A Who’s Who of Corner Offices in Boston: A TEDxBoston Review

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on September 3, 2010


TED has made its name by collecting some of the most intelligent minds around the world and having them talk very briefly about their most important ideas. The TEDx events focus on one city, and Boston hosted one on July 29. As I arrived that morning to the buzzing crowd of BlackBerrys, shoulder bags, and business cards, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. It was corporate Boston’s day to play hooky from work—not exactly my crowd. As we shuffled into the amphitheater where all the talks would be happening, it was like being surrounded by a class of Power Nerds: people reveling in their post-collegiate days as the successful upper echelon of various markets and businesses. Indeed, during the opening speech, one of the five moderators said that there were no less than eight dozen CEOs in the audience.

The unexpected wake-up call from the Marcus Santos’ Group, a 10-piece drum crew comprising musicians both young and old, quickly assuaged my fears of falling short to this collection of Boston intelligentsia. Their mix of rhythms and solos captivated and united the audience. Then, the first presenter, Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Boston World Partnerships, set the tone for TEDxBoston. He spoke briefly about the importance of TED talks and how they promoted horizontal and vertical social connections. He reiterated that these events are in fact essential, rather than just nice to have. They are ideas that need to be shared.

The rest of the day was organized into four sections, with about six or seven talks in each one. Here are the highlights:

Round 1: Digital Fabrication of Homes—Lynwood Walker

Given by three of the heads of Difra Inc., this presentation explored the potential for digitally designed and fabricated homes made of low-impact and reusable materials. The crowd was thoroughly impressed with animations of Difra’s computer software breaking down complex, curvilinear designs into basic grids so that they can be easily built. Also, Difra’s software can actually build the pieces of the house by laser-cutting oriented strand board that can be hammered together without the use of nails. Theoretically, you could order a house, have it shipped to you in a pile of pieces with some instructions, and build it yourself. I like this idea for its sustainability, but it has the feel of a large-scale IKEA. Ideas like this need to be combined more with small-scale artisans and design/build firms. I see some great potential there.

Round 2: Learning out of the Box—John Werner, MacCalvin Romain

TEDxBoston boards

This talk was all about changing the face of education in America. MacCalvin Romain, president of Swag Media, started with the all-too-familiar story of being interested in something at a young age (in this case, taking apart and rebuilding electronics), only to be told that what he likes won’t get him anywhere in the real world. Studies show that 30% of ninth graders across the country will drop out of high school, and American students are falling behind students in other countries. John Werner is the managing director and chief mobilizing officer of Citizen Schools, which provides a “network of after-school education programs” to try and solve this problem, and keep kids from becoming bored with school. One program teaches kids how to make an android application, another teaches kids how to hold arguments in court, and another teaches kids to redesign T stations around Boston to make them safer and more sustainable. This all points to a new era of teaching, a new way of teaching, and I think it’s great. I had a lot of issues with boredom in high school, or not being able to do what I was actually interested in, and I know a lot of other people who felt the same.

Round 3: New Life for an Abandoned Tunnel—Sapir Ng

I heard architect Sapir Ng speak at Wentworth Institute of Technology in the spring about the Tremont Underground Theater Space, Ng’s and architect Andrzej Zarzycki’s winning proposal for SHIFTboston’s 2009 design competition. The talk was very informative but it was long, and delved into underground architecture. His TEDxBoston talk was much shorter and used significantly less imagery. The images were more diagrammatic in nature and left the project sounding more ambiguous than it probably is. His presentation style worked well, and he urged the audience to imagine the possibilities of what the project could be, letting us fill in the blanks as to how the space could look. It has a lot of potential, and I think it’s a really great way to reuse existing space in Boston. This is important to do in crowded cities, and should be happening more often. It has a very Archigram feel to it (a good thing in my mind), but I don’t know how people would feel being underground in such a place on an everyday basis. The light shafts up to the Common that Ng mentioned would help immensely with that. But for the most part, the crowd loved Ng’s SHIFTboston idea and responded very well. I hope to see it or some version of it built someday.

Round 4: Edgar Allan Poe, Fear, and Creativity—Eric Mongeon

Eric Mongeon is a graphic designer, and his talk was mostly about the process of making his senior thesis at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD): a graphic novel-style reinterpretation of work by Edgar Allan Poe. He used his RISD project to talk about creativity in general and all the creative issues he had trying to complete it. The talk spoke to me as a creator, regardless of discipline. He made the point that doing does not equal making, and that if you don’t just get what you’re thinking about into the real, physical world, then you’ll never know how good or bad it really is. What he said was interesting and motivating, and I’m sure spoke to everyone in the room in a different way.

Honorable Mentions


I can’t end this article without mentioning some of the other mind-blowingly awesome talks. Seth Priebatsch taught me about what he called a Game Layer that is being built on top of the world, and how the next Facebook will work in 15 years. Frank Reynolds provided some shock and awe in his talk about how he’s inventing a new way to treat and possibly cure spinal-cord injuries—after having recovered fully from an injury that every doctor said would leave him paralyzed from the waist down. And finally, Ann Christensen provided a heartfelt talk about her father and her family, and separating professional success from personal success.

I may have been intimidated by the amount of brainpower at the event, but I realized that these people are no different from me, maybe (a little) older, but just as interested in learning about groundbreaking new ideas from whoever has them. I would highly suggest that if you have the opportunity to attend a TED event, take it. I can’t wait for the next one I can go to. Hopefully by then I’ll at least have a BlackBerry.


One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Susanne Green said, on September 9, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    The projects described in the article are compelling, I am disappointed that I missed the event. I like the IKEA comparison with the digital fabricated homes. IKEA revolutionized the industrial design market, It would be interesting to see what would happen if the same technique is applied to architecture, and how it would alter the way architects design.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: