Ten ways to look at the Aspen Ideas Festival | AspenTimes.com
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Ten ways to look at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Katie ReddingAspen Times Weekly
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly file
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ASPEN Four years ago, Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson had an idea: What if the venerable Institute decided to let the rest of the world into its cloistered halls?The result was the Aspen Ideas Festival: a seven-day whirlwind of panel discussions, interviews, conversations and events at the Aspen Meadows. Lasting nine hours every day, providing as many as seven events at a time, and offering 300 speakers, including the likes of former President Bill Clinton, Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and 1972 Olympic gold-medal marathoner Frank Shorter, it is arguably the most ambitious and accessible meeting of major minds in the United States today. I think theres a hunger for serious nonpartisan discussions based on values, Isaacson said of his vision. And I felt there would be an audience for this type of event and it would serve our mission as well as our community.But now that the Ideas Festival is on its way to becoming a cornerstone of Aspens star-studded summers, perhaps it is time to ask: What is an ideas festival? And, more broadly, what does it accomplish?The answer may depend on your perspective. So here are a few perspectives to consider.

Although the festival has organized its sessions into topical tracks such as Children and Education and Climate and Sustainability, nearly all attendees seemed to jump tracks throughout the festival deciding they might as well learn about something like nanotechnology as long as they were here. A few days before the festival, I tried to cheat by calling Eliot Gerson, executive vice president of policy and public programs at the Institute. I asked him for a cant miss list and he declined to provide one. Instead he gave me a great piece of advice: The most unforgettable sessions for people usually involved something they knew nothing about. He argued that the modern media allow most citizens to control their information and news; many readers, viewers and listeners only digest information that supports their own viewpoints. We are the other extreme, maintained Gerson. So on Tuesday, I went to hear political reporter Charlie Rose interview Jamie Dimon, chairman of the board and CEO for JPMorgan Chase & Co. Wall Street rarely fascinates me, but this talk did.At one point, Rose asked Dimon to tell the dramatic story of his 52nd birthday. He was eating dinner with his family, said Dimon, when Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz phoned to admit his company was facing imminent bankruptcy, and to request a cool $30 billion from JPMorgan Chase & Co. to stave it off. Dimon said he was seriously worried about an implosion of financial markets, were Bear Stearns to go under.Would it have spread like a contagion? asked Rose.Dimon paused. That had a very good possibility of happening, he said. Dimon stayed up most of the night talking on the phone with a cast of characters that included Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. By Saturday, he and his team were reviewing the Bear Stearns books. Just two hours before the Asian markets opened on Monday, Dimon struck a deal to buy Bear Stearns for $2 a share, with the Federal Reserve promising to guarantee the companys assets. Asked about the cut-rate final price, Dimon grinned a boyish grin.Buying a house and buying a house on fire are two different things, he said, to thunderous laughter from the crowd.

If you ask those attending the Aspen Ideas Festival why they are there, most will unabashedly acknowledge theyve attended for the ideas, but also the networking.Participants cited the rare opportunity to meet with luminaries outside their field, and at least one noted that the festival afforded him access to philanthropists. Gary Severson, attending the festival as a representative of the Casey Family Foundation, described the festival as a filter that provides a more concentrated mix of the type of people who are the doers, the thinkers, the envelope-pushers.It also makes people with different opinions talk to each other, he added. These are people, ordinarily, that if you sat them in the same room, theyd sit on opposite sides, he observed.This certainly was true of the panels, in which New York Times columnist David Brooks could call Sen. John McCain a great man just minutes before liberal pundit Arianna Huffington politely suggested McCain was so delusional about Iraq she couldnt help but consider him the kind of person you should not leave alone with sharp scissors. In another panel, David Sandalow, Brookings Institute senior fellow, argued that internal combustion engines are incredibly inefficient and will soon be replaced by electric motors. He was immediately followed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who argued that biofuels (which use conventional engines) are the only alternative energy that can grow both rapidly and cost-effectively.Such differences of opinion also were true of the listeners I encountered.As for the networking, business cards are still spilling out of my pockets.

As I began an interview with one of the Bezos Scholars high school juniors who receive a scholarship to attend the Ideas Festival he yawned. But then he quickly pled lack of sleep rather than boredom, insisting he had yet to be bored. He had a point. Arguably, the Institute had taken great care to invite brains who not only have interesting ideas, but also speak cogently on relevant topics. For better or worse, long-winded scholars, however brilliant, dont get invited to the Aspen Ideas Festival. Witness Paul Twomey, president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, explaining that Internet applications are used differently throughout the world: In the United States, Facebook is for organizing parties. In the MIddle East, it is used for organizing strikes. Or California chef Alice Waters, speaking hopefully about Barack Obama: I know that hes paying attention [to food] in a certain way, and therefore we have the possibility of offering advice. Im imagining a Kitchen Cabinet, she quipped at an edible education discussion. And most speakers were skilled at translating sometimes arcane topics into plain English. Even the most erudite scholars didnt force audience members to dive for their dictionaries. And with conversations held to a 90-minute maximum, no speakers really had time to beat a dead horse.Thus was the festival carefully packaged to ensure both intellectual rigor and accessibility.

Gerson believes the Aspen Ideas Festival transcends entertainment, and nearly ever attendee I spoke with agreed with him. Its more than a music festival or an arts festival, he argued. Those kind of festivals are, at least to some degree, passive, though they can have profound impacts on people there. This festival is all about dialogue and exchange.He pointed out that the festival sells out within minutes of the tickets going on sale each year, and he attributed the popularity to the festivals uniqueness. Thats not because its entertainment, he said. Its because [the participants] are mentally and morally invigorated by this.There are few lectures at the festival; conversations predominate. And while the vast majority of the conversation in each session is between the brains on-stage, most allow time for questions from the audience. Unlike a lecture series, even the most illustrious presenters are likely to attend other sessions, weaving ideas from previous sessions into later sessions. Its an incredible thing to have people like Colin Powell not only speaking but asking questions, noted Gersons son, Alex. Some of our speakers speak at many other conferences and they tell us there is nothing like this in the world, and they love it, said Gerson.

The festival is sponsored by a number of companies, and at times the line between commercials and content become blurry. Sponsors not only are given plenty of ink in programs and signs; they are likely to show up on panels as speakers. For example, while attending a session on alternative energy, I was surprised to see representatives from Mercedes-Benz (what about the Toyota Prius?) and Chevron until I realized the two panelists worked for major festival sponsors of the festival. And while the speakers lent a practical corporate perspective to the discussion, I couldnt help but wonder if more appropriate speakers had been overlooked.To be fair, many of the companies embraced the events emphasis on innovation. Chevron, for example, distributed reusable water bottles and stocked the campus with water stations (there wasnt a plastic water bottle in sight during the festival). They also provided carbon-free, bicycle-powered cab transportation to the Aspen core. The reusable water bottles undoubtedly cut down on waste. Alas, the carbon mitigation of the bicycle-powered cabs may have been canceled by the fact that the cyclists powering the cabs had all traveled to Aspen from Oklahoma City and Denver.

Approximately 40 sessions were open to the general public this year at prices ranging from $15 to $60 a ticket up from about 30 sessions last year. Aspenites willing to pay a modest sum could hear U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff discuss the safety of the country or watch Blessed Unrest, billed as the worlds first participatory film.And the public events truly still are festival events, not watered-down versions of the real festival. At a lovely and ridiculously healthy July 2 luncheon, for example, Aspenites were privy to California cuisine inventor Alice Waters fantasies about what food she would serve future and former presidents. Highly motivated Aspenites volunteer for the festival, which allows them to stand in the back and listen to various programs for free.

Between the television, radio, Internet and print media covering the Ideas Festival and the Aspen Institutes own attempts to provide video clips and print transcripts of conversations a significant number of the ideas find their way into the public domain. But as one young man pointed out, if hed turned on the television and seen Charlie Rose interviewing Jamie Dimon, he would have turned it right off. Arguably, those watching the festival from across the country via the Internet are more likely to tune in to their favorite topics. They may experience some of the ideas, but likely miss the festivals point.

The clearest example of this is the Bezos Scholar program, sponsored by the Bezos Family Foundation, in which 12 high school juniors from public schools and one educator from each school are brought to the festival.Two days into the event, the students enthusiastically regurgitated some of the ideas theyd heard. Only politeness kept them from speaking over each other. Robert Logan of New Orleans heard a revolutionary idea in a session about education, he said: That if the country created vocational education that rivaled its college system, students who dont want to attend college would be better served.After the festival, the students and educators are charged with returning home and creating their own local ideas festivals. Accordingly, this years scholars paid as much attention to how they were learning as what they were learning: the emphasis on discussion over lecture, the encouragement to step outside ones usual scope of interest, and what Anna Miller of Seattle called the equalizing of the accomplished, famous people with just us, the 17-year olds. The importance of exposing young people to big ideas was not lost on them. Ive learned that the problems that are discussed here are the problems of the presenters, but even more theyre the problems of my generation, said Patrick Clay of Auburn, Washington.

Its worth noting that more than three times as many men were scheduled to speak as women.

Ideas Festival is an attractive name, but Festival of Possible Solutions to our Greatest Problems might be more accurate.Certainly its inspiring to hear so many powerful ideas from creative thinkers, but its also hard not to walk away overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges: Americas dependence on oil, the imminent recession, global warming, unstable nation-states, and the failures of our nations educational system, to name just a few.Many of the ideas discussions were really brainstorms about how to respond to national and international emergencies. Of course, some would argue that crises trigger great ideas.As venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said about the worlds dependence on oil: I think a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

When I first phoned Gerson before the festival, I pushed him to show me the tangible benefits of the festival . He listed a handful: a woman who has begun building schools in Africa, an attendee who has developed a K-12 curriculum on climate change, and trustee Lynda Resnick, who was so inspired by last years series on energy, climate change and water that she has spent millions in making her Fiji water company carbon-negative. But Gerson believes the festival has value beyond inspiring people to action.We also, unapologetically, believe that engaged discussion about important ideas even when some of them are very abstract has great power, he said. Ideas, it turns out, are slippery. Never mind a 7-day festival of them. To see what impact the festival might have on you, visit http://www.aifestival.org, for links to transcripts, video clips, blogs and media coverage.kredding@aspentimes.com


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