Announce it and they will come
June 29, 2005
At one point last winter, Elliot Gerson had to tell his boss to shut up – or at least pipe down. Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson was coming up with more and more names each day as possible speakers/panelists for the Aspen Ideas Festival.
The problem was that just about everyone asked to share their expertise at the July 5-10 festival wanted to participate. The vast majority – on the order of 80 percent – of intellectuals, academics, government and business leaders, scientists and artists invited to Aspen for a week of in-depth thought and discussion said they’d love to participate, despite the lack of financial incentive. “We didn’t offer honoraria – a lot of these people command big fees to speak. All we offered people was a plane ticket and a place to stay,” said Gerson, Institute vice president of seminars and public programing. “Whether it’s the magic of Aspen or sunspots, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”And without any publicity, the 400-or-so $1,800 passes to the festival sold out in a few weeks. The festival also includes evening exchanges (plus a few morning and lunchtime programs) that are open to the public at $15-$25 a pop (two are sold out).The first evening exchange, 9:30 p.m. July 5 at the Belly Up, is titled “From Gore vs. Bush to a New Supreme Court.” It’s a conversation between Solicitor General Ted Olson and litigator David Boies discussing their views about the state of the American judiciary. It’s moderated by MSNBC host Chris Matthews. Over the following four evenings, there will be at least two such exchanges around town involving Ideas Festival participants.Still not sure what an Ideas Festival is? Neither are the organizers.
Gerson and Boone spent the better part of an afternoon thinking about other festivals that might be considered similar to the first annual Aspen Ideas Festival (yes, there are plans in the works to make this an every-summer event). They couldn’t come up with a match.It’s not a typical Institute policy discussion involving a narrow group of elite decision-makers. It’s not really a festival that focuses on one area of thought, such as the Chicago Humanities Festival or the International Design Conference in Aspen. Rather, the Aspen Ideas Festival is a gathering of influential minds that will have the opportunity to talk about ideas and trends in seven broad topic areas.
“I believe that in our highly specialized and enormously segmented society we need gatherings like this so people from various segments can have conversations with one another and share their perspectives,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who will speak on literacy in America and the future of poetry.The subject tracks include:”Global Dynamics” will address the opportunities and costs, potential and peril associated with an increasingly interdependent world. The discussions include Harvard scholar Graham Allison on “malevolent threats to global peace and security.””Perspectives in Leadership: Leaders and Ideas” will feature biographies and personality studies of the world’s most influential figures – scientists, artists, political leaders and the like. Pastor Rick Warren, author of the enormously popular “The Purpose Driven Life,” will discuss religion and leadership.
“Global Economy and Society” examines the pros and cons of globalization, the emergence of China, global capital markets and the state of the U.S. economy. The Internet and its impact on the global economy is the subject on tap for Nobel laureate Michael Spence and Silicon Valley financier John Doerr.”Health and Bioscience” explores the unprecedented scientific progress expected in the coming century. One discussion includes Gates Foundation CEO Patty Stonesifer and United Nations Undersecretary General Shashi Tharoor on global health threats.”The American Experience: Forging a More Perfect Union” is being sold as an opportunity to discuss ideas and questions relating to American democracy at a time when the nation is more polarized than ever. Speakers include Harvard President Larry Summers and former Secretary of Education William Bennett.”Culture and the Media” will consider the ways that art and music define who we are, the role literature plays in our society and the broader implications of popular culture. It includes philosopher Sissela Bok discussing what happiness means today.
“The State of the Environment: Issues and Opportunities” looks at climate change, biodiversity, health, water and other topics concerning the environment. The program includes National Geographic’s Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer by training, speaking on vulnerabilities of the oceans.Robert Hormats, vice chairman at Goldman Sachs, will share a venue with Harvard University President Larry Summers on the challenges of globalization. He wondered aloud how to navigate the sea of intellectual opportunities during the coming week: “There so many wonderful things to see, how do you decide among them?”Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org