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TEDxSomerville: Inspiring Creativity and Community at the Armory

Off Campus | April 1, 2012

On March 4, some of the brightest minds in Somerville assembled at Arts at the Armory for the inaugural TEDxSomerville event, a sold-out gathering of speakers and musicians that focused on the core theme of “Creative Economy, Sustainable Community.” Although it was based on the well-known TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) format, members of the Somerville community organized the event independent of the umbrella organization. Twenty-five Somerville-connected individuals spoke on a satisfyingly wide number of topics, ranging from body language to citizen involvement in local government to lock picking. The talks were short and sweet, lasting between three and eighteen minutes and accompanied by snappy PowerPoints, photographs, and the occasional performance. The host and executive director of organizing, C. Todd Lombardo, bantered airily with speakers between talks, and audience members were frequently asked to yell out and join in throughout the day.

The most notable aspect of the event was certainly the atmosphere, both on and off the stage, of candid enthusiasm that propelled the events of the day energetically forward. During breaks catered by local eatery favorites like Kickass Cupcakes, TAZA chocolate, and Three Little Figs, audience members and speakers alike spilled out into the narrow hallways and stairwells of the Armory, animatedly talking about projects and ideas that were fueled by the talks that they had just heard. It wasn’t chatter that filled the building, but dialogue amongst individuals interested in exploring the possibilities for innovation in a community like Somerville.

The entire concept, from the planning phase to the event itself, relied on the dedication of volunteers. Pride in Somerville and a belief in the spread of ideas kept the whole process running; ten organizers, 38 additional volunteers, 26 speakers, and 42 musicians all collaborated to make this event a reality, with no other reward than the satisfaction of bringing the community together for a day of thoughtful engagement.

“The city is sitting on the cusp of a lot of change, from the [MBTA] green line extension to the transformation of McGrath Highway,” explained Todd Van Hoosear, the public relations manager of the event and a member of the local community, in an email. “This was the perfect time to bring folks together to talk about some of the challenges that will face the city as it prepares for the future.”

Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of TEDxSomerville was its ability to embrace the technologies and innovations of the future while not losing sight of important lessons from the past. The whole day was divided into four distinct sections appropriately titled “Protecting the Past,” “Embracing the Present,” “Solidifying Our Presence,” and “Envisioning the Future.” The speakers were full of optimism, and each seemed to be looking for new ways to tackle old problems, informed both by innovations of the future and tools from the past. The organizers did an excellent job identifying which talks would best fit into each of the sessions, and the final product was surprisingly coherent given the diversity of topics tackled.

Ezra Haber Glenn, a lecturer in urban studies and planning at MIT and the president of Somerville Community Corporation, began by talking about his initial skepticism of the Internet as a community-building tool. Granted, the Internet, if used improperly, can be a place where real-time human interaction goes to die. However, Glenn eschewed the popular lamentation that many thinkers and writers seem to have adopted today in writing or talking about the web. He instead focused on the ways that we can make a technology that is here to stay work for us in building a better community.

Great visuals and a thoughtful presentation informed the audience of Interactive Somerville, a website that is “connecting Somerville community members to each other and to the Green Line Extension planning process.” Interactive maps and easy upload functions allow members of the community to place comments and photographs on the website, which will help inform decision-makers about the place-specific needs of local citizens. This technology makes for a more transparent, inclusive, and democratic process.

On the other side of things, Tufts’ own Professor of Psychology Sam Sommers and physical comedian Alex Feldman both gave funny and engaging presentations that dealt with, in distinct ways, the importance of physical awareness in real-time. Professor Sommers gave a psychological take on community building that emphasized self-awareness and engagement. He noted that individuals often don’t attend to their surroundings very well when in a crowd, which leads to a lowered sense of personal responsibility for the events that can unfold. He argued that by focusing our minds, staying engaged with our surroundings, and simply paying attention, we could build a better community atmosphere.

Feldman began by speaking in gibberish, playing a recorder with his nose, and performing a comedy-sketch that relied entirely on non-verbal communication. The audience eagerly participated when he suggested (with only body language and voice intonation!) that they call out or respond to him, demonstrating the amazing ability of what he described as “primal talk” to get a message across. In the end, he advocated for body awareness and non-verbal communication, which he saw as the keys to transforming situations from negative to positive or awkward to comfortable.

The excitement and curiosity of the day was contagious, and I couldn’t help but leave TEDxSomerville with a sense of possibility. Though the stage was set up with a wood picket fence, a quaint mailbox, and two old-fashioned rocking chairs, the day was a platform for many new conceptions of community, bringing us up to the modern age and looking at everything as an opportunity for positive change. Monica Poole gave a fantastic explanation of the Occupy movement as a living experiment in creating convergent spaces for innovation in democracy, and where its going next; Wig Zamore explored the chemistry of pollution health dangers in building denser, more sustainable communities; Chris Templeman envisioned “community supported manufacturing”, where artisans and technology join to create amazing household items fabricated in our own community; and the list goes on. TEDxSomerville actively sought a balance between technology and face-to-face communication and exchange, giving incredible ideas on how to integrate the benefits of the modern world into a fulfilling, concrete, real-world community. And it was a rousing success.

“The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive from everyone involved,” agreed Van Hoosear in an email. “We’re looking forward to planning TEDxSomerville 2013!”