Imagine a pop-up village of your most accomplished Type A associates in the most gorgeous of mountain settings.
That’s the Aspen Ideas Festival.
When author Walter Isaacson started the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2005, he was honoring the dream of Chicagoan and Aspen Institute founder Walter Paepcke, who also founded Container Corporation of America. In 1949, Paepcke hosted a humanities festival in Aspen to mark the 200th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Fifty-five years later, Isaacson revived the festival idea and launched what would become a model for similar festivals around the country, including Chicago Ideas Week.
Now marking its 10th year, the Aspen Ideas Festival wraps up Thursday after more than a week of programs about art, science, cities, politics and business. Chicagoans were in abundance among the 2,000 some presenters and attendees, many paying up to $3,000 for a pass to the packed schedule of seminars, screenings and panel discussions.
The most prominent speakers — Hillary Clinton, Robert De Niro, Al Gore, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust and more — made their own headlines.
Here are seven big ideas presented in Aspen that are worth exploring further:
1. There is a genius equation: Forget “right brain” and “left brain”; what drives creativity is really a “whole-brain” process, said Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of The Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. Joining him on a panel called “The Genius of Creativity” was Rex Jung, a neuroscientist from the University of New Mexico, who talked about his study of the evolution of creativity. Other species demonstrate evolving stages of creativity through varying levels of problem-solving. Ultimately, he contends, it is creativity plus intelligence that equals genius.
2. Big Data vs. Human Touch will go extra rounds: “When I want a new book, I’ll take Amazon over a librarian — and I like librarians,” said MIT’s Andrew McAfee, in a counterpunch to Harvard researcher David Weinberger’s contention that it takes a human touch to move cultural development forward.
3. But, libraries are more relevant than ever: Brian Bannon, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, expanded on the CPL’s just-announced plan to start lending Wi-Fi hotspot devices, thanks to a Knight News Challenge grant. Another initiative Bannon hinted at was a plan to create more formal co-working spaces in Chicago’s many libraries. It’s all an outgrowth of the CPL’s success with its Innovation Lab (and Maker Lab) and efforts to expand the library’s services despite deep budget cuts imposed by City Hall.
4. United Cities of America? Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was not in Aspen, but many of his ideas were. Mayors Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans and Kasim Reed of Atlanta each referenced Emanuel (with admiration) in their contributions to this compelling discussion about how America’s cities will need to collaborate and innovate — with little help from the federal government — in the coming decade.
5. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world …: Greg Lindsay, an urbanologist (and University of Illinois graduate and two-time “Jeopardy!” champion), moderated a discussion on megacities in which Shirish Sankhe noted that India would need to build the equivalent of a Chicago every year in order to sustain its rapid growth. How would it get done? Panelist Luis Bettencourt said: “The poor pay for life with time; the rich pay with money.”
6. Time (and service) can be money: Ret. U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal believes passionately that a national year of service (in the U.S.) would boost the economy, improve the workforce and promote better citizenship. And he wrote in this summer’s issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas: “What we need is to create a culture of service in America, one in which a year of service is culturally expected, if not quite mandatory by law.” McChrystal said his idea, dubbed the Franklin Project, has bipartisan support, would emulate the success of the U.S. Peace Corps and would do it with the help of technologies like those used with Airbnb and Uber.
7. Everyone wants to be the next Airbnb or Uber: The point of innovation is to be disruptive, said MIT’s McAfee, who was hardly alone in citing the two companies as the darlings of market disruptors. “Where you see incumbent businesses trying to get regulations enacted to stop the progression, that’s where the innovation is.” In a session about the “sharing economy,” Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky lays out his notion that cities are full of micro-entrepreneurs, and more services like Airbnb will be the connector.