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Meeting of the Minds
Allison Johnson | Photo: Daniel Bayer/The Aspen Institute | May 30, 2014
For 10 years, the Aspen Ideas Festival has been a magnet for forward-thinkers with its diverse programs and casual setting.
Hot dogs are probably not the first thing you’d associate with the Aspen Ideas Festival, June 24-July 3, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. You might think instead of the numerous world leaders and intellectual visionaries who have attended or the staggering breadth of topics covered each year. And, yet, the lowly hot dog, which is handed out at vendor stands throughout the festival campus, turns out to be its own kind of ambassador.
“[The Aspen Institute founder] Walter Paepcke had it right,” says Kitty Boone, Aspen Ideas Festival director and vice president of public programs for The Aspen Institute, the festival’s umbrella organization. “The idea of having a place like Aspen as a destination for really interesting thinking has always worked. Everyone is relaxed and in jeans here. They’ll hang out and eat hot dogs. The images of people eating hot dogs with Colin Powell or one of the Supreme Court justices is just great and natural and fun.”
The festival started in 2005 when The Aspen Institute decided to throw open its doors and disperse some of the aura of mystery surrounding its activities in Aspen’s West End.
“We were a think tank that had 30 policy programs, but most of what we did was behind closed doors,” explains Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson. “I felt it was useful to open things up so that the ideas we were discussing could be aired more publicly and more people could participate.”
In its first year, the festival hosted 125 speakers and 80sessions in eight topical tracks. Presentations ran the gamut from “The Integrative Body” to “Beethoven’s Genius” to “The History of West Tibet.”
One of Boone’s favorite events that first year might have traumatized a lesser director. After 400 people showed up for the opening evening discussion at the Belly Up between former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson and litigator David Boies, the electricity in Aspen cut out. The two famous rivals, who had recently argued against each other in the Gore versus Bush presidential decision, shared the darkened stage under a single spotlight, with no air conditioning. The evening was a wild success.
“We had no idea what the outcome would be going into year one,” says Boone. “Immediately, it became apparent that we’d struck a nerve, in the sense that we were giving people an experience that they didn’t typically get, to learn about important topics from the people who have their finger on the pulse of these fascinating and important issues.”
Since then, the festival has successfully navigated its first decade with the help of its longtime partner, The Atlantic, and regularly spawns comparisons to conferences such as TED and World Economic Forum. Today, the festival produces more than 200 sessions in 12 tracks with 350 speakers. The program reads like a who’s who list of the top thinkers, leaders and visionaries of our times. Some 3,000 attendees swarm the 40-acre Aspen Meadows campus, strolling the paths, sharing ideas, taking in presentations and interactive exhibits (such as last year’s popular planetarium show) and, of course, eating hot dogs.
Boone likens the festival experience to going back to university. Attendees choose from a menu of options in the same way that they might choose classes. Some people stick to a track they’re passionate about, while others prefer to branch out and learn something new. Isaacson counts himself among the latter. “I tend to want to go to the ones that are not in my usual field of study,” he says.
The fact that even Isaacson discovers new topics each year is a testament to the festival’s breadth, which ranges from the arts, science and technology to business and geopolitical dynamics. Perennial presenters such as journalist David Brooks are always popular, but different topic tracks and speakers are chosen each year to ensure the content stays fresh. While the festival remains at the heart of The Aspen Institute’s public agenda, it is branching out into new arenas as well. The festival is producing short ITunes U and Khan Academy talks, posting a vast catalog of online videos on its website and dedicating itself to ensuring that the ideas generated at the festival are captured and turned into action.
“At the end of the day, you hope that you’re igniting people’s enthusiasm to go back and work on something,” says Boone, who points to several high-profile ideas that were introduced at the festival. Bill Gates launched Khan Academy founder Sal Khan’s career simply by mentioning his name onstage. Retired fourstar Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s talk kicked off a national youth service initiative that hopes to have 1 million members doing a year of national service by 2020. A lunch between oncologist David Agus and Nobel Laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann led to a $20 million grant to study cancer in an entirely new way.
“This is an interdisciplinary environment,” says Boone. “When you get a lot of people who are very different but very smart together, things begin to percolate, and that’s exciting. People get the chance to go back to school on all kinds of issues and learn about them to a much greater degree than they might in the five-second sound-bite world that we live in.”
Isaacson agrees, while noting that depth is only one part of the equation. “The Aspen Ideas Festival is more interactive and participatory than most conferences. There are a lot of chances not only to informally hang out with presenters but also to have roundtable discussions. That’s what makes the festival special.”
In other words, there’s plenty of opportunity to think big and then talk about the ramifications, say, while grabbing a snack. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, you never know where a hot dog might lead.
A LOOK AHEAD
In honor of its first decennial, all sessions at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, June 24-July 3, will fall under the overarching umbrella of Imagining 2024. They’ll delve into cutting-edge issues such as climate change and the state of creativity while focusing on what we can expect in the next decade in a variety of critical areas. Here, the hot topics.
A new forum called Spotlight: Health explores issues in key areas such as innovation and design, business, healthy living and technology. Speakers include Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Author and researcher Danah Boyd will discuss the rising culture of kids and technology, while other speakers will address technology’s impacts on society in fields such as biotech, cyber security and education, as well as the increasingly complex relationship between humans and machines.
Presenters will address issues such as how American culture may be redefined when Caucasians as a demographic peak in 2024 and how civil liberties may change in an era of surveillance and social media. Other sessions will examine the notion of creativity in society and how our storytelling may change as the news, book and film industries undergo substantial transformation. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will talk about the culture of gun violence in the United States.
Presenters will zero in on how the role of higher education is changing, how online courses and universities affect the picture and the seemingly grim future of humanities at public universities.
The world of work is changing so quickly that we can’t even say what jobs will look like in five years. This track examines the implications for both workers and students, along with how technology may dramatically redefine what jobs and careers will look like and which sectors will generate work opportunities.
While geopolitical regions such as the Middle East always receive attention at the Aspen Ideas Festival, this year’s sessions will broaden beyond the notion of region to focus on the issues that will define a global society and a nation-state as physical boundaries begin to blur. Expect Russia to be a highlight as well.
Interactive exhibits in the popular planetarium will be on display, and Boone hints that attendees may be treated to robotic and climate-change demonstrations as well. Moreover, attendees will have more opportunities than ever for one-on-one time with expert thinkers and leaders in a way that makes the festival experience uniquely intimate.