Category Archives: conferences

The Motor City- Without a Vehicle

“And you may say to yourself, well, how did I get here”- David Byrne.

I found myself in Detroit, Michigan on an unexpectedly pleasant October week asking myself just that question.

On one level, of course I know how I got here: Delta Airlines. I am not that reckless :).

On a whole other level, and the level that David Byrne was clearly referencing in Once in a Lifetime, I was quite confused.

How did the sequence of events in my life come together that lead me here?

To this forum…

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In this city…

With this group of people….


Is there a reason for it? Was it “meant to be” for any reason? Or is it a result of decisions I made aggregated over the course of time? Had I made these decisions differently, prioritized things in my life in a different order, or just paid more attention to a few specific things, would it have lead to a result that is significantly different?

This song was on my mind because last time I was in Detroit, way before I even had the idea to start writing about my travels, I recorded a dance to this music video at the Henry Ford Museum.

This was in 2008, a time when Detroit was at some kind of a low point. The story of Detroit is familiar to many, as it has been written about extensively.

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As the headquarters to America’s three biggest car manufacturers, the city was prominent and prosperous in the middle of the 20th Century. However, it fell on hard times in the later part of the 20th Century due to a combination of customers increasingly buying foreign cars and the decline in manufacturing in the U.S.

Nearly every time anyone writes about Detroit, they write about the city’s economic fortunes, often making points about social issues, economic policies, etc. Even when I came to Detroit with no desire to address the city’s economic misfortune and current attempts at recovery, it is hard to escape. Evidence of it is everywhere.

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Visitors from other parts of the country kept telling me how eerie it felt; the lack of crowds, empty streets and mostly empty bars. Even acknowledging that these were all weeknights, it still felt different than what most people experience in urban areas throughout the country.

The history, as well as current state, of any place is always going to be a part of any travel experience. And, for Detroit, this includes the history people focus on (decline from 1960-2008), but also some of its history prior to this.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Detroit is “The Motor City”, and best known for its role in the automobile industry, much of its history, and many of the interesting attractions, can actually be reached without a motorized vehicle.

Within downtown, one can walk to many of the city’s historical, and current attractions.

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For those willing to walk a mile, the only places that really require vehicular transportation are the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum. The Cobo Center, all the attractions along the Riverfront, Detroit’s historic Opera House, the Fox Theater, the venues for all of Detroit’s sports teams, as well as multiple casinos can all be reached on foot within roughly a mile and a half of each other.

 

Interestingly enough, there is a lot one can do in the “Motor City” without even using a motor!

Much of this was actually built in Detroit after the decline of the auto industry. One of the reasons I visited Detroit in 2008 was to see their newly built baseball stadium, right downtown.

My 2017 visit to Detroit was to attend a conference related to a client I am currently consulting with. The reason is complicated as organizations rarely send consultants to conferences to represent their brand. Consultants are temporary and technically not a member of the organization.

It makes my identity, like Detroit’s identity as a city, feel way more fluid and complex than it was in the past. In the mid 20th Century, a place could have a simplistic identity; The Motor City, The Rubber City, The Iron City, etc. Today’s growing cities, like Denver, have identities that revolve around multiple areas of focus.

Many people are rooting for Detroit to make a comeback. Places like Greektown and Corktown, adjacent and walkable from downtown, are emblematic of a new, different, and more multi-faceted Detroit emerging from the ashes of the decay that plagued the prior half a century. One day, Detroit will find itself anew, unrecognizable to the Detroit of Motown, and people will ask “how did it get here”. They may even ask “My God, what have I done” (from the same song).

The point of David Byrne’s song is that people need to stop and periodically think about their lives, the directions they are headed, their priorities, etc. Otherwise, they will just kind of like drift, with nobody really understanding whey they are where they are, doing what they are doing, with the people they are with.

There are unique things about Detroit. Obviously the large amounts of empty space, some of which is being converted to farmland.

Also, their proximity to the Canadian border, rust belt infrastructure, and continued contributions to the music industry.

 

Attending this conference was a reminder to me. No matter where I go, no matter what I am doing, I cannot help but be me. While we all need to periodically re-think things, come up with new ideas, and even take on a somewhat different identity, there will always be some things fundamental about ourselves that do not change. Detroit’s current transitions reminds me of this.

TEDxMileHigh: Point of Departure

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It’s a mid-summer weekend in sunny Colorado and thousands of people are standing in line, actually various lines that snake all around the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in downtown Denver. They are all waiting to get into the theater to hear a series of talks. These talks will cover a wide variety of subjects. One will be about a big idea, something that may change the world in the coming years. Another may be a personal narrative, and another may even be a musical or poetic performance. The only thing these talks have in common is the main draw. The main reason anyone chose to spend a Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer inside a building as opposed to in the mountains where most Coloradans chose to spend their summer weekends, the association with a brand known as TED.

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Most people have some form of exposure to TED talks, even if they did not purposely seek them out. TED talks are shown at all sorts of conferences and workshops, are shared with friends and colleagues regularly, and are commonly found in web searches. This was the first time I chose to attend a TED event, but I have watched quite a few TED talks in my life. When you are really ill, watching TED talks on YouTube can be the most productive thing to do with your time.

What I notice most about TED talks, both at this conference and online, is the fact that I never get bored during them, despite the fact that I find it quite easy to get bored and antsy during presentations, especially of the standard power point variety. It is quite clear that the people who organize TED events (and TEDx events, which means they are independently organized) follow a formula that takes into account how the human mind works and responds to information as presented. Talks are generally 15-20 minutes, consistent with most scientific understanding of the human attention span. Short videos are presented between talks of wildly differing topics to ease the transition from one topic to another.

Speakers undergo a rigorous three-month long process of preparation to ensure all TED talks meet their standards. As a result, speakers always seem to emphasize the right words, stay poised, and avoiding using filler words. Auditions for speakers for this conference took place in February, and auditions for their next conference, in November, take place at the end of July!

When I think of the brand TED, the first thing I think of is people who think like me. By this, I do not mean people who have the same opinions on certain specific issues or policies. It is more of a general sense of what “TED people” are like. If there is one thing that binds all the people who speak at and participate in this brand known as TED, it is the desire to think beyond the day-to-day routine, the next task or the next purchase. People come here because they want to be inspired. They imagine possibilities beyond what is seen directly in front of them day-to-day. They want to engage their intellectual curiosity. They believe their life will be changed, or even that the world will be changed, by something they hear about and talk about here.

The conference provided a few other perks as well…

Each ticket, regardless of whether it was General Admission, VIP, or All Access, provided a free lunch, to be redeemed at one of many food trucks located in sculpture park behind the Denver Performing Arts Center (which houses the Ellie Caulkins Opera House). There were vendors for many other other organizations too, including ones that focus on environmental activism, sell new flavors of tea, or focus on career development. At the end of the conference, I even got a free pair of eclipse glasses, which I intend to use to view next month’s total solar eclipse.

 

After 22 speakers spread over three sessions, meeting countless interesting people, and a really awesome after-party (there was an after party both nights, but I only attended the Saturday night one due to poor meal planning on my part), I felt something absolutely crazy. I came out of this conference with more energy than when I had arrived. I wasn’t expecting this, as most conferences leave me drained. This one covers even more intellectually and emotionally draining topics than most.

The success of the TED brand seems to run contrary to every piece of business advice I have ever received. I am always told to have a specific product in mind, a narrower purpose, and a specific target audience, like all those blogs that focus on one activity.

Yet, this idea seemed to start with a broader purpose; to inspire and change the world. Then, they thought about humanity and found the most effective way in which to present the information. If TEDxMileHigh Point of Departure taught me anything (other than specifics like how fast a supersonic jet can go) it is to stop worrying about how others achieved, or what status anyone has. It is all about having something to offer that people see as worth-wile, and bringing it to them effectively, regardless of titles or perceived status.