The first sign that TEDxPhilly would not be a typical boring convention was the guy in kelly-green Air Jordans chatting up a gal with a lip ring at the Kimmel Center near a grandfatherly figure with a silver ponytail clutching the New Yorker.
The second? The way-cool handouts whipped up by graphic designers who believe even name tags can be works of art.
This, folks, is Philadelphia's creative class. Its members may live and work in a city obsessed with history, but they're too busy shaping tomorrow to wallow in yesterday.
TED, for the uninitiated, stands for technology, entertainment, and design, the themes around which big names share bigger ideas at $6,000 conferences where speakers get just 20 minutes to mesmerize.
Bono, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert have all given TED Talks. So have lesser-known educators and scientists whose motivational messages on www.ted.com get raves from millions seeking work-life pick-me-ups.
TEDx brings the "ideas worth spreading" to the local level for a fraction of the cost. The gatherings put ordinary people doing extraordinary things up on stage, to be admired and exalted.
If TEDx does nothing else, it reminds attendees to be proud of where they live - no small feat in a town as hard on itself as this one.
TEDxPhilly organizer Roz Duffy's goals were both simple and audacious: "Get a bunch of interesting people in the same room and see what happens."
So what happened? Speaker after speaker took a rapt audience to places where passion dictates decisions and cynicism is forbidden.
Chris Lehmann, principal of the innovative Science Leadership Academy (www.scienceleadership.org), posited that "high school shouldn't stink" and debunked conventional thinking that educators' chief duty is to prepare students for the workplace.
"Don't let anyone tell you that the purpose of school is working," Lehmann argued. "The purpose of school is to learn how to live."
Trumpeter Stanford Thompson said little about the life-changing power of music he's sharing with inner-city students in his program, Tune Up Philly (www.stanfordthompson.com). Instead, he let the youngsters tell the story themselves. Their spirited performance of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" had the audience sniffling through a standing ovation.
Chef Michael Solomonov (www.zahavrestaurant.com) told self-deprecating jokes and explained how, surprisingly, Middle East violence had led him to cook the food he was meant to cook.
Being green sounds great, Gilbert noted, but without a set of standards, "how do we tell the difference between a good company and good marketing?"
So, I ask Stephanie Kish, director of operations for the nonprofit Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia (
), what does TEDx mean for a normal working woman? Why are you here?
"I'm here," Kish replied without hesitation, "for inspiration. It's easy to get bogged down by our financial reality. It's depressing."
Foundations, she explained, have less and less money to give to arts groups. And in a recession, theater lovers stay home, forcing administrators like her to conceive of new and creative ways to fill seats.
I asked Kish to e-mail me with a TEDx postmortem. Like the stars of the show, she did not disappoint.
"People are capable of amazing things," Kish concluded. "I may not achieve the same heights . . . but I can still integrate that inspiration into my own life and work in small but meaningful ways."