Couldn’t care less what Tom Cruise’s baby looks like, or even that Cruise and whosits had a baby? Would you pay (as I would) for a video of the Paris Hilton exploding with its namesake inside? Like to see Mel Gibson nail himself to a cross and then pogo into the Pacific? Well, friend, an event is coming to Louisville that just might rock your blog.
It’s called IdeaFestival. It takes place from Oct. 11–14 and features some of the biggest names in the arts, sciences and media. More to the point, IdeaFestival will feature, across 47 events, some of the biggest names who aren’t too interested in the traditional barriers between those disciplines.
There’s John Barrow, award-winning author, physicist and playwright — three professions unlikely to have been strung together not so long ago. There’s Burt Rutan, the revolutionary aeronautical designer who designed SpaceShipOne, winner of the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, a competition established to recognize and reward imaginative ventures and promote radical breakthroughs that can change how people live on Earth. There’s Ray Kurzweil, whose forecast about the merging/intersection/collision of bioengineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology — and how those technologies will literally redefine human beings — is a reminder that The Future is here, and coming at us at an ever-increasing pace. Like it or not.
More than two dozen other speakers are currently scheduled, ranging from local heart surgeon Dr. Laman Gray to John Gaeta, creator of the visual effects for “The Matrix” trilogy.
IdeaFestival is not new. It began in Lexington in 2000, and it grew popular enough to prompt a permanent move to Louisville, which should more readily accommodate the larger crowds. The planning committee for the 2006 festival runs a lengthy 69 names, which makes you feel sorry for the kid who delivered the lunches to the meetings. The names are in alphabetical order, and just about in the middle of the list is the one that counts: Kris Kimel.
Kimel, president of the Lexington-based Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., is the originator of IdeaFestival. KSTC is a nonprofit corporation with the goal of improving Kentucky’s standing as a source of innovation.
KSTC pursues a spectrum of goals, ranging from securing start-up funding for emerging companies with high growth potential to innovative math and science programs for Appalachian students. The company is in partnership with NASA to develop technologies for subsurface exploration of other planets, and is developing KySat (Kentucky satellite) in conjunction with state universities. KySat is a student-designed and student-built sort of satellite for hire, in which specific projects can be contained and supported for orbital flight.
When Kimel began thinking about what would become IdeaFestival, at least 10 years ago, he was unaware of other similar events. Instead, his model was the Sundance Film Festival, and his goal was an idea version of that event. He did not want a conference, but an inviting forum of give-and-take.
Kimel, his employees and interested people from outside his company began planning the first IdeaFestival in 1999. He found some sponsors for that first year, although his company provided a major portion of the funding.
It’s not difficult to find and push Kimel’s on button. He is passionate about ideas, of course, but also about the raw imagination from which great ideas come, and about the cross-discipline wandering that creators of great ideas do. He champions human beings past and present who “have a lot of things in their attic.” Clearly the idea of IdeaFestival is to shake up local people into realizing/acknowledging that they have more than a few items in their own attics.
I asked about his motivation for starting IdeaFestival and then just
“A lot of the innovation we were seeing across this country and internationally was emerging from the intersection of different areas,” he told me, “in which people that were really able to integrate science, business, design, the arts and education, in very different ways, were creating whole new products, new ways of doing things, even new creative endeavors.”
Trying to understand that dynamic and how to promote it, he realized that “integration is a factor, a very key issue, in successful innovation in today’s world.”
But it’s not happening nearly enough, he says, and “we thought there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for people to actually come together and explore what’s happening outside your field, and
how do you use it and apply it to what you do.”
Less specifically, we later spoke about the heyday of the U.S. space program — which placed a human being on another heavenly body in 8-1/2 years — when Kimel asked: “How have we gotten away from that kind of imagination, that kind of drive, that kind of creativity? People actually come to me and question whether we should even be in space … Has there ever been a time in history that we haven’t explored, haven’t wanted to explore, haven’t been driven to explore? How much has that been responsible for progress, the need for exploration? And not only the need, but the mindset of being open to new things, and the desire and the hunger to find out new things and see what happens?”
He cites a continuing concern — the growing compartmentalization within people, within business and industry, and so within our culture.
“It seems like more and more people know less and less about a lot of things,” he laments. “They know a lot about one little thing that they do.” But, he says, they don’t seem to think they need to know much else.
The problem, he adds, is that “the only edge anyone has in today’s world is to out-innovate the competition. I think that’s true whether you’re a dancer, or you’re a musician, or you’re a company, or a university. In today’s world that’s your only competitive edge.”
The way to do that, he thinks, is by really understanding the process of innovation. “How do you encourage it and how do you mobilize it within yourself or within your company? It’s not by being isolated.”
And so maybe IdeaFestival could instead be called the “Say No to Isolation” festival.
OK, maybe not, but here’s the point. Brilliant people, and just flat-out geniuses, feel comfortable in murky situations — junctions at which the next direction is not only unclear, but so is the actual junction. In fact these folks welcome such developments, because the absence of those quandaries is the surest sign they’re making no real progress, not really creating anything.
Time and again, Kimel makes the point that creative and innovative people have to have a lot of things in “their attic.”
“You don’t know when you’re going to use them, or when you’re going to need them,” he says, “but when you do need them they’re there.”
It’s those tangential bits of knowledge that pull things together in the murkiness, that make the little connections that lead to the big connection and the MacArthur Fellowship.
For a more real world example, consider the song “My Favorites Things,” from the stage and then film version of “The Sound of Music.” Lyrically it’s about the whitest, smarmiest ditty ever written, which may provide its charm to those finding it charming.
Musically it’s another story, which John Coltrane understood. The great jazz saxophonist proceeded to deconstruct the piece, and then riff off of it while putting it back together, yielding not only a jazz classic but one of our most accessible works of genius.
Thirty-five years ago something called IdeaFestival might have been launched by Stewart Brand and might have featured speakers like Timothy Leary or Ram Dass or even John Lennon. Maybe solar pioneer Steve Baer. It probably would have been held on an organic commune outside Ukiah, once the grooviest town in Northern California. But that was when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon and gas jockeys at the Marathon station filled your tank for you and then gave you a juice glass depicting a lunar landing. Now, gasoline is headed to the moon and actual lunar landings are almost ancient history. Conglomerations of border-smashers are profit-making events launched by suits. Don’t sweat it, though. But for the suits, so was Woodstock. And with his “Whole Earth Catalog” series and subsequent magazines, specifically Co-Evolution Quarterly, Brand made a career out of reporting on new ideas, concepts and technologies.
Today, a festival focused on ideas is not unique. Cleveland just completed its second Ingenuity Cleveland, a festival of arts and technology. The Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival was in early July. Later this month, Camden, Maine will stage the 10th annual Pop!tech, a conference that gathers prominent thinkers to discuss science, technology and the future of ideas. TED (Technology Entertainment Design), a similar event in Monterey, Calif., began in 1984 and featured the unveiling of the Macintosh computer and the Sony compact disc. Today, TED allocates 100 percent of profits to clean water and public health programs in developing countries and to ocean conservation. A truncated list of speakers at these events includes Richard Dawkins, Bill Joy, Brian Green, Arianna Huffington, Thomas Friedman, Rodney Brooks, Alan Greenspan and, yes, Stewart Brand.
What apparently sets IdeaFestival apart from other such festivals is its egalitarianism. Although all speakers will be paid, most of IdeaFestival events are free, thanks to nearly 100 sponsors and supporting organizations. No event costs more than $25 (with the exception of one $45 dinner event). An all-event pass is $245 ($105 for students). The festival itself is nonprofit.
Contrast that to the others. Thinking about going to Pop!Tech? it’ll set you back $2,295. TED will punch an even larger dent in your bank account — $4,400.
What’s exciting about IdeaFestival is that it has the potential to be a non-linear, synergistic, freewheeling event. Great effort has been made to make it accessible. This openness, almost by definition, won’t happen at a $4,400-per-head event.
The key to IdeaFestival, to its future in Louisville and to the future of Louisville and Kentucky, is that it be far greater than the sum of its parts. That it goes beyond simply an event with beginning and ending dates, and beyond entertainment, however eclectic. That its vision is carried into the physical dimensions of the city and across future time.
Clearly, some of the people coming to IdeaFestival otherwise may never make it to Louisville. People such as Jordanian composer Zade Dirani, who has found great acclaim in blending Eastern and Western music, or neuroscientist/biologist/author and MacArthur Fellow Robert Sapolsky.
This is an opportunity to see and hear great minds, to listen to people who have refused to accept parameters in their creativity, their lives, their civilization. And an opportunity to see them affordably, even at no cost.
Both the saddest and boldest question in any language is, “What if?” The distinction depends on whether we’re looking at the past or to the future.
What if you take part in IdeaFestival?
Well, you just might break some borders, challenge yourself and support an opportunity for Louisville to play a constructive role in the future.
Contact the writer at [email protected]