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Asking and Answering "What If?" at TEDx MidAtlantic

Otis Rolley, speaks at TEDxMidAtlantic - Andy Babin/ TEDxMidAtlantic
Otis Rolley, speaks at TEDxMidAtlantic - Andy Babin/ TEDxMidAtlantic
Hundreds of entrepreneurs, artists, and thought leaders from the Maryland-DC-Virginia corridor got together in Washington on November 5 to wonder out loud. "What if?" was the single, far-reaching question that challenged those who took part in the second annual installment of TEDx MidAtlantic.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. After beginning as a single event in California in 1984, TEDx conferences and web resources have grown to represent the global, open-source distribution of "ideas worth spreading." TED's incarnation in the Mid-Atlantic started in 2009 in Baltimore, and this past July, following the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, TEDx Oil Spill was convened in Washington as a forum for discussing one of the most severe environmental disasters in US history.

David Troy, one of the founders of TEDxMidAtlantic, is himself based in Baltimore, but he cautioned against making either DC or Charm City the center of gravity for these gatherings where the point is "to bring people who are attracted to ideas together." And in the age of Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, Troy and other key figures at Friday's symposium emphasized the need to bring face-to-face interaction back to its rightful place. Long breaks between rounds of speeches throughout the 12-hour day ensured that TEDx attendees could meet, chat, and above all discuss the ideas being introduced while recharging on coffee and cookies.

The format of TED "talks" contrasts with most traditional lecture series. This edition of TEDx took place at the Harman Center for the Arts, a venue near Chinatown that normally hosts the Shakespeare Theatre Company. They may not have been delivering Hamlet's soliloquies, but TED's simplistic stage became a setting where some of the area's best and brightest could contemplate and connect, with a giant video screen providing visual complements to each talk's key points. For the most part, no lectern obstructed the audience's direct line of sight to the 30 presenters, helping create a sense of collegiality and community in the hall.

Baltimore's contingent in the speaker lineup included: Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Dean Yash Gupta; Matt Mountain, Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute; former Baltimore City Director of Planning Otis Rolley, and Charles Limb, a Hopkins researcher who studies the neurological effects of music.

Given the theme, "What if?" it fell to the presenters to convey a sense of possibility along with specific insights related to their areas of expertise.

Otis Rolley drew loud applause and cheers from the audience for a shout-out to Baltimore as he opened his presentation on a fresh approach to urban renewal.

Rolley envisions a new era where cities like Baltimore can counteract the negative effects of blockbusting and the dismantling of neighborhoods that took place in the name of 20th-century progress. Criticizing the logic that successful urban planners have to move abruptly to erase blighted neighborhoods and start from scratch, Rolley said simply, "That's crap."

He highlighted West Baltimore's 1.4-mile "Highway to Nowhere," which uprooted hundreds of families and businesses a generation ago for a planned extension of I-70 that ended up being abandoned. In September, Governor O'Malley and Mayor Rawlings-Blake broke ground on the demolition of a section of that depressing stretch of roadway, but the scars of runaway urban renewal projects won't be undone by jackhammers alone.

"If you're really serious about rebuilding neighborhoods, you have to invest in structures that value people," Rolley asserted, adding that real social networks still exist in many hard-hit urban areas and can be built upon.

Carey Business School Dean Yash Gupta spoke soon after Otis Rolley. With his institution acting as Visionary Sponsor of the event, Dr. Gupta linked Carey's new full-time Global MBA program to a history of Baltimore as a representative American city. Population declines, erosion of industrial centers, and poor school performance have marked the recent history of many such cities across the country, but questioning assumptions and creating new goals will foster adaptability that could turn municipal and individual fortunes around.

Yet maybe it was a Virginia delegate to this convention who helped put Baltimore's potential into its most appropriate context. Steve Case co-founded America Online in the DC suburb of Vienna, Virginia 25 years ago, and he says that even though Baltimore is showing strong momentum, "The play here is much more regional."

Using the Bay Area's innovation network as a parallel, suburbs and cities alike are needed to make the Mid-Atlantic an attractive place to bring ideas to market. Counties such as Howard (MD) and Fairfax (VA) already play critical roles as spokes around the financial and institutional hubs of Baltimore City and DC proper.

As a cooperative corridor continues to form and foster the growth of transformative services and products, Case hopes more innovators tackle "What if?" questions and bring fantastic solutions into the realm of reality. "One of my frustrations is that too many people now are focused on little ideas," he mused. "I think we need more focus on built-to-last, iconic, change-the-world kinds of companies."

Vew this year's TEDx MidAtlantic talks online at www.tedxmidatlantic.com

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TEDxMidAtlantic Photos

- Otis Rolley, speaks at TEDxMidAtlantic - Andy Babin / TEDxMidAtlantic
- Attendees at TEDxMidAtlantic in Washington, DC - Arianne Teeple
- Organizers David Troy (left) and Nate Mook open the day - David Hobby / TEDxMidAtlantic
- The conference was held at Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, DC - Arianne Teeple
- The ShapeShot 3D Facial Capture System - Arianne Teeple
- Senior Partner, Yoshi Maisami, with intridea web products & services, talks to a visitor at his booth - Arianne Teeple
- Visitors look at brochures at the PBS booth - Arianne Teeple
- TEDxMidAtlantic attendees had the chance to sign an idea board - Arianne Teeple
- Yash Gupta, dean of the Carey Business School at JHU - Erik Couse / TEDxMidAtlantic
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