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Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

At TEDxColumbus, Michael Bongiorno led us down to the subway, up to the train tracks, across the bridge and inside the cloverleaf so we could see what we usually don’t: the residual and overlooked spaces of urban life. He not only got us to look, but also to re-imagine:

What could this be that it isn’t today?

Ask this question and an abandoned mill can be a concert hall and a BMX track, a silo a scuba tank, and a city can be more than “good enough,” it can be great—healthy, vibrant, exemplary. Columbus, says the architect, principal at the DesignGroup and all-around civic enthusiast, is positioned to be that city. From his campaign to have Columbus designated a UNESCO City of Design to his contributions to the cityscape—the Grange Insurance Audubon Center is just one example—Bongiorno’s been busy turning potential into reality.

In the months following his TEDxTalk, the idea of the “Overlooked” has picked up some steam; it will be the theme of Design Weeks 2013, the city festival, part of idUS, promoting and celebrating local design (the “s” added to reflect what is now a month, rather than week, long event). Also, in late January, the Columbus Museum of Art unveiled plans for the final phase of its renovation project. The expansion and added wing is the work of the DesignGroup, with Bongiorno as Lead Designer and, when necessary, Lead Duck. (…more on that below.)

Eager to get a closer look at the Museum project and also to find out more about the infusion of energy around the overlooked, we recently interviewed Michael Bongiorno. He is originally from Brooklyn—“not the Brooklyn of hipsters and irony,” as we know from his talk, “but the Brooklyn of The Warriors”—so, first, we asked him about his connection to Columbus…

“I have lived in Columbus for about 21 years and I’m not leaving anytime soon. I love it here. I came here because of work and because it was a growing university town.”

“Overlooked,” the theme of your TEDx Talk, is also the theme of Design Weeks 2013 (which you co-founded). Can you tell us how that decision came about?  
Actually, I can’t take credit for making that connection. My wife and Design Week co-founder, Sarah [Bongiorno] and one of my Design Week co-planners, Stephanie Hayward, both came up with the idea at the same time. Our core planning just started running with it…well, maybe jogging. The important thing to note is that Sarah and Stephanie both saw my TEDxTalk, were inspired by it, it ignited an idea in their minds, and they wanted to build upon it…which meant it truly embodied the notion of an “idea worth spreading.”

What will it mean, in terms of events, speakers, location, etc., to have “overlooked” as a theme?  First, without letting the cat entirely out of the bag, we are planning a Design Weeks signature program (similar to the Ideabook project) and asking participants to find overlooked spaces in Columbus and imagine possibilities for them.

In addition, we will be inviting collaborators to host their own events, posing the question: What does “overlooked” mean to you and how can you create an event or program that explores this idea? It could be the physical environments that I was describing in my TEDx talk or it could be about a topic important to a specific collaborator. Our definition of design is broader than just the physical environment: it could be about dealing with the lack of creative thinking in education, it could be about the public transportation void, it could be overlooked opportunities in food systems, etc. The goal is to create a dialogue that will lead to some change in what we feel is overlooked, neglected or wasted in our city, and by extension, all cities and communities.

And, now that it seems people will be looking at the overlooked, what does it mean to you, personally?  
Well, I hope that our citizens, and not just designers, will develop a critical eye toward their surroundings and not just take for granted that the man-made physical world they see around them has been thought through. I would like people to ask tougher questions, expect better than a passing grade, and teach themselves to see. I believe that once we achieve a level of collective awareness about what constitutes a quality environment we will actually achieve some sense of “culture,” in a civic sense. I know that sounds heady, but all great cities are self-aware. All it takes is higher expectations and asking the right question. Just good enough is never good enough for great places.

Can you give us an example of architecture within the city of Columbus that is better than “good enough?”  
I love the new Main Street bridge. It is innovative, exemplifies a boldness of gesture and simplicity of form, it makes circulation understandable and fun, and it provides dynamic vistas while crossing it and viewing it from afar. Simply put, the bridge is not just a way to get from point A to point B; it is an experience.

The Mayor caught a lot of flak for how much the bridge cost, but his unwavering support of this project, to me (as it should be for all of us), was a sign of an enlightened decision maker. Cities have always had and always will have other pressing budgetary constraints and priorities to contend with. But I would argue that great cities, cities we love to visit, have really strong self-identities, a sense of civic pride, a sense of place and know that investments must also be made in the quality of their physical environments – their people places. Great civic, business, and cultural leaders who know the difference between an investment in quality over mediocrity, and have the conviction to make it happen, are what makes memorable cities. Great design does not start with great designers; it starts with great clients.

Speaking of clients, tell us about the Museum project. First off, what is your role and were you involved in Phase I and II, as well?  
I am the lead designer and also a principal in the firm. I would be remiss if I did not mention that I lead a fantastic and talented team that I could brag about all day long. Our firm was not involved with Phase 1 and 2, as those were pure restoration projects done by a firm that specializes in preservation. Although we were well aware of those projects as they were happening given our close relationship with the museum.

Does the idea of the overlooked play out in any way in this project?
Great question. I think the museum is overlooked, in a sense, physically and culturally. While it is a beautiful building, the historic structure is rather small and understated in comparison to museums in similar sized cities. It is also seemingly impenetrable. Therefore they struggle with physical presence: “We could be a library, we could be a mausoleum…”

Physically, they are practically hidden behind the looming mass of the State Auto insurance Company building when approaching from the east. You drive past it before you even know it’s there, which is a problem when you consider the volume of visitor traffic that exits I-71 at Broad heading into Downtown. As part of the expansion project, they wanted to announce themselves to Broad Street, hence the siting of the building in relation to Broad and our creation of “cinematic facades” to engage the public realm on both Broad and Gay.

Culturally, the museum struggles, as many cultural institutions do, with maintaining their audience and remaining relevant to them. It was CMA’s stated desire to create a place where people from all walks of life could come and just “hang out.” Hence, a lot of semi-public outdoor space. The store and café are in prominent locations relative to the entry and surrounding neighborhood. The building design, then, is a reflection of the museum’s ambition to be more visible, relevant, and connected to the community as a meeting point between art, the public and the physical city. In doing so, they are capturing an audience that may be overlooked and that may have overlooked the museum in the past.

Can you share what thrills you the most about this project?
I have both personal feelings about it and a broader appreciation for the cultural implications of a project like this. I felt the burden of responsibility to create something dynamic and of its time, while being sensitive to the nuances of the particularities of the local context. I will say, with a fair amount of confidence, that it will be a really cool addition to the city!

I believe its design is international in sensibility and quality and will serve as a high watermark for great locally produced design. Raising the credibility of local design talent in the eyes of our largest institutions is something a number of designers have been toiling at, maddening and thanklessly, for a long time; I hope this project pushes us that much further along our journey and that our client base will stop reaching for the coasts to get what they can get right here in Columbus.

Are there elements to the design you are especially proud of?  
I think it will start a lot of debate, in fact, it already has and I believe all good architecture should create dialogue. That is the point of living in a dynamic city, and not in a sensory deprivation tank lined with brick wallpaper.

There are so many fun and interesting things about the design that it is hard to name a favorite. Materially, the pre-patinated copper skin on the upper gallery of the building is going to be sublimely beautiful and something Columbus has never seen before. While copper is a durable and traditional material we employed it in a novel way. We have created a unique feature we are calling “cinematic facades” that connect the galleries and special events spaces to the garden and surrounding neighborhood, engaging the public realm in a way the museum has never been able to before. I believe the new entry court and the sculpture garden designed by MKSK is going to be a community jewel. The museum’s new café will open out onto the terrace via a large glass wall that can open fully in good weather.

And what about challenges?
Just how far out to Broad Street the addition should encroach was the single most polarizing conversation on the project. A good number of stakeholders were mortified that we would extend anywhere past the original historic structure. In order to allay everyone’s fears, Museum director Nannette Maciejunes asked us to help articulate the rationale. We created sightline studies that showed how the State Auto Insurance building would block the view of the addition before the addition blocked the view of the central and most important part of the original museum building. That wasn’t enough proof, so one hot summer day we gathered everyone on Broad Street. I asked them to line up behind me and, like a family of ducks, we walked single file while I narrated the approach: “Okay, right about now you are seeing the upper gallery cantilever, and next you are seeing, etc.” It must have made for a strange scene. The good news is that most came away convinced of the location, others went away still unconvinced; but this is a valuable lesson for any architect: you can’t make everyone happy and you will go insane trying.


A video introduction to the Museum project can be seen here.  To read Bongiorno’s case for Columbus as a UNESCO city of design, check out his columbusunderground article. And to learn more about the two major organizations behind Design Week visit The Center for Architecture and Design and AIA Columbus.

CMA images care of DesignGroup, Ideabook image care of DesignWeek

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at


Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

In her TEDxTalk, Dr. Laura Hill revealed a breakthrough that counters not just conventional wisdom, but human instinct. For anyone whose life has been touched by an eating disorder, what Hill has to say is essential. It’s also essential for anyone who is interested in how we look at problems and how we solve them.

Fascinated, a bit stunned, and full of questions after her October talk, I knew Follow This would soon be following-up on Dr. Hill. But before I share our conversation, a quick review:

According to Hill, just as things go haywire in the pancreas when diabetics eat, things go haywire in the brain when anorexics eat. Food sets in motion a psychological storm both painful and noisy—and you can see that storm on an fMRI. Hunger and taste centers remain dull. Dopamine is flat, the amygdala gets agitated and the decision-maker, the prefrontal cortex, is confused. Meanwhile, the area of the brain responsible for our sense of our external self, or physical body, is showing a disturbance “off the charts.”

So…the patient who insists she is not hungry, that the food doesn’t taste right, that the day is easier without it, and “eating is bad for me,” has—it seems—been right all along. This is extraordinary.

It’s also unworkable, or so one would think. Food is not optional. Yet, this flip in accepted thinking is helping a number of Hill’s clients. Out the window goes all the talk of enjoying food, the body’s desire for food, and attempts to normalize the diet, and in its place food has become medicine. Just as an endocrinologist prescribes insulin, Dr. Hill prescribes meals, working with each client to find the dosage that works. What she says now is: Take your medicine, it won’t taste good and there will be side effects, but it will keep you alive.

This discovery is life-changing for those with anorexia, as well as for their loved ones. It also reveals something interesting about how all our brains work. It took a really advanced and expensive technology to ask a simple question: What if the patients are saying something that is actually true?

Of course, to seriously consider this, one has to override personal experience and something basic to human survival. I don’t mean to oversimplify—I, for instance, am not going to go on a search for the aliens that are speaking to my aunt through her microwave—but when facing a problem, especially a particularly intractable one, it’s not a bad reminder to ask what, and who, we believe and don’t believe, as well as, what is the question we are not asking?

I Had No Idea!
Most of us know about anorexia, even have one or two educated opinions about it, so when I spoke to Dr. Hill I had to ask, Why hadn’t we heard about this before?

“It’s just now coming into the public domain,” Hill answered. Her TEDxTalk is a start, along with the new Family Eating Disorder Manual. Published in August with Hill as the lead author along with colleague David Dagg, it includes two chapters on the neurobiology of eating disorders.

The research, though, has been on-going for quite some time, but 2009 was a seminal year. That’s when Walter Kaye of UC San Diego published the article that, as Hill describes it, “introduced and set in course a new direction in our understanding of anorexia nervosa.” Over time, more studies added more information, and Hill has been working with Kaye’s team to interpret and chart the results and “pilot” new approaches to treatment. Hill says it’s been gratifying to have the patients part of the solution: “I would take the results to them and say ‘it looks like at this stage of the illness you may not be registering taste’ and the client’s are going ‘uh…yeah’—well,” she pauses, “we had never thought to ask the clients that clinically.”

As the neurobiology became clearer, Hill had her own I-had-no-idea moment. When she would share this feeling with her clients, “they would just start crying” she recounts, “and they would say, ‘finally, finally somebody is understanding—now, can you tell my family?’ ”


So Is The Media Off The Hook?
If eating disorders are neurobiological, does this effect the prevailing theory that they are sociological—tied to media portrayals and body image? Yes, says Hill, but not how you might think: “The biology actually helps us to understand the sociology and the psychology.” With eating disorders the disturbance in the brain is so great that decision-making centers can be almost incapacitated, which increases vulnerability to social messages—and the social messages are invariably to diet and to be skinny. “Somebody looks to the external to help guide them,” explains Hill, “only to find that the external is helping to make them sicker.”


What About Psychological Explanations Related To Control?
To family members witness to the rigidity and pickiness, anorexia can sure look like an expression of a controlling personality. “In fact,” says Hill, “it may be a 180—I’m so out of control, I’m literally eating blind.” And just as a blind person perhaps counts steps and taps with a cane or is guided by a dog, a person with anorexia has to tap their way through eating. “That’s when the light bulb really went off for me,” says Hill, “when I saw what was going on in the brain, I understood it’s not at all about being controlling, it’s about trying to get some control.”

From there, it was a short step to another realization: “Let’s use what appears to be the problem and make it part of the solution.” Taping into the rigidity and the patient’s existing rituals around eating, she and her team created healthy rituals. “We work out a plan—Plan A, Plan B, Plan C—they eat it, get used it, they don’t have to decide or question how many bites, and we find their anxiety comes down and the volume of the noise in their head may come down too.”


About That Noise In Their Head…
Hill sampled a recording of that noise during her talk. Asked how she created it, she was quick to first credit her co-author David Dagg for the idea, then explained how she has notebooks full of her clients’ descriptions (“overwhelmed,” “cloudy,” “vicious,” “loud,” “louder”) and phrases (“Fat, fat, fat;” “you stupid idiot;” “what to write with?” “I can’t handle that;” “I’m so full;” “I don’t feel anything”). Her clients would critique each version, until eventually the recording closely mirrored their experience. She’s currently creating a similar recording for her clients with binge eating disorder. “They tell me it sounds differently,” she says.


Bulimia & Other Eating Disorders
Hill shares that there are not yet many fMRIS for bulimia and ever fewer for binge eating. fMRIS are expensive; cohorts need to be small. Anorexia presents similarly, but bulimia, says Hill, is “heterogeneous,” so that what proves true for one cohort may not extend to all the various presentations of the illness. Nonetheless, Hill is working on a similar brain map for bulimia but, she says, “there are many gaps.”


Changing Minds
For 20 years, cognitive behavioral therapy has shown to be a valid form of treatment for bulimia, but there has not yet been one well-researched, single, effective treatment for anorexia. Says Hill: “We kept assuming that when re-fed, patients would feel better and get on with life and we kept seeing relapse and we didn’t understand exactly why.” [Relapse rates are high; anorexia also has the highest death rate of all mental illnesses.]

This suggests that should Hill’s pilot approach prove medically valid, physicians might be quick to adopt it. Hill fully expects that patients will be educating their doctors. “As they text and tweet about their own experiences,” she says, “it’s not going to take long for this to surface.”


What Say The Naysayers?
Neurobiology changes the paradigm so much, initially there’s been “a bit of a wait-a-minute-wait-a-minute reaction,” says Hill. “But,” she continues, “for 30 years we’ve known this is bio-psycho-social phenomenon, it’s just that we’ve looked at the biology as a consequence, not that it might be a contributing factor of the illness or the extent to which it is actually helping to maintain the illness.”


Which Came First?
Whether the neurobiology is the product of starvation or the cause, Hill says, “the jury’s still out.” In the acute stage when body mass is low, biology is clearly a driver of the disease. But looking at those who have recovered and maintained a stable body weight for over a year, some start to get back the ability to taste. Some don’t. Even those that do don’t experience pleasure in eating.


Will This Breakthrough Advance New Medicines?
“The field is looking at medications,” says Hill, “we have seen, though, that the SSRIs [commonly prescribed] don’t even touch the disturbance in the brain.” They are searching for ones that will bring it down, but, she adds, “bless their hearts they get it both ways—meds have side effects.” Along with continued 3D imaging, genetic-based testing may uncover new avenues for developing effective medicines.


After TEDxColumbus
Asked what kind of response her talk is getting she says, “It started from the moment I stepped off the stage.” A father came up to her tears thanking her for helping him understand his daughter. A woman who had anorexia told her that she has always had to eat the same meal and that this has always embarrassed her. “But now,” she said to Dr. Hill, “I think it’s okay, it’s as okay as anyone.”

Hill has been careful about bringing these new findings to the public. “It’s been my caution because I didn’t want to interpret anything erroneously,” she explains. But, “the beauty in this,” she says, “is people discovering—when they hear this and say, I had no idea!”

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at


Follow This, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

Does the goateed man behind the medical “dummy” in this photograph from the Sunday Columbus Dispatch look familiar?

Yes, that is Reade Harpham.

The industrial designer who leads the human-centric design team at Battelle was also on the first ever roster of TEDxColumbus speakers.

That was in 2009.

In 2011, TEDxColumbus presenter Alex Bandar reminded us of Harpham’s inventiveness in his own talk, “The Need to Make.”

Not only Harpham, other “alumni” recently in the media glow (traditional, social or otherwise) include Theresa Flores, Barbara Fant and Michael Wilkos.

In an occasional series, of which this is the first, FOLLOW THIS will collect and share newsworthy moments in the lives of TEDxColumbus community members.

• For Harpham, the recent Dispatch article highlights his work for Battelle testing medical devices in “the wild,” so to speak, scrutinizing their functionality when in the hands of real people (end-users) in real world situations (end-use). An excerpt from the article:

“You should know what the users are going to do, you should know what the errors could be, what the misuse should be, and (you) should have designed that out of the system as you go,” Harpham said.

• Publicity is part of Theresa Flores’ mission to bring awareness (and an end) to human trafficking. She’s told her story over and over again on stages and in front of cameras (and at TEDxColumbus 2011) but earlier this year it was Ohio Governor John Kasich who shared her story as part of his State of the State speech, then presented her with one of the first ever Courage Awards:

Gov Kasich- The Governor’s Courage Awards Clip from TEDxColumbus on Vimeo.

A few months later, Flores was again with Kasich, this time in the Governor’s Office, as he signed the executive order creating the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force:

Gov Kasich-Fighting Human Trafficking in Ohio Clip from TEDxColumbus on Vimeo.

• If you saw Michael Wilkos’ 2010 TEDxTalk or if you read about him here you know that his enthusiasm for the city of Columbus tends a bit towards the unbridled. Imagine, then, how he must have felt last month when presented with an award with the following inscription:

This award is presented to Michael in recognition of his efforts advancing the mission of the Neighborhood Design Center and his unending demonstration of citizenship to Columbus. We thank him for his dedication to our organization and his selfless contributions to our community’s neighborhoods.

Al Berthold Executive Director of The Neighborhood Design Center presented the Busser Award to Wilkos on August 6, 2012 (looking on is past NDC President Ruth Gless).

• Barbara Fant, who we featured in this post back in April, received a nice surprise last month. Invited to The Columbus Foundation on the 9th of August, she walked into Davis Hall to see her own words etched onto the wall. Next to the delightfully surprised Fant is Foundation President and CEO Doug Kridler.



The excerpt is from her poem “Today Beginning Again”—commissioned by The Foundation and shared at the Columbus Bicentennial. You can watch it here:

Photo of Reade Harpham by Tom Dodge, Columbus Dispatch; Photos of Michael Wilkos and Barbara Fant by Nick George, The Columbus Foundation

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at


Follow This

[by Kendra Hovey]

At the TEDGlobal live viewing event earlier this summer, I learned that product piracy is cheap market research; amazing technology and glitches are a paired set (i.e., live streams will be interrupted); the First Minister of Scotland is a likeable guy; and Loth’s meeting room chairs are really quite comfortable. I also picked up stuff on “System D” (aka, the informal economy) and Scottish inventiveness, as well as the ingredient list for making a high-performing school. But before getting deeper into any of this, I’d first like to share some advice about these TED viewing events—for the benefit of my future self, if no one else.

Helpful Piece of Advice #1: Clear your schedule. Unless you shell out the $6,000 admission fee or $995 for a TED Live membership, these live viewing events (free, with snacks!) are the only way to see the TED Conferences. From TED.comFAQ: “While some of the Talks do end up online, many of them don’t. Moreover, the timing of the talks coming online are not pre-determined, so some Talks may go online but not for a few months to a year.” In other words, if, like me, you have to leave early, don’t think, “Oh, I’ll just watch it online,” because you will be disappointed.

Helpful Piece of Advice #2: Clear your head. To maximize the experience, schedule in a post-event buffer. Don’t, for instance, step out of Loth straight into the tyranny of the day’s errands and emails, helpless as the swirl of thoughts, ideas and energy are shoved further and further to the back recesses of the mind where, you can only hope, they’ll be able to find enough nutrients to someday regrow.

And if from this helpful advice you have extrapolated that everything I have to say is based on only about 10 talks (total=75) and also filtered by a trip to the grocery store, 300+ emails, a chat with my mother-in-law, the movie Chimpanzee, and a post-blackout refrigerator cleanout, then you would be correct.

So then, some thoughts:

Open Season. Overall, TED organizers should be pretty happy: their speakers were good about sticking to the event’s theme—“Radical Openness”—both rooting out and dreaming big about what it is to be living in this increasingly open and ultra-connected world, generating reactions that range from unbridled excitement to panic now.

On the unbridled side, there is futurist Dan Tapscott who says openness is not up for debate. The information leak is sprung; it will not be plugged. And this has unleashed an opportunity for empowerment and freedom, bar none. It’s also gonna make us way, way smarter. Why? Because of “networked intelligence.” Although, a bunch of brains working to solve a problem will require a few things: collaboration, sharing, transparency and integrity. Checks on the latter are, Tapscott suggests, built into the open world: “You need to have integrity as part of your bones and your DNA as an organization, because if you don’t, you’ll be unable to build trust, and trust is a sine qua non of this new network world.”

More on the alarm bell side of things is public intellectual Ivan Krastev from Bulgaria—also known as “the most pessimistic country” on earth (Krastev quotes a study titled, “The Happy, the Happy and the Bulgarians”). What went right in recent history, says Krastev, is also what went wrong. 1960s-era human rights allowed for a culture of dissent and non-conformity (+), but left us without a collective purpose (–). The 1980s market revolution and spread of democracy (+) coincided with a huge increase in inequality (–). Krastev repeats the call for transparency, though he strips the word of all its bright, happy sheen, defining it as, essentially, “the management of mistrust.” And where the optimistic Tapscott says, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” the Bulgarian leaves us with this parting thought: “There is a big shadow where there is much light.”

Makers Mark. With openness comes alternatives and innovations, as well as fun toys and celebrity muting devices. “You don’t need anyone’s permission to make something great,” says Massimo Banzi, who in his talk shares some of what the “turbo-charged” DIY maker movement can, well, make (and, if you’re thinking pencil caddy, think harder).

Not just objects, this also applies to systems, suggests, Robert Neuwirth who talks about the workings, currencies and values of “System D”—the informal economy of flea markets, pirated products, corner kiosks, etc.—reminding us that even the most monolithic seeming institution is an option, to which there are alternatives.

Data Stream. Whether it was questions, examples or warnings, the topic of data access, ownership and use was ever-present. There was Malte Spitz who asked, then sued, for all the personal data his mobile company had on him. A settlement yielded 35,800 lines of data, or 6 months of his life, which you can relive here. It’s kinda cool, but it tells Spitz that “you have to fight for self-determination in the digital age.”

Andreas Schleicher’s work demonstrates what data can accomplish when you have a meaningful measure. First, his team tested students worldwide for the ability to extrapolate and apply existing knowledge to a new situation; then they examined the school systems that educated the students. Correlating the two sets of results, they asked what qualities tend to churn out thinking students and then they shared this list of qualities with the world, for folks to do with it what they will. The qualities include: a learner-centered rather than curriculum-centered approach; an embracing of diversity; high-quality teachers that are supported; high standards combined with teacher autonomy to best decide how to help students get there; and a bunch more.

Cool Stuff. What’s TED without gadgets? At this TED there was the “eyeborg.” The device (part of which is embedded in the skull) allows Neil Harbisson, born with total color blindness, to hear color. What’s interesting is not just what he can do (such as, create songs out of the color landscape on a dinner plate, “so…we can have, like, Lady Gaga salads”) but how it changes how he thinks (what is beauty when someone looks attractive and sounds ugly?). This one is short, fun and online, but beware it might make you want to cyborg yourself.


Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at


Follow This


Ruth Milligan posed the following questions to David Staley to catch up on his idea of Universitas, an idea that  he brought to life after TEDxColumbus: What’s Next? in 2010.


Has Universitas met or exceeded your expectations?  If so, how?

Very much exceeded. My TEDx talk was an idea, a vision for the city of Columbus. You, Ruth, suggested I end my talk with a call to action, to urge the audience to join me in “connecting the creatives and innovators of the city.” I was gratified that 75 people at that event signed up and nearly 200 in total have wanted to be a part of this movement. Still amazed that, almost two years later, people still wish to gather…


Have you seen any ideas transformed out of a Universitas gathering?

Not as many as I’d like. I think individuals benefit, but no identifiable collective creativity has occurred.  Though, Kim Kiehl [COSI Senior Vice President & Chief Operating and Strategy Officer] recently told me that it’s the highlight of her month.

Of course, at Reader’s Roundtable Kim Kiehl did mention that COSI’s recent Art & Science Day was inspired by Universitas…. In any case, any insights into what it might take to make “identifiable collective creativity” happen?

I have joked that Universitas is the opposite of eHarmony, by which I mean that we do not wish to connect those who are compatible, we seek to connect those who are…well, contracompatible is the term we have been using. I have also been using the example of “Steve Jobs’ bathrooms” as another analogy. At Pixar, Jobs designed the space with only one set of bathrooms. He did this to assure that everyone in the company would at some stage have to congregate in the same location—the engineers and computer programmers and the artists and the animators would all be forced together. New and unexpected ideas emerge when these the contracompatible are connected. Universitas is an attempt to architect such a contracompatible space.
What has been one of your favorite Universitas moments?

In September 2011, Chef Bryan Loveless brought in 20 ingredients and, without the benefit of a set recipe, invited the Universitas group to “make something special to eat.”  We could only use the ingredients at hand and whatever dish we created had to have an emotional theme attached to it. The evening was the brainchild of Chef Loveless and Rob Sullivan, from PNC bank. I loved the idea of a collaboration between a chef and a banker; that is the essence of Universitas, I think.  The evening was an unqualified success: a room full of artists, designers, entrepreneurs, and educators connected together to become chefs. And ev

erything we made that evening was delicious.

Where do you see Universitas headed next?  I’d love to replicate that idea each month:  I would want to bring together two very different people, from different backgrounds or occupations or outlooks on life and have them co-curate an event. The essence of Universitas is serendipitous connections, connecting people who wouldn’t ordinarily be connected, to see what kind of new ideas happen.


How can someone keep up with what is happening with Universitas?

Join our email list for sure. (Send David a note at: Also, were on Twitter:


In looking back now, would you give the same TEDxColumbus talk today that you gave in 2010?

Absolutely, yes.  In fact, I am more committed than ever to the idea of curating environments that foster creativity and innovation. Cities the size and density of Columbus make for an especially fertile environment.




Follow This

by Kendra Hovey

“You’re never too old” is one of those uplifting sayings you don’t want to think too much about. Earning Olympic gold in gymnastics…winning the Fields Medal in mathematics…playing in COSI’s little kidspace…oh, to live on Sugar Mountain…to do any of these, a great number of us are, indisputably, too old.

But according to new research out of Ohio State if major scientific breakthrough is on your life list, you may in fact never be too old (for the under 30s, though, chances are good that, at least right now, you are too young).

Lingering within the walls of math and science is a long-harbored belief that the brilliant show themselves early. OSU economics professor Bruce Weinberg and his research partner Benjamin Jones of Northwestern decided to test this assumption. By collecting data on 500+ Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine from 1901 to 2008, they found that this notion of the brilliant young scientist was not so off-base—a century ago. Until 1905, about two-thirds of Nobel winners did their prize-winning work before age 40 (and about 20 percent did it before age 30).

In chemistry and medicine, though, those numbers decreased steadily over time. In physics, young achievement peaked later—in 1934—but in all three disciplines, by the year 2000, winners under the age 40 were rare, and those under 30, almost extinct. According to Weinberg: “Today, the average age at which physicists do their Nobel Prize winning work is 48. Very little breakthrough work is done by physicists under 30.”

Weinberg’s theory to explain this: In the early 1900s, quantum mechanics blew the lid off traditional science. It reset the rules and, in some ways, leveled the playing field. Says Weinberg: “It may be that young scientists did better, in part, because they never learned the older ways of thinking and could think in new ways.”

Today the situation is greatly changed. Scientists are spending much longer in graduate school and their research cites a greater breadth of work over time—a hundred years ago, citations were more often contemporaneous. “Because of their depth of knowledge,” says Weinberg, “older scientists may have an advantage.”

The findings bode well in light of demographics that show an increasingly older research workforce. “If you take the view that science is a young person’s game, then this aging trend is alarming,” Weinberg says. “But if scientists can be productive as they get older, as this study suggests, there may be less of a problem.”

To extrapolate a bit, this research may also have something to say about ideas and innovation in general, suggesting perhaps that:

  • knowing more and knowing less can both be key to breakthrough thinking
  • even in the most evidence-based fields, outdated assumptions are hard to shake
  • though we tend to rarefy what we can’t conceive, even the most abstract knowledge occurs within a material and historical context.

[And what about math? Perhaps more than any other discipline mathematics is thought to be “a young person’s game” (actually, a “young man’s game” but that’s a whole another bias). This was not discounted or verified by the OSU study because there is no Nobel in Math. The rumored reason—utterly unverified, but prevailing only because others dull in comparison—is that Nobel’s girlfriend had an affair with a mathematician. The stand-in Nobel in Math is the Fields Medal. Also not studied because it is only for those under age 40 and it is awarded every four years—one more way in which mathematicians have to get their numbers right.]

lllustration by Greg Bonnell 

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at


Follow This, Readers' Roundtable


[by Kendra Hovey]

“Liking the book is not the point. The conversation that follows is.”

This is what Catalina Gorla would like you to know about Readers’ Roundtable. She’d also like you to know, chances are, that conversation will be “quality,” “organic” and “rich.”

If you haven’t heard, Readers’ Roundtable is the new TEDxColumbus-inspired book club (of sorts). Here’s how it works: a past TEDxColumbus speaker chooses a book, any book (or sometimes a film), and interested people read it (or view it) then gather to eat, meet and discuss. The speaker facilitates, participants are limited to 20 (“to preserve intimacy”), and, technically, it is free—$15 or $20 goes to the cost of a meal. Sessions repeat monthly, each time with a new title, new speaker and new group (the first 20 to sign up).

It is not a lecture, nor a round-robin discussion. It is a conversation, and one that doesn’t typically take much to get going. “We are empowered by information,” says Gorla, “people who read the book find they have something to say.”

And who is Gorla? She is the catalyst and engineer behind the event. She’s also an economist at Nationwide, with a degree in art history and an interest in books, community and entrepreneurship. Born in Romania, when still young she immigrated to the U.S. with her family. Their landing point was Idaho. From there, she went to New Hampshire and in 2009 moved to Columbus, which is where she was when she picked up The Brothers Karamazov.

The book made her feel lonely. Though, no fault of Dostoevsky: “I really wanted to share it and talk about it,” she explains. It was from this want that Gorla developed a new model for a book club—new, because the standard model gravitates towards contemporary fiction and titles are often picked randomly. Gorla thought that if everyone was going to commit to read a book, at least one person should be passionate about it and eager to discuss it. More than anything, though, she wanted diversity. “Not just women my age and my friends,” she says, “I wanted different people with different experiences.”

Gorla did not say what you might be thinking—that books are often tangential to book clubs real purpose: wine and friends. She doesn’t say this because for her, too, the purpose is social. The book is the “glue,” she says, so people can come together to share and listen and build community.

Her affinity-based, open (based on sign-up), and facilitated model, Gorla calls “Our Books.” She tried it out at Nationwide. It is now in its second year (read more about it here). Our Books provides the framework for Readers’ Roundtable and Gorla plans to operationalize the model for use within different organizations. And why would organizations be interested? Focused dialogue is a good in itself, but Gorla believes that with it can come a whole host of good things: community-building, problem-solving, empowerment, understanding, enjoyment, and, of particular importance, communication. “We don’t have to agree to communicate,” she says. The idea is not to reach some crystallized endpoint. Instead, she says, “we can learn how to listen and we can soften the blow of differences of opinion by putting it into dialogue.”

The Readers’ Roundtable schedule can be found here. Claudia Kirsch launched the series in March with a discussion on fixed and growth mindsets. The April dialogue with David Burns focused on the whys of the financial crisis and deepened understanding of the many ways it reverberated through individual lives. Last week, with 2010 speaker David Staley, the dialogue centered on three questions. Given that discipline-jumping and expertise-mashing sparks innovation and creativity, do we:

  1. find similar crossover within ourselves? —The answer: yes, no and sometimes
  2. see it supported and nurtured in institutions and organizations? —Hardly, and it can be challenging to initiate
  3. have ideas to help nurture it within our own sphere of existence? —Yeah, lots, including emptying a room (removing it of embedded routine) and also filling a room (but with two seemingly disparate elements—a math teacher and art teacher, say).

Coincidentally, next month’s Readers’ Roundtable (June 8 at the Main Librarymixes things up a bit. The book this time is a film (“Finding Joe“). The speaker/facilitator is Jason Barger. And this time, instead of dinner, the conversation will be held over lunch (11:30–1pm).


Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at




Choosing speakers for TEDxColumbus has gleefully become a difficult process. That means we get tons of ideas, nominations and submissions now – versus three years ago when we had to beg people to listen to our explanation of TED and TEDx.

As a result, this year we have changed the TEDxColumbus speaker nomination process. We would ideally like every nominated speaker to submit a one-minute video describing their idea, point of view and what gives them the license to talk about it. Of course, this has lead to many questions, such as:  What do you want to hear?  How do I film it? Does it need to be a high-quality video? What if it’s longer than one minute?  Ruth Milligan, Curator of TEDxColumbus, hopes to answer all your questions in her one-minute video below.


The goal of the video submission is to help the TEDxColumbus curatorial team assess if your idea falls under the theme of “The Future Revealed” and does it fit the TED model: Do you have a strong point of view or compelling story? Do you have data to support your idea? Do you have mastery in your subject? Can you keep to a time limit?

Lastly, remember, the curatorial team will be choosing a handful from the nominations (which also need to fill out the brief nomination form), but we’ll also use these videos in the late summer to help identify folks to appear at the open forum on August 16 and/or be chosen by the attendees of the conference itself.

Please let us know if you still have questions!

To nominate a speaker, please click here.

All video submissions and questions can be sent to


Follow This


[by Kendra Hovey]

If you were at the last TEDxColumbus, you might remember Alex Bandar, the “visionary, metallurgist, connector” in the black jumpsuit determined to revive the lost art of making. In his talk, Bandar shared the big idea of the Columbus Idea Foundry (CIF) and his big dream to put it on wheels, park it at a high school and begin to transform American education and, along the way, American thinking, industry and innovation.

But the Idea Foundry is about more than a big idea. As the name suggests, lots of ideas come out of CIF, and in all sorts of sizes. One that Bandar had been bandying about—along with cohorts David and Carrie Chew—became a reality last March. A new conversation community with follow-up built-in, Convergence, as the realized idea is called, is a touch TEDx, but a bit more Kickstarter meets American Idol meets Royal Society of London (minus the wigs…sadly). The event is open to the public and due to repeat every three months or so. The purpose is to converge to examine “theories, struggles, and possibilities” for projects and then make those projects financially doable (by actually laying money on the table) and accountable, as well as, potentially continually supported (by following-up at the next Convergence).

There are some guidelines: The project must be “deemed bigger than a single person”; it should be “group-oriented so that members and potential members can learn beyond their expertise”; and the winner must report back on “how the project went, what worked, what didn’t, and what can be learned.”

The very first Convergence was held on March 1st at the Foundry—just off 5th Ave., where Corrugated Way meets Mobility. With the support of Turnstone and TEDxColumbus, the evening started and ended with tours, presentations, food and general socializing. In the middle, three Foundry members shared their projects. Then, the 100 or so in attendance had the opportunity to vote with their dollars. On the table that night: about $700 (an additional $600 or so was raised for the Cougar Robotics Team, a local high school robotics club).

 Of the three projects presented…

  1. A plan by steam-engine enthusiast Chip Rosenblum to build a dual-gauge train track.
  2. A LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) upgrade for Ethan Dicks’ “tourbot” (a remote-controlled camera, microphone and monitor).
  3. And, from event co-founder and co-organizer David Chew, a kinetic blue tree sculpture to be made of various sized pipes, possibly with “flame effects,” and to be outfitted with tree-dwelling creatures that could be controlled with switches and bellows by the audience.

…the win goes to…the kinetic blue tree sculpture.


Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at


Follow This


[by Kendra Hovey]

Barbara Fant is a performance poet. While this is true, as descriptions go, it’s a bit lacking; not quite capturing her rapid cascade of imagery, shrapnel-origami-kite-bee-hive-honey-lightning-Crayola, nor the swift and choppy flow of a line like, “It’s about be, it’s about be, it’s about bee, like honey, like gold, like glow, like sky.”

Both examples are from “Handfuls of Honey.” A poem which Fant performed at the last TEDxColumbus and one that speaks pretty effectively to what it is Fant does—from the personification of her words as “a nightmare at the back of my neck seeping through my throat” to the simple and clear-sighted offering: “I don’t know another way—to pray.”

Barbara Fant had been a last minute addition to the program. TEDxColumbus organizers (as every speaker forced to rehearse a million times over already knows) are not too keen on last minute anything, but having seen her a day earlier at TEDxYouth, they found five extra minutes plus 45 seconds. Fant made good use of the time; the audience gave her a standing ovation.

One of those impressed was Doug Kridler, CEO and president of The Columbus Foundation. Kridler commissioned Fant to create an original piece—with “no boundaries,” he says—for the Columbus Bicentennial. Fant read the poem at the Foundation as part of the city’s big birthday bash in February. Kridler calls it “an awe-inspiring and multi-hued articulation,” adding, “What an enduring gift she gave to everyone in our community through that poem.”

“Today Beginning Again,” as Fant titled her ode-of-sorts to the city, is part thank you note: “You geography-ed me,” “river-ed me;” “library-ed myself;” “honeyed me into reflection…” And, it’s part reminder card: “You can’t stop now.”

A video of her performance quickly made the social media rounds.


The 24-year-old Fant was asked to perform the poem again, this time by Mayor Coleman as part of the fanfare around his State of the City address. She can also be spotted in a couple of recent videos, “Voices of Columbus” and “Columbus Young Artists,” both sponsored by 200 Columbus (and various partners). Just last month she was a “feature” (invited guest) at a Poetry Slam in Detroit. Oddly, all this is happening at a time when the poet has been scaling back on performing. Her main focus these days is graduate school.

This may be news to many; a lot about Barbara Fant may be news. Added so late, her name didn’t make it onto the TEDxColumbus program, let alone her story. To fill things in, I caught up with Fant, finding her in Delaware, Ohio where she is nearing the end of her first year at the Methodist Theological School.

From “Handfuls of Honey” I know, to her, poetry is prayer, and when I ask how she would describe her work she calls it “poetic ministry,” so seminary school would seem to be a simple matter of connecting the dots, but when I ask, she quickly puts me straight. “Not at all, ” she says.

Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Fant felt the call to preach at a very young age, and she can’t even remember a time in her life when she wasn’t writing. Yet seminary and slams didn’t come into her life till much later, not until after she moved to Columbus for college. “I come from a church where pastors didn’t go to seminary,” she explains, “I didn’t know what it was!”

It was during her last year at Ohio Dominican (she graduated in 2010 with a degree in English) that she first considered seminary, and it was only a few years before that, when she was about 19, that she first performed her poetry. That night was important. It was an open mic, her first, and afterwards, she’d be at the mic three or four nights a week. But when I ask about when she became a poet, she doesn’t mention the mic, she answers by talking about her mom. “She passed away when I was 15,” Fant shares, “I was angry. I had a hard time talking to people…so I wrote.”

Fant wrote—put my pain on pages, as she says in “Handfuls of Honey”—but she didn’t share. While in Youngstown she learned about open mics, saw some on TV, and she knew that as soon as she could find one and get herself there, that’s when she would start sharing. From there, it was only a matter of months before she was competing.

Both as an individual and team member, she’s won a number of Grand Slams, and two years ago, at 22, she published her first book of poetry, Paint, Inside Out, which won the Cora Craig Author Award for Young Women. She’s slowed the pace a bit now that she is in grad school, but Fant still slams and runs the occasional workshop (she’s worked with Transit Arts and Columbus Collegiate Academy, among other organizations). Most recently, she’s been spending some time in the theater—yes, she also acts.

Her approach to writing poetry, Fant says, is to “paint pictures with words.” With “Today, Beginning Again,” for example, she was drawn to the idea of Columbus as a smart and open city, then starts to break that down: “I’ll ask, what does that look like? Open…bursting…firework…and it goes from there…I try to make it come alive.”

Asked, then, about coming from poetry to preaching and the interplay between the two, she sees some commonality, but also a clear divergence: “Both poems and sermons are journeys that the listener allows me to take them on…But I do not perform sermons. I teach and preach sermons. As I minister through poetry, I am able to give people more of me, my journey and my testimony. As a preacher, I surrender myself to being a minister of the Gospel and I allow only God’s word to shine through.”

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at