TEDxCincy Brings the Passion

Let a thousand Teds bloom - including right here in Cincinnati.

No, not guys named Ted. In this case it's all-caps -TED - and it refers to a nonprofit whose name stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Since 1984, TED has been sponsoring a conference in Long Beach devoted to allowing some of the world's most important figures in those and other fields offer "Ideas Worth Spreading." These have included Steve Jobs, architect Frank Gehry, singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel and others not so well-known to the public-at-large but visionaries in their field.

As TED has grown - sponsoring spin-off national and international conferences and making all its lectures available for free online - it has developed devoted followings in local communities around the globe.

So in March of 2009 TED began a TEDx program to let interested parties in those communities sponsor their own independent, self-organized events licensed by TED. To date, there already have been 669 of them in 98 countries and 25 languages. There are another 638 planned - including the first TEDx in Cincinnati, at downtown's  Aronoff Center for the Arts on Oct. 7.

It's open to anyone - tickets for the daylong (9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) event are $55; $35 students and can be purchased here. Sometime after the event, TEDx will post the lectures online.

Its theme is "Passion: The Energy Behind Life's Most Fearless Pursuits" and will feature as its marquee attraction Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Dhani Jones, who also has a Travel Channel show about his world travels. He will speak on how sports can give individuals from different cultures a common ground for communication.

But the topics of speakers will vary widely. Among the more than a dozen who are planned - a final list has not yet been announced - are Herman Mays, a Cincinnati Museum Center zoologist whose specialty is evolutionary ecology; Brad King, a Ball State University assistant professor who studies the changing role of storytelling in digital-age culture; and Claire Thompson, a DAAP student who designed and hand-sewed an award-winning wedding dress. 

If it seems unusual that a 22-year-old like Thompson should be sharing her life experience, it's because it has been extraordinary. In 2008, while an undergraduate in the fashion design program at University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning, she learned she had to get emergency eye surgery or her retinas would detach and she'd be blind. And when this happened she was just about to go to a rural French town for an internship.

She underwent the surgery and then went to France alone, just a few weeks later. 

"I knew the risk I was taking, but I had this in my mind," Thompson says. "I wanted to travel, paint and design and learn a new culture. So the passion and determination I had overweighed the risks I knew I was taking."

While there, still recovering, she decided to enter the Operation Dream Dress contest sponsored by Brides magazine to design "America's most beautiful wedding gown," in her words. She ended up finishing in the top five and was on Good Morning America with her dress. 

"I was given about four weeks to sew a dress," Thompson says. "Because the town I was living in was so small, I didn't have any materials or resources, so I traveled about two hours outside town to get fabric and needles, and I started hand-sewing the dress myself because I didn't have a sewing machine or a body form. It was particularly difficult because when I was sewing I was still gaining depth perception and perspective, so it was hard."

TEDxCincy has been organized by three employees of Cincinnati-based LPK, the world's largest independently owned design agency  - David Volker, Emily Venter and Michael Bergman - and Mary Riffe of Procter & Gamble.

"At LPK, we all have been fans of the TED conference," Volker says. "We had something called Breakfast with TED where we'd come to work an hour and a half before the day started, watch TED videos, and promote discussion internally. So we thought we could bring this to Cincinnati to do on a regional level."

Bergman's sister, a P&G employee, introduced them to Riffe, who had attended a TED conference at Long Beach.

"The four of us came together and started realizing people in this city are having similar conversations and ideas, but it's happening in their silos. So we wanted to break down some of those walls and get a cross-disciplinary audience to come together and share conversations so we can take on the challenges of the city."

They sought proposals on their website and received more than 200. In looking over submissions, they were looking for speakers with good stories to tell.

With Ball State's King, whose background is in journalism and new media, they have a speaker ready to question the very nature of storytelling itself. He sees new media as allowing for and encouraging "distributive storytelling," where a virtual community can form around the creation of a narrative.

"Big theater companies are beginning to look at how they can begin to move theater from the stage out into the world - and not in a street-theater kind of way," he says. "They're trying to put on a worldwide story of interactive art that's driven by a playwright, but influenced by everybody. This begins to transform storytelling – the story up to now has been entirely author-driven, so they're beginning to look at the participatory nature of it."

If that sounds like a heady subject, Mays' talk will focus on new ideas about the nature of life, itself. It will look at how DNA research is making it easier to learn an individual's genetic profile, which as a result may soon allow doctors to customize and personalize their treatment of individuals for illnesses.

Taking that a step further, Mays will explain how understanding genetic theory and molecular biology also increases understanding of evolution - "like, why do I have DNA and how am I related to other living things," he explains.

"In your cells is what has been copied generation after generation," he says. "That goes back to the beginning of life. So your DNA is one genetic outcome of three billion years of life's evolution on earth.  Understanding that aspect of it really opens up a lot of doors into understanding not just ourselves but life itself and how it changes."

These kinds of subjects, and more, are what TEDxCincy has been created to explore.  And, hopefully, the Oct. 7th event will be just the start. "This is our inaugural event," Volker says. "We certainly want to do it at least once a year."

Photography by Scott Beseler.

Herman Mays

Tedx Cincy at the Aronoff Center

Claire Thompson (provided)

David Volker, LPK

DNA helix model and Darwin


Read more articles by Steve Rosen.

Steve Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who serves as CityBeat's Contributing Visual Arts Editor and is a frequent contributor to The Enquirer. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Variety, IndieWire.com, Western Art & Architecture, Paste and other publications and websites.