Technology, Entertainment, Design. These are the founding ideas behind the California-based non-profit conference series known as TED. This past Saturday, the University hosted its own version of the conference with the first-ever TEDxUofM event.
TEDxUofM, which was organized independently of the TED company but is modeled after the original conference, featured various speakers from the University and Ann Arbor communities who discussed their areas of expertise — each for exactly 18 minutes — to a crowd of about 300 in the auditorium of the Biomedical Science Research Building.
LSA sophomore Alexander O’Dell, TEDxUofM’s executive director, said the organization’s offshoot conferences follow the same philosophy of the original event.
“(TEDx) looks to bring together the most interesting thinkers and doers from around the world to share what they’re most passionate about,” O’Dell said.
Beginning in 1984, the annual TED gathering has served as a forum for people from fields ranging from science to business to global issues to meet, discuss and learn from one another. Past speakers have included Bill Gates, Al Gore, Jane Goodall and Sir Richard Branson.
TEDx events have sprung up around the world. As the Ann Arbor audience filed into the auditorium Saturday morning, participants in Accra, Ghana were halfway through with their version of the conference, TEDxYouthInspire, and organizers at Multimedia University in Cyberjaya, Malaysia were also winding down their own TEDxMMU.
The University isn’t unique in hosting a TEDx conference — the first ever was held at the University of Southern California in 2009. But O’Dell believes the crossover between the University community and that of Ann Arbor creates an “absolutely perfect” atmosphere for sharing ideas and sparking collaboration.
“You have 40,000 students, 8,000 faculty members and the Ann Arbor community,” he said. “If you can make that into this small, one-day event and take it all in, try to make it into one day, I think you can get people to make sense of everything around them.”
LSA sophomore Jason Greenspan, one of the event’s marketing directors, said the group received roughly 600 applications for 300 attendee spots.
The best applicants were those who thought “outside of the box,” Greenspan said.
“The most common application we had was something about wanting to change the world, but the best applications said how they would change the world, or why or what needed to be addressed,” he said.
O’Dell said his desire to learn what was going on outside of his “bubble” was what incited his desire to bring TEDx to the University.
“There’s so much exciting stuff happening at the University and I want to know what’s happening,” he said. “I felt like this was a good way to bring such a massive entity and make sense of it.”
The speakers who participated in TEDxUofM serve as testaments to that diversity and depth.
The presenters included Stephen Rush, a professor of dance and performing technology in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance; LSA freshman Udae Sandhu, who spoke about his belief that “life is far too short to not spend every single second doing what we love” and Sam Valenti IV, a University dropout who founded Ghostly International, an Ann Arbor-based independent record label, from his freshman dorm room in Couzens Hall.
Though each speaker talks for only 18 minutes on a topic of his or her choice, TEDx is a unique gathering in that it allows people to “(dive) deep into an idea,” according to O’Dell.
“It’s (a) showcase of the best of what’s at the University,” O’Dell said. “We tried to find speakers that aren’t necessarily on the forefront, but who deserve to be recognized and have really amazing and interesting things to say and are very passionate about what they do.”
O’Dell said he and his team of about 20 student organizers directly approached administrators, deans, professors and student leaders for speaker recommendations.
After narrowing down the list of suggestions, O’Dell said the final itinerary represented “just about every place on campus.”
Jim Burnstein, screenwriting coordinator in the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures, spoke about how the Michigan film incentive program could reverse the state’s “brain drain.” He echoed O’Dell’s sentiments and said the event was a “great collaboration.”
“You have such a potential cross-section of people who you can draw from,” he said. “It was just fantastic to see this cross-section of people in the arts and sciences that you rarely see coming together, and that’s a really smart idea.”
Engineering graduate student Kiril Dontchev spoke about his groundbreaking work with satellites.
Dontchev said that while he’s been to many conferences and given several talks before, TEDxUofM was different from any previous event he’s been to.
“The broad range of topics and the way your mind got pushed, you really had to dig deep and go to places you hadn’t been before,” he said. “We really went from the most technical of engineering topics to abstract paper things to talking about food or social enterprises.”
Fellow speaker Alex Wand, a musician and lecturer in the Residential College, closed the conference by playing an original song.
“Being in one room with so many inspiring people was an incredibly contagious experience,” Wand wrote in an e-mail interview. “To be honest, it made me want to go home and write a song.”
Sandhu compared his experience at the conference to a “succulent beehive of knowledge.”
“Its sweet honey of innovation flowed into the eager mouths of all lucky enough to take part,” Sandhu wrote in an e-mail interview.
O’Dell said his biggest hope is that the event will be the catalyst for a dialogue on campus.
“If I can see that people took something from (TEDxUofM) and want to start a conversation about it, I think that would be the biggest accomplishment,” O’Dell said.