Notes from TEDxDetroit: Time for Action

Thinkers, doers, artists, hipsters, nerds, movers, and shakers gathered at the Max M. Fisher Music Theatre yesterday for TEDxDetroit, a beautifully organized confab of metro residents who have planted their flags firmly in the Motor City’s terra firma. These are the folks who are dedicated to pushing the city forward, whether through a “living” robot-tech lab, the sport of fencing, or slapping an awesome piece of art on a huge billboard in the middle of town for no reason other than that they can and it’s a cool idea.

TED, in case you’re wondering, is not a guy—it’s an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. The “x” signifies its an independently produced offshoot of the annual TED gathering of “big brains and cool ideas” being held in California in February. (Sorry, late adopters—2012 registration is closed.)

One must apply to be a part of the TEDx audience, which keeps the numbers of glad-handers and publicity hounds down to a delightful minimum. In fact, I’m happy to say I didn’t spot a single politician in the crowd. Good thing, because they would probably stick out at an event where earnest, innovative ideas ruled the day.

Many things about TEDxDetroit charmed me—the enthusiasm of the participants, the chance to play the Atari video games of my youth at one of the exhibit booths, the meticulous attention paid to providing us with the finest in local food—but perhaps nothing so much as Rob Bliss’s presentation. I was prepared to be totally annoyed with his tales of launching 100,000 paper airplanes off the top of buildings and Civil War re-enactments involving water balloons.

Bliss is the 22-year-old man behind the world-famous, record-setting, one-take lipdub to Don McLean’s “American Pie” (4.2 million YouTube views and counting), which he made in defiant response to a Newsweek article calling his hometown of Grand Rapids, MI, one of America’s top 10 dying cities. Though it was far from his first flashmob-type event, it was the one that was covered by every media outlet from “Good Morning America” to NPR. Roger Ebert, perhaps the most qualified person in America to make such a pronouncement, called it “the greatest music video ever made.”

But what impressed me most about Bliss besides his easy, self-deprecating way of telling his story is his approach to civic engagement. He wanted to prove that he didn’t live in “Bland Rapids,” that the community and the local government could come together and create quirky magic like the lipdub and his celebrated Zombie Walks. He made giving a crap about the city you live in fun.

I envied Grand Rapids for a moment, because one thing that seems to often be missing in Detroit’s revitalization efforts is our local government’s willingness to lower the bureaucratic wall and entertain “crazy” ideas. (No matter that Detroit’s economy was fueled by a particularly crazy idea from Henry Ford for the better part of a century.) If a multimillion-dollar Hollywood studio becomes ensnared in red tape simply to get a permit to shoot a movie in a vacant field for a few hours—an anecdote related to me by a top location scout who wished to remain anonymous—it seems doubtful that John Doe would be able to get the city’s permission to lead thousands of people dressed in rags and moaning “Braaaains” down its main thoroughfare. But if we could, with all of the oddball brilliance lurking in Detroit? Oh my. It would be AMAZING.

I met with Henry Balanon, co-founder and director of Mobile at Detroit Labs, for a quick TEDxDetroit post-mortem this morning at the newly opened Astro coffee house. After I picked my jaw up off the floor over the $26 price tag on a bag of beans from Kenya, I asked him what made this year’s event different from last year’s.

“There seems to be a lot of love for Detroit, and people are starting to take that energy and form enterprises around it,” Balanon said. “Last year, it was all talk. Now, people are stepping up to stick their necks out.”

There’s hope Detroit will get its Zombie Walk yet.

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2 responses to “Notes from TEDxDetroit: Time for Action”

  1. Alegion says:

    I did not attend the event but am interested in knowing what the racial makeup of the attendees was? The presenters from the web site seemed very much skewed one way and I find it intresting if the makeup of the crowd mirrored such. Was TED not an event that minorities were intrested in?