Aspen Ideas Festival looks toward “American Futures”

Big-picture conversation series returns June 27-July 1 in hybrid format

Aspen Ideas Festival from Monday, June 25, 2018.
Aspen Times file photo

Planning the Aspen Ideas Festival is typically a year-round endeavor for organizers like Killeen Brettmann and Kitty Boone at the Aspen Institute. Last year, after canceling the in-person series of big-picture conversations, they had just five weeks to plan a digital iteration.

“For us to pivot — we are live conveners and that’s what we do. To all of a sudden become digital producers was a steep learning curve but something that our team really embraced,” Brettmann said this week.

With the uncertainty of COVID-19, planners aimed for another round of virtual programming in 2021. But then, things started looking up with increased vaccination rates and fewer pandemic restrictions — and Brettmann and Boone had, once again, just five or six weeks to add a live component to this year’s Ideas Fest, which runs June 27-July 1 with both in-person and online programming.

The hybrid model is one that will likely carry into the future because it allows organizers to share the ideas explored at the festival with a significantly larger audience. Pre-COVID, the festival was limited to about 5,000 in-person attendees at a week’s worth of programming, and this year’s COVID protocols shrink that down to an audience of 350. The free virtual programming last year tallied some 40,000 viewers, according to Brettman.

“One of the things that was so spectacular from going digital was our ability to expand the reach and the scope of this festival. … We had people from all over the world tuning in, younger people, different geographies all over the country, literally all 50 states,” Brettman said. “It was a great opportunity for us to amplify the messages coming out of the festival to a much wider audience, so as we sort of flash forward to 2021, we absolutely knew we wanted to continue to have some digital component moving forward.”

“On the ground,” in-person programming is limited this year to just a few hundred attendees, most of whom are people who chose to defer their 2020 Ideas Fest tickets to this year; all of those sessions will also be made available, along with additional live and pre-recorded conversations that are exclusively presented online.

Some virtual programming was filmed in Aspen in an effort to “bring the beauty of our campus in Aspen to this digital audience,” Brettmann said; other locales include Capitol Hill in Washington and Central Park in New York.

Live virtual sessions will come equipped with a “chat” function that enables viewers to submit questions to the speakers and moderators.

“It’s not the same as bumping into a speaker on one of our pathways and asking a question but we are trying to move beyond the passive watching of sessions and try to bring people into the conversation to the degree that we can with the technology,” Brettmann said.

As for the content of those messages, Boone said this year is all about moving forward and looking toward the next steps. The theme, “American Futures,” will focus on “ideas that give us hope,” Boone said.

“Personally, I injected my own view that I’m so sick of listening to COVID issues that I didn’t want to talk about it anymore,” Boone said. “I was much more interested in talking about how America emerges and moves forward from a year that’s just been marked by a horrible election season fraught with racial tension across the country and then this calamitous COVID. … We’re looking at contemporary issues but actually with a lens towards, where do we go from here?”

Registration for the free, virtual Aspen Ideas Festival is open to all; view the full lineup and sign up at