Innovation, art and design unite at TEDxPhilly

TEDxPhilly brought together urban designers, scholars, artists and reform advocates, among others, to discuss issues in Philadelphia. In an effort to advance positive change, TEDxPhilly aimed to ignite a dialogue. The second annual lecture series

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Courtesy Kevin Monko (Top) Chamira Nelson (left) and Kai Davis from the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement take a break between sessions at TEDxPhilly.

TEDxPhilly brought together urban designers, scholars, artists and reform advocates, among others, to discuss issues in Philadelphia.

In an effort to advance positive change, TEDxPhilly aimed to ignite a dialogue.

The second annual lecture series highlighted these key concepts Tuesday, Nov. 8 at the Performing Arts Center on Main Campus.

“The City” was the focus of the event, and speakers explained possible improvements and innovations to solve the varied issues of major American cities.

The event ran from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a reception following, and included approximately 30 speakers who discussed issues ranging from the necessity of music in urban schools,  and low voter turnout rates affecting political dialogues, to the few opportunities for healthy foods available in the city.

The format was a day long series of speakers, each with less than 18 minutes of allotted time. TEDxPhilly Curation Lead Liana Dragoman said that the purpose of the event was to “grapple with ideas from many different perspectives and disciplines.”

“Let’s give these people a platform to share their ideas so we can move forward and make the world a better place,” Dragoman said.

Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way Community Center, hosted the event. Mayor Michael Nutter made a surprise visit, lauding the program for its focus to “create an idea for Philadelphia in the 21st century.”

Several themes connected the lectures. One consistently repeated was motivating students raised in an urban environment to succeed.

Nijmie Dzurinko first explored this idea. Dzurinko works as executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, which “develops youth leaders on the front lines of school reform.” She said that young people are an oppressed group seen as naïve and apathetic, leading to their separation from political discourse and decision.

The Philly Youth Poetry Movement is a nonprofit organization aimed at helping Philadelphia youth discover the power of their voices through spoken word and literary expression. One group performed on misogyny as the “Femininjas,” while former PYPM member and Temple student Alana Gooden presented on battling homelessness.

Ethan Nguyen highlighted his own experience as a first generation student going through the college application process alone. He uses his own experience to help other students in first generation immigrant families apply to exclusive private universities. At the end of his speech, he asked everyone to make, “The Promise: to help one young person this year.”

Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America, discussed what cities mean today. She contrasted the disregard of the public when she was mugged in a New York City subway, to the subway etiquette guidelines found on public transit to improve the urban experience.

She said she believes cities are getting better as they become networks. Her work aims to optimize the services available for residents by crowd sourcing new ideas for improvement. Code for America brings technologists into municipal offices to sort databases, build applications and sort data.

Temple professor Youngjin Yoo said he sees the city as a computing platform as technology is no longer an obstacle for human imagination. There are resources available today to design solutions to complex problems. He explained this post-professional society where everyone can be an entrepreneur through their net book. He currently “leads the Urban Apps and Maps Studio, a five-year interdisciplinary initiative to build a digital platform for urban entrepreneurship in North Philadelphia.”

Several artists were invited to explain their efforts in improving cities.

Haas & Hahn, community-driven art interventionists, painted huge murals in the favelas of Brazil to inspire community pride. They are currently working on a two-year public art project that will include three neighborhoods in Center City, North Philly and Manayunk. The duo includes Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn.

Sculptor and installation artist Janet Echelman described her own artistic experience in using unlikely materials like fishnet to create fluid pieces that show the details of wind movement. She and landscape architect Susan K. Weiler discussed their current renovation project, which will transform Dilworth Plaza near City Hall into a dry-mist garden that will trace the path of subway with color-coded dry mist.

Audience members said they had different reactions to and reasons for attending TEDxPhilly.

“It’s been awesome,” said Oriana Marcial, a sophomore at Masterman High School. “It broadens my view of the world as I’m exposed to new ideas.”

Marcial said she plans to share the information she has gained at the event with friends and family and may volunteer for causes presented at the event.

“This is a testimony of the city continuing to create opportunity,” said visual artist Michelle A. Ortiz, program manager for the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation.

Ortiz said she was especially inspired by a speaker who “shared his own perspective as a creative person who can sustain a career in Philadelphia.”

“I don’t think we pay enough attention to kids that don’t have access to good food resources and safe households,” Christie Vazquez, the technology manager at The Harford, said. “This is the manifestation of a group of problems.”

Vazquez said she liked the local theme, especially Yael Lehmann’s talk on the food access problem in cities, where high prices and low quality affect food products available to residents.

“It seems really relevant to the work we need to be doing in the city,” Debbie Rudman, the programming director of Philadelphia Community Access Media, said.

TEDxPhilly aimed to form a bridge between people making a difference and those interested in helping them make that change. It brought together diverse ideas and efforts to improve the quality of dialogue and provide opportunity for cohesive advocacy for reform.

Some speakers were nominated through TEDxPhilly’s website. TEDxPhilly also held community events, where organizations and the public were invited to attend and share their ideas and insight. Dragoman said the curation team, “sought out people we thought would add value to the program, and whose voice should be heard within the context of ‘The City.'” The team met weekly to review different speakers and their complementing the city theme.

Sara Khan can be reached at

Changes have been made to the original print version of this story.

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