An underdog city raises its head at TEDxSomerville

Patrick Rogers Photography
Patrick Rogers Photography

It’s no secret that Somerville – “the little city that could,” as the Globe’s Renee Loth called it in a January column – is having a moment.

Sure, the community of artists and makers that give the city its reputation as a hip and happening place is nothing new. But in recent years, as Boston works to rebrand itself as the innovation capital of the Eastern seaboard, Somerville (full disclosure: I live there and love it) has been gaining visibility, thanks in part to the approaching Green Line extension as well as Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s “SomerVision” urban renewal project. And since Greentown Labs’ move from Boston’s Fort Point to Somerville’s Union Square area this past fall, it’s become clear that Somerville will be a key player in the Boston area’s coalescent innovation ecosystem.

Seen in that light, TEDxSomerville, which took place this past Sunday at Brooklyn Boulders, felt like a statement of purpose from a city that, after years of laboring on the sidelines, is finally stepping into the spotlight and announcing its presence to the world.

The doors opened at 11:30, giving early arrivers 90 minutes to wander the venue, a massive rock climbing gym that opened last summer in the Ames Business Park. The cavernous space is riddled with semi-hidden nooks and crannies, and on Sunday every one was packed with surprises. One side room held several works of interactive light-art; another, a photo booth in which attendees could be photographed with a garland of colored lights. The stage stood in the center of the gym, before a multicolored semicircle of Yogibo bean bag chairs on which attendees lounged.

The Ames Business Park, incidentally, is the string of buildings formerly occupied by the the Ames Envelope Factory, once Somerville’s largest employer, which shut down in 2010. Residents of the space now include Brooklyn Boulders, Artisan’s Asylum, Greentown Labs, AirCraft Aerial Arts, and numerous others. Nascent craft brewery Aeronaut Brewing Company, which hosted the after-party, will be the newest Ames inheritor when it opens its doors to the public later this year.

The theme of the day was “Movement,” a richly polysemic word that allowed for a wide diversity of interpretation. The first speaker, dancer and “freestyle embodiment teacher” Aaron Cantor, took it literally, waxing poetic on the connection between body and mind into his hands-free mic while doing splits and handstands across the stage. The second, author and storyteller Matthew Dicks, took a more metaphorical angle, riffing autobiographically on the way life opens up into a “possibility tree” when you decide to say yes to everything.

Things then took a turn for the practical. Craig Foley, cofounder of inCharge Energy, spoke about paths to a sustainable energy economy. Union Square Main Streets director Mimi Graney zoomed in on Somerville itself, with a heartfelt and well-argued defense of the city’s “gritty” postindustrial structures, many of which have found second life as multi-use spaces like Fringe Union and, of course, the Ames Business Park itself. Graney encouraged the audience to “look lovingly upon the seemingly ugly,” and to see Somerville’s growing cachet as “more than a dollar sign.” Somerville city planner George Proakis talked about ways in which better zoning regulations can encourage urban vibrancy. One memorable takeaway from his talk: “If you plan for cars, you get cars; if you plan for people, you get people.”

After a 45-minute break in which attendees stretched their legs and snacked on refreshments from Whole Foods, TEDxSomerville continued with a series of talks that tackled broader issues like childhood obesity and fair treatment of childcare professionals. Then came the afternoon’s star-power moment: an appearance by local artist and musician Amanda Palmer, who took the stage after a screening of her controversial TED talk “The Art of Asking.” The plan was for her to answer questions from the audience, but on request from an attendee she spent most of her time onstage giving an impassioned performance of her song “Ukulele Anthem” that brought the crowd to its feet.

The last speaker, 20-year-old wunderkind writer and art educator Miranda Aisling, provided the perfect capstone. Aisling (whom I profiled last year for Scout Somerville) is the author of Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something, a self-published manifesto about “the process, struggle, and vital importance of getting started.” She finished her talk by encouraging attendees to ask, when meeting someone, not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” but “What do you make?”

Overall, the conference gave the impression of a city in which innovation is something inseparable from the vital textures and economic realities of everyday life. There was no talk of funding rounds or exit strategies. Innovation, in Somerville, means building things, preferably with one’s hands, and exploring new and better ways to live.

TEDxSomerville organizer C. Todd Lombardo, who also organized the first TEDxSomerville in 2012 as well as two earlier TEDx events in Spain, felt the conference was an apt declaration Somerville’s identity. Innovation “doesn’t have to be about the next app or the next big buzzword,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the next Facebook or the next Twitter… Silicon Valley definitely wants that, and Kendall Square might kind of want that, but Somerville doesn’t want that. Somerville is like, ‘What’s the next cool thing that we’re making?’”

Photo licensed under Creative Commons. See more photos of the TEDxSomerville here.

Nick Cox is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville.
Follow Nick on Twitter - Google+