TED Wants Michigan To Get Crazy

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Michigan got a little crazy last week.

TEDxUofM didn’t have same star power as the annual conference in California that inspired it. But the message was undeniably similar.

“Don’t get scared by the fact that [when] something is tough, crazy ideas are worth working on,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the founding director of University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, told 1,700 students, faculty and local residents packed into Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI Friday.

Zurbuchen is a professor in space science and aerospace engineering who helped develop a device for NASA to orbit Mercury. He was one of 20 speakers on Friday, including Ann Marie Sastri, CEO of battery startup Sakti3, and Jacob Mandel, a student hoping to start a 3-D film lab in Detroit.

Founded in 1984, TED is a non-profit organization that recruits heavyweights in technology, entertainment, and design to brainstorm ways to better the world. The TED annual conference in Long Beach, CA has drawn luminaries like former Vice President Al Gore, filmmaker/writer JJ Abrams, U2 frontman Bono and Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson.

Though independently organized by U-M students, Friday’s event in Ann Arbor was part of a larger movement of TED talks sweeping the country.

Alex O’Dell, TEDxUofM’s executive director, said organizers came up with the conference’s “encouraging crazy ideas” theme after reading an article by U-M President Mary Sue Coleman published last year in Forbes magazine. In her piece, Coleman discussed innovation on campus beyond the business and engineering schools.

“We kind of took that as a call to action of displaying these ideas and putting them out there,” O’Dell says. “I think the audience really gained a better appreciation for ideas coming out of corners of campus that aren’t really recognized.”

Libraries are rarely known for innovation, but U-M library dean Paul Courant says libraries were first created to provide reference information to scientists developing new technologies.

“Libraries are essential to technology, entertainment, design, learning, mixing, remixing putting things together, taking things apart,” says Courant, who’s working with Google to digitize the university’s vast collection of books and documents. “Libraries are the great social mash-up bins for everything we try to do with ideas individually and collectively.”

He says new technologies like e-readers could potentially open a library’s content to a wider audience. However, licensing agreements limits the number of books that can be read on devices like Amazon’s Kindle. Courant, though, says these policies can eventually change.

“My first crazy idea, which I actually believe though there isn’t a whole lot of evidence for it, is that you can make things better,” he says.

U-M mechanical engineering professor Kathleen Sienko says medical devices invented by her students help poor countries perform medical procedures more safely and efficiently. For example, the students created a device that doctors carry on their motor bikes to provide pelvic exams to villagers throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

“I challenge you as you engage in design projects, be it in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Ghana Uganda or elsewhere to immerse yourself in the environment, seek to understand the true needs of the end users,” she told the crowd.

John Denny, a high school student who traveled to Ann Arbor from Grand Blanc on his last Friday of spring break, says he was inspired by the presentations.

“I thought it was really cool and it tells you that even if you’re a kid you can make a difference,” he says.

Kevin Martin traveled from Rochester, NY to attend TEDxUofM, the first time he set foot on a college campus in 30 years.

“I thought there was really good balance,” he says. “There were some speakers that were extreme and a little too on the fringe for me and then there were other speakers that were balancing that.”

Zurbuchen, the aerospace engineering professor, encouraged the crowd to develop their own crazy idea, the best of which will be featured at next year’s TEDxUofM.

“You thought this talk is about space or this talk is about this project but what this talk is really about is a challenge to you,” Zurbuchen says.

O’Dell said the event’s organizing committee will evaluate TEDxUofM based on how people respond to Zurbuchen’s challenge.

“The big question is what’s the impact? Why does this matter?” O’Dell says. “If it doesn’t create action, then it’s a hype machine. I guess we’ll have to wait and see, will this inspire action?”