The Report from TEDx Buffalo

12 Oct

At first blush, one might find it incongruous to hear a series of modern secular lectures under the ever watchful stained glass gaze of the Virgin Mary and an assembled heavenly host. The Montante Center at Canisius College began life as Saint Vincent de Paul Church, a squat romanesque dome filled with decorative tile and narrow purpled windows. Fortunately, after closing both the college and Montante family saw potential its its wide gallery and vaulted space, and now faintly eastern orthodox scroll work shares at the stage with modern acoustic baffles and suspended sound equipment. The old is new, the worthy refreshed, and a local seat of learning has a remarkable space to continue its centuries old Jesuit tradition of inquiry and thought.

What better place for a TED conference?

Buffalo’s first independently organized TED event met yesterday in grand fashion, despite delays and hiccups, some public and some only known to the dedicated volunteers who put on the show. The TED mothership is careful to curate all three groups that come together at any conference: organizers, speakers and attendees. A Who’s Who of the local technology, design and entrepreneur scene spent seventeen months crafting a day of lectures and ideas. The speakers were local and national change agents. The in-house attendees were selected for their ability to effectively broadcast the conference message, or (even better) to put directly into practice the ideas presented in their own industry leading positions. I snuck in the back door.

For a play by play of each speaker or topic, read Frank Gullo’s convenient summaries and link warehouse, or head to Twitter, the official record of the 21st Century. You can read my past feed, or follow the #tedxbuffalo hashtag to catch up. The video was live-streamed by WNYMedia yesterday as well, and the TEDx Buffalo website should have that edited video of each speaker up soon.

So instead of recreating the event, speech by speech, let me try to draw together some themes that emerged. As the organizers picked presenters for their expertise and ideas, and not for each specific topic, much of what was discussed was not deliberately pre-planned. Rather, any trend in the chaos reflects an evolving shared subconscious mindset, a cultural evolution, a collective perspective on the priority of our world’s problems.

The Return of the Small and Local

It is inevitable in our technologically shrunken world that humans would retreat to a cozy focus on the close and small, our brainstem programmed Dunbar Number, in the face of a vast, flattened, and inter-related global economy. That living close and small also has needed environmental and local economic benefits is either a happy coincidence or contributing cause of this phenomenon, though that is a TED talk for another day.

The majority of speakers addressed how to make change at a micro-level, not country by country or even city by city, but block by block and house by house. Chuck Banas of Buffalo Green Code discussed building neighborhoods and streetscapes through zoning, the legal method by which plans become reality. Eric Walker of PUSH Buffalo took it a step deeper, and using his analogy of the city as a sick patient, advocated working house by house and family by family to build consensus and grassroot buy-in for solutions. Patrick Finan, guru of the BlockClub mini-empire of print magazines, design and marketing, entreated everyone to build as small of a house as possible and put nice things in it. The advice was not entirely metaphorical – he has kept his companies deliberately small to keep quality up, ambitious in performance not size, with no desire to be as American-ly large as possible.

Perhaps not surprisingly in our ever-expanding Food Network culture, the focus on local also naturally turned to what we eat. Patrick Lango of White Cow Dairy sells out of each batch of yogurt and milk-drinks before he even processes them. The draw? Local cows, local grass, lots of sunshine and undiluted milk from a farm in East Otto. To paraphrase Mr. Lango: “People get so excited by our food. And I say, “Relax! It’s just food.” Your body likes it because you got used to eating things that aren’t food. But chill out – all our food used to be like this. And it can be again.”

Ethan Cox of Community Beer Works wants to create a relaxing neighborhood-based biergarten culture in the Third Room, lubricated by fresh, locally brewed beer (preferably his once the brewery opens soon). The higher purpose is to mix cultures and classes, but the local beer is the key facilitator. Even Stacey Watson of Drop-In Nation (more on her in a moment), presenting her ideas of how to best assist high school drop outs, noted that she builds community child by child, usually by eating together. 

The Power of Individual Storytelling

The ultimate distillation of local focus is to place priority on the individual, and several presenters compressed sweeping events into the personal. The Uncrowned Community Builders institute, an outgrowth of the Uncrowned Queens initiative by Dr. Barabara Seals-Nevergold and Dr. Peggy Brooks-Bertram, is compiling the biographies of pioneers and groundbreakers in minority communities, from Buffalo African-Americans to Alaskan Inuit. Drop-In Nation begins by meeting each child where they are, learning their story, helping them teach their story to themselves, and only then use a circular story-telling culture to help them focus on their own success. The Anne Frank Project at Buffalo State College, led by the dynamic Drew Kahn, is finding the individual in genocide, finding the Anne Frank in Rwanda and Cambodia, to humanize and  illuminate the incomprehensible. 

Key to the success of each venture is the recognition of storytelling at its heart. As a guy who seeks to make his living telling stories, this is a subject near and dear, and where I found the most meaning from a day full of ideas. When Drew Kahn asked Rwandan women how they tell the story of the genocide, they didn’t understand the question. How could they not breathe? How could they not eat? Then he saw for himself, through stomps and claps and songs and hymns to the lost, that theater, that stories, teach all, geometry to the horrors of children being hacked with machetes. 

Note that every theme so far – biergarten culture, a greencode return to walkable streets, old dairy and farming techniques, storytelling as meaning – is a refreshment of the past. An identification of what was inadvisably discarded in the name of progress for incorporation in a desired future. This dichotomy of historic truths versus TED’s oft focus on technology leads us to…   

The Evolution of Education

While few speakers wished to declare our education system broken, it was obvious there are many holes to be filled. We watched a video of a March 2011 TED lecture by Salman Khan, describing his efforts to use video and online software to turn education on its head, so children view lectures at home to free up time to do group “homework” at school. Drop In Nation is addressing the shortfall of assistance to high school drop outs, half the teenage population in Buffalo. No wishy washy Love-All-The-Little-Children venture, Stacey Watson is using the latest research on how the brain learns to pick up the kids whose minds work circularly, not linearly. Karen Armstrong at the Future City Competition is filling a gap in math and science education by getting middle-schoolers to imagine and build urban areas of the 22nd Century.

It struck me that even ideas that focused on the internet and technology were at their heart education based. Remy DeCausemaker’s Open Code and Open Data initiative wants to make the government more transparent, but ultimately as a way to better inform the public, not as an ideal end until itself. And Brandon Kessler, who runs the method to solve big problems, is focusing much of that energy on education and children, using apps to get kids to eat better and revolutionizing the classroom.

Our Next Billionaire

I seek to take nothing away from the other speakers, but let me note that only one of them is likely a future billionaire. That distinction belongs to the yet unmentioned John Bordynuik, CEO of JBI Inc in Niagara Falls, who heads up the most important initiative you’ve never heard of.

Mr. Bordynuik, formerly affiliated with the Ontario Legislature and chemical dreamer, has discovered a way to covert average plastic waste into fuel. Currently 7% of our global plastic waste stream is recycled. The leaves 93%, or 29 millions tons, ready to be turned into a potential 7 billion gallons of low-sulfur fuel that can run engines and factory processes of all varieties. Sound too good to be true? Bordynuik himself listed “Disbelief” as his first stumbling block to success. Currently, the JBI factory in the Falls siphons up the majority of the waste plastic stream of Western New York. I would bet it’s a matter of time before we’re mining our landfills for more.

It would be fitting of such a revolutionary TED lecture that it would incorporate the themes of the other speakers as well. The Plastic2Oil process started as a story, a dream of cleaning up plastic strewn beaches and toxic air across the world. The process is scalable and local – not ever bit of plastic need be driven to the JBI plant. Smaller versions can be installed at each local plastic producing factory, converting the waste stream on site to fuel usable on site. And none of this process would be possible except through a hard science education – chemistry and math and engineering – that is becoming increasingly rare.

5 Responses to “The Report from TEDx Buffalo”

  1. Jesse October 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Nice report, thanks Brian.

    I find it interesting that the “neat” ideas are all micro, local, individual in nature… but schooling somehow eludes that yet again.  Khans ideas are pretty cool (I still dream of logging on to the Academy and learning some stuff) but our kids are all jammed into one-size-fits-all public schools unless we have the financial means to get out.

    It occurred to me reading your report that the only way to enable such a micro-level revolution in education would be to take apart the public school system – give money to the parents who need it (funded by the ‘school’ taxes we all pay now) and let the experimentation begin.

    But then, I’ve long been convinced education tax credits and personalized education are immeasurably better than our current public schools, so I might be banging into my own confirmation bias.

  2. Brian Castner October 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    @ Jesse – I didn’t mean to insinuate that the individual/local efforts were neat and the education one’s were ho-hum. Rather, I’d say they were more past focused vs future focused. Or renewal vs technology. Though you are right (and it didn’t occur to me until I read your comment) that none of speakers sought to transform public education as it is now (Khan somewhat), and instead nibbled around the edges to fill in gaps, be they science or drop outs or healthy eating. Whether that says something nationally, or is simply indicative of this particular TED conference, is hard to say.

  3. Ethan October 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    I still don’t understand why anyone would champion a for-profit, private education over public education, in a Democracy.  No question, our public education system needs serious reform- it wasn’t, in fact, conceived of as a system to educate at all but rather to sort/categorize.  Still, a for-profit system will only further stratify We The People- what good is that?  Education is too vital to a functioning Democracy to hand over to corporate interests.  Much like health care, IMO, but that’s a separate debate.

  4. Brian Castner October 13, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    To all who just saw their comments deleted – on this site, we try to debate ideas, not trade stock picks or praise n’ bash companies to affect share price, one way or the other.

    To Bob S – I misheard Mr. Bordynuik in his presentation. You are correct – he was never an elected member of the legislature, and I have changed the article to reflect that. The error was mine.

  5. Jesse October 17, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    Hey Ethan,

    Slight chance you’ll ever read this and respond: Very few are championing leaving all education to the private with no public involvement.  However, this idea that we all must get the _same_ education is irretrievably flawed.  Every kid learns at their own rate.  Every family has their own priorities.  Every little community has its own ideals.

    Why do we bother trying to jam everyone into the same square box?

    Who was the educator who said if you were trying to create the absolute worst method of educating our kids, this is the system you’d come up with?

    If it costs the public $15-30 THOUSAND bucks per kid per year for public schools, why don’t we GIVE every child $15k and let the parents decide where the kids should go.

    Don’t you think there’d be innumerable non-profits aching to get their hands on that money?

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