as some of the area’s top thinkers gathered at Lawrence Tech University for a day of compelling discussions about technology, energy, entrepreneurship, and other current challenges.

The first conversation that I had when I arrived at the conference I believe to be very representative of what everyone there was feeling. The man in front of me in line at the registration desk turned around, introduced himself, and asked, “So … what are your expectations?”

Anyone that’s been a long-time fan of TED.com knows that the expectations are high. When I watch a TED video online, it tends to introduce a number of new ways of thinking about the topic. On a very positive note, I can honestly say that many of the presenters at TEDx Detroit had the same impact on me.

I’ve seen Richard Sheridan from Menlo Innovations speak on a number of occasions, but this was hands-down his best presentation. Richard spoke about design issues, and specifically how they relate to software design. He opened with a wonderful example: “Have you ever walked up to a door and pushed on it, only to discover that it’s a ‘Pull’ door?” That is BAD DESIGN. His presentation went on to explain a number of examples where studying natural human behavior in the workplace can lead to better software interface design. I agree wholeheartedly with Rich in his argument that we don’t spend enough time incorporating user observation into the design process.

Dan Izzo form Bizdom U gave a though-provoking talk on Turning Dreamers into Doers. Although I think that’s a pretty tough challenge to face (motivating people to act), especially in a 20 minute presentation, he made a number of good points about innovation. His most pointed comment being: “If your business idea is the answer, then what is the f$#@ing question?” The next time you have the next great idea, spend time talking to people about the challenge that they face, and be sure that your solution is actually mated to their problem.

Inspiration & Creativity
In her TED presentation, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love discusses the creative process, and explores the demands that we put on creative thinkers (the possibility of never creating anything great, and the even greater challenges that come with actually creating something incredible).

I believe one of the only standing ovations of the day went to D Blair after he performed his poem Detroit (While I Was Away), and it was definitely much-deserved.

TEDxDetroit video: Poet D Blair performs 'Detroit (while I was away)'

Rory Sutherland presents one of the funniest TED videos that I’ve seen so far as he explores the differences between actual “real” value, and perceived value. If you’ve read Predictably Irrational, you’ll definitely want to watch this.

Would I Attend another TEDx
On the drive home I thought back to the first conversation of the day; had it met my expectations? The short answer is that I would definitely go to another TEDx. The long answer is a bit more involved.

For me, TED is always about taking in a new, thought-provoking perspective on a topic, and the online videos fill that need perfectly. When I think about how I pull them into my life, they are effective because 1) I can watch them whenever I want, and 2) I can skip to the next one if a video turns out to be boring.

I’ve spoken to a few people about the idea of collaboration at the TEDx conferences. I didn’t experience a whole lot of it (the physical layout of the auditorium didn’t lend itself terribly well to round-table discussions), and I didn’t really expect to. Most of the useful conference-type collaboration that I’ve been involved with have been with a number of people who are all experts on the same subject, throwing ideas around (e.g. a CIO conference).

I think there are both obvious benefits and challenges that would come along with a group of people with very different backgrounds digging deep into a wide array of topics. It might be worth exploring these types of round-table discussions at future TEDx events (I’m sure some light discussions happened at the after-party, but that’s not the same as a deep exploration of a topic).

All-in-all the event was a great experience. Kudos to Charlie Wollborg, Derek Mehraban, Catherine Juon, Jennifer Wright, and Terry Bean for putting it all together.

The conference had a definite undertone that could probably be described as something like: Do whatever it takes to get Detroit back on its feet. One quote that I absolutely love stuck in my head that I think sums it all up:

Hell, there are no rules here - we’re trying to accomplish something! 
- Thomas Edison


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