From solutions for world problems to discussions of local issues like the responsible use of land opened up by the I-195 relocation, Sunday’s TEDx event provided intellectual stimulation for anyone willing to venture down the hill to listen to the almost 20 speakers. TED, a nonprofit organization, has become famous for hosting lecturers and sharing the videos online. It also lends its brand name and support to smaller, locally-organized events under the name TEDx.
Jose Gomez-Marquez, the program director for the Innovations in International Health initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, kicked off the event with a discussion of his work creating affordable health care products. Instead of only comparing the U.S. health care system to those of the United Kingdom or France, experts should look at the establishments in Cuba, Nicaragua or even Nigeria, Gomez-Marquez said at the beginning of his lecture.
Some of the most innovative research on affordable health care technologies is happening in the most surprising places, Gomez-Marquez said. Around the world, so-called “MacGyver” doctors and nurses make due with broken and insufficient medical supplies, which forces them to find non-traditional remedies, he said. At these clinics, “you find a group of doctors and nurses who everyday are trained in health care and everyday have to hack their own instruments,” he said.
A toy gun used to help a nurse with an IV, bicycle pumps used as nebulizers for people with asthma and solar sterilizers are all examples of the “do-it-yourself” medical technologies Gomez-Marquez found in his travels. “A device you can hold in your hand is also a device you can use to heal,” he said before stepping off the stage.
Katherine Lucey opened by apologizing to the audience for not being “extraordinary” but said she accepted her typical life because of “the power of the ordinary.” Her work with people who do not have access to electricity, one of the most taken-for-granted modern conveniences, has increased her appreciation of the ordinary, she said.
To highlight her point, Lucey told the story of installing a light into a woman’s home. The woman chose to put one of the three lights into her chicken pen, because she knew chickens produce more eggs and are healthier when they have access to light – a decision her husband opposed. The light led to increased egg production, which provided her the capital to plant a garden. The garden, in turn, brought in enough money for her to buy a goat. The woman now has a separate house for the chickens and uses the vacated chicken coop to teach literacy classes to women in the village, Lucey said.
Something as run-of-the-mill as a single light bulb empowered a woman to ultimately send all of her kids – “even the girls” – to school, Lucey said.
Gomez-Marquez and Lucey’s lectures were part of the first of three portions. The first focused on “world solutions,” while the second highlighted “urban renewal” and the third examined “entrepreneurship.” Within the urban renewal section of the event, Laura Brown-Lavoie read her poetry describing her experience as an urban gardener. Her poem anthropomorphized the land underneath a city and implored its human inhabitants to let it “speak.”
Christine West, a principal at KITE Architects, challenged Providence to honor Roger Williams’ appreciation for the physical space of the city when developing the open space freed by I-195’s relocation. She explained her interest in architecture, quoting the critic Alexandra Lange: “Architecture is the art you cannot avoid.”
West explained her architectural philosophy by positing a series of apparently contrasting concepts. In particular, she disputed the idea that modernism and traditionalism cannot coexist. “Think of the city as a dinner party,” West said. “Buildings need to be polite but have to have personality as well.”
“The best buildings are those that respect their surroundings but aren’t afraid to live,” she added.
The speakers in the final portion emphasized the power of entrepreneurship to affect Providence’s future. Jack Templin – founder and partner of Betaspring, a local startup accelerator, and a member of the board of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation – delivered his three recommendations for making Providence a hub of entrepreneurship. “We’re not proposing Providence rival Silicon Valley – we’re proposing something much more exciting,” Templin said. Providence has the potential to be a supportive, civic-minded center for entrepreneurship between New York and Boston, he said.
To become the kind of hub he imagines, Templin said the city needs to “capture the most creative and most resourceful students, shrink the distance to New York and Boston and keep Providence on.”
Attracting the best students will require Providence to develop a way “to get them made, paid and laid,” Templin said. The city will have to support entrepreneurial endeavors, provide funding and support for the ventures and make the city socially attractive to young people. Templin criticized the 2 a.m. curfew as hurting the city’s allure.
Templin also stressed that Providence needs to keep what makes it unique, while at the same time connecting with nearby cities. New York and Boston are number two and number three in terms of venture capitalism dollars available, he said, and business leaders in Providence need to do a better job reminding executives in those cities that “we’re right between them,” he said.
Providence has always been “that universal haven of the odd, the free and the dissenting,” Templin said, quoting author and Providence native H.P. Lovecraft. The city needs to hold onto its essence of “going against the grain, taking big risks and embracing failure” if it wants to carve out a niche, he added.
Kipp Bradford shed light on society’s “subtle racism” in shunning black people from careers in engineering. He said he was the only black person in his class to graduate with a degree in engineering, a fact representative of the institutionalized racism that surrounds the sciences.
When Bradford was in fourth grade, he wrote a story about his desire to go to Mars, but the teacher told him, “black people don’t do science and math.” Experiences like his, he said, contribute to blacks’ underrepresentation in engineering. Though 13 percent of the population is black, just over three percent of engineers identify as black, he said.