TEDx Comes to Washington

Washington’s take on the legendary ideas conference breaks the mold on Washington’s gatherings.

By: Sarah Zlotnick

Washington loves a good conference. A think-tank-heavy city run by the work-obsessed, the hours we’ve clocked taking in professionally and politically minded panels are too many to count. Though we have a tendency to focus on one part of the spectrum, we do love ideas—so it makes sense for TEDx to come visit.

Founded in the 1980s, TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) gives notable academics, economists, and theorists a stage and 18 minutes to discuss everything from underwater war photography to the biochemical foundations of romance. The lecture series has landed in Washington before, but last Sunday’s localized version—dubbed TEDxPennQuarter—reflected a more playful side of the city. Held at the Newseum, the new hot spot for Washington events from conferences to Top Chef shootings, the conference—themed around “reinvention”—swapped stodgy political strategy and lobbying tactics for an eclectic assortment of lifestyle- and culture-based propositions.

Born to Run author Christopher McDougall started the day with an exhortation to get casual—specifically, to go back to bare feet. His rationale? The Mexican Tarahumara—an isolated tribe whose members can run 100-plus miles in one go—proves man’s evolutionary predisposition to running, provided the shoes come off.

“Get rid of the shoes, get rid of the stress, the injuries, the ailments,” McDougall said. The author, whose research has allowed him to run previously unimaginable distances, has a reputation for doing barefoot sprints through Pennsylvania Amish country.

For Kes Sampanthar, director of media strategy for Cynergy Systems and organizer of the event, the place to play is in textbooks, which he says can be more fun by giving thought to “motivational design.” Classroom books can read like the Da Vinci Code, he said, if they’re designed with information gaps (which essentially function like cliffhangers) to keep readers moving through material. He insisted that the future of narrative structure isn’t “all about games,” but his emphasis on “engaging” user experience suggests that textbook makers could learn something from the folks behind blockbusters such as the video game Grand Theft Auto.

Even some of the day’s more political events had a personal twist: Julian Mulvey, a Democratic media consultant who has worked with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, explained how he helped win a 2009 Illinois House of Representatives race. In that election, Joan Krupa, who had a solid political base in the white community, seemed to be a shoo-in. Her opponent, a 27-year-old newcomer named Jehan Gordon, had a shoplifting record, a high absentee rate in a previous political position, and had been caught attempting to fabricate a college degree. But Mulvey said Gordon won the race because of those errors, not in spite of them.

“In today’s campaigns, authenticity, admitting mistakes, and humanizing the person is more important than ever,” he said.

And like political intangibles, the Passenger’s resident drinkmaster, Derek Brown—who studied anthropology in college—used the Sazerac cocktail to demonstrate why the most important ingredients of today’s drinks are, more often than not, the ones we can’t taste.

“It doesn’t all have to do with the cocktail itself,” Brown explained. The key element of the Sazerac—rye whiskey—isn’t a bitter or a tonic, but a throw of the glass and communal yell of the name.

“[Reinventing the cocktail] is like reinventing relationships,” Brown continued, after adding the final ingredients. “It takes time.”

The same is true of Washington conferences. But TEDx just might be a start.

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