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March 2, 2011

What’s the big idea?

The idea salon trend is gaining traction in Louisville

The exchange of ideas in a public forum is not exactly a new concept.

But the notion of name-brand public lectures — known as idea salons — is a relatively new trend, one that’s caught on locally.

National idea conferences including Bioneers, PechaKucha 20x20 and TED are becoming annual fixtures in Louisville, where they’ve been tweaked to offer a more local flavor.

“It’s interesting that TEDx and these other things that have come about that are about social consciousness,” says William Morrow, director of the 21C Museum Hotel and one of four PechaKucha Louisville organizers. “People are no longer satisfied with paying $10 to watch a movie and veg out for two hours. (They) are being a little more conscious about their time.”

PechaKucha started among Tokyo designers looking for ways to share ideas in public. Geared toward designers, artists and other creative types, the format challenges presenters to use 20 slides that appear for just 20 seconds each.

Worldwide, TEDx events are the more democratic offspring of the annual “TED: Ideas Worth Spreading” conference in Long Beach, Calif., which wraps up this week.

Lexington was the first Kentucky city to bring both events to the commonwealth. Louisville soon got on board, and then took the idea salon trend a step further by importing Bioneers — Louisville became a “Beaming Bioneers” city when it began showing simulcasts of the main conference in 2009.

Environmental educator Teddie Phillipson-Mower had put on Bioneers in Bloomington, Ind., before coming here to launch the event through a partnership with the University of Louisville.

“The goal is to bring social and scientific innovators who look to nature to solve social and environmental problems,” says Phillipson-Mower, who cobbled together grants to pay the Bioneers fee, which is around $2,000.

When it comes to name-brand idea salons, there are varying levels of control, but all of the parent organizations are concerned that cities do not use their names in vain. As a result, applicants can be turned down. For example, Phillipson-Mower says some people have wanted to attach the Bioneers label to other environmental initiatives, leaving the organization to wrestle with how to grow without eroding its brand.

The same goes for PechaKucha, which requires that PKN must be strictly an organizer’s side gig, from which no profit is made.

“I think what they were looking for was some kind of a track record of organizing public events,” says Patrick Piuma, of Urban Design Studio, who procured the license to put on PKN in Louisville. Upon approval, there was a “handshake” agreement that entailed Louisville hosting four PKNs within a year. They must be non-exclusive, preferably occurring in a bar or other casual social setting, and follow-up reports and photos are required.

Stephen Reily, local entrepreneur and founder of the website VibrantNation.com, was instrumental in bringing TEDx to Louisville. Last month, a TEDx viewing party was held in Louisville, one of 85 cities nationwide to live-stream an all-day presentation in New York focusing on sustainable agriculture. With the help of Grasshoppers Distribution, Reily organized the Louisville party, which — like all other TEDx-sanctioned events — had to be free and take place in a non-commercial venue.

While the various idea salons share similarities, like little-to-no overhead costs and resource sharing among organizers, their formats differ greatly. TEDx is known for expert-to-audience communication, while PKN aims to prove that everybody is an expert on something. The three-day Bluegrass Bioneers event, meanwhile, falls somewhere in between, bringing in big-name experts but also drawing heavily on the local community to plan and fill programming. Last year, Bluegrass Bioneers drew about 500 people; this year, they expect 700.

Most organizers say their audiences are “broad” or “eclectic,” at least that’s the goal. The Bioneers event attracts a mostly college-educated crowd, and Phillipson-Mower says she would like to see more minorities, conservatives, policy-makers and religious communities represented in the future.

But Virginia Speed — who will give a presentation on the ancient art of Jin Shin Jyutsu at the next PKN event on March 8 — believes these events simply attract people who are curious about the world. “I think we’re about to reach a tipping point in the creative ideas that are going to just flow into Louisville,” she says.

Considering any of these topics or speakers could be Googled in seconds, the human interaction, energy and in-person exchange of ideas is a crucial element.