What's the Big Idea? Aspen Ideas Festival 2012

I had the privilege of attending the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival in June, an annual event hosted by the Aspen Institute, now in its eighth year. This weeklong event brings together world renown thinkers and leaders – from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates – and a diverse, intellectually curious set of individuals to debate, question, listen and learn about what we can do to make our world a better place. Here are the top 10 ideas that I took away from the event:

  1. Movies are weapons of mass construction, according to Louie Psihoyos, who won an Academy Award for his documentary The Cove, which revealed the horror of the annual roundup and slaughter of dolphins in Japan. This was Psihoyos’ first ever film, and its popularity dramatically changed Japan’s fishing industry. Psihoyos and many other participants emphasized that the scientific evidence of many environmental issues is crystal clear, but our methods for fostering widespread policy and behavior change is less understood. Google’s Geospatial Technologist Ed Parson’s underscored that we are emotional beings whose hearts are more powerful than our brains, and asked, “when did a map last make you cry?” Violinist Kenji Williams, in collaboration with NASA, performed his ‘Living Atlas’ show called Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth) which takes viewers on a journey of our world and galaxy using imagery from NASA space flights in combination with live music to express the deeply moving beauty of planet Earth.
  2. The age of one-way mass media news “broadcast” is over. Matt Thompson of NPR and Amanda Michel of US Guardian explained, media is no longer an appointment you go to at 5pm or 11pm; it’s a layer over our lives throughout the day. Audiences now share content with each other through on-line social networks, blogs and micro-blogs. Citizen journalism is growing and media outlets now find themselves sitting with their audiences, sharing content with each other.
  3. Technology and democracy are creating revolutionary times. Chrystia Freeland, the sassy provocateur and editor of Thomson Reuters Digital, proposed that we are now in the era of “leaderless revolutions.” Technology has empowered populations to rise up against those monopolizing power and even overthrow their governments – think Arab Spring – but, Freeland asked, where are the revolutionaries with the tools to rebuild governments. Protestors and organizers of revolutions can now scale up and communicate across networks-of-networks before even coming onto the streets. Previously, she said, “if a hundred people went out, they ended up in prison. If a million show up, the leader goes to jail.” Poland was able to create its government from the ground up – which many attributed to its culture of apprenticeship – but what about places like Egypt and Libya?
  4. “Climate change is one big psychic problem we need to get off the table,” explainedDavid Breashears, executive director and founder of GlacierWorks. David has documented, without doubt, that the glaciers of the Himalayas have already melted significantly. Yet, 1% of scientists with skewed views are stalling what we already know we must do, explained Dennis Dimick of National Geographic: change the energy paradigm, stop cutting forests, start having 2.1 kids per family, and empower women to have an equal voice in domestic affairs. The influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries has been so significant as to constitute a new geological era, the anthropocene.
  5. Get off ancient sunshine and onto current sunshine. Every year we burn a million years of photosynthesis that created our fossil fuels. I heard bright spots and dark spots about the future of energy. The bright spots lie in developing countries like India and China that have the opportunity to invest in next generation power, unconstrained by aging energy infrastructure. The CEO of SunBorne Energy explained that his company is creating utility-scale solar plants in India. I was also encouraged to hear that technological breakthroughs are still happening in the US today, for example in the extraction of natural gas which has opened up unimaginable volumes of gas across the globe, previously not commercially viable to extract. But there is a dirty side to this gold rush: it is contaminating drinking water and methane released is 25 times more harmful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Shell’s natural gas production will outpace oil production this year, contributing to US energy independent and US trade, according to Russ Ford of Shell. But until game-changing breakthroughs in renewable energies make them more profitable that fossil fuels we will not see any shift in the unsustainable energy paradigm.
  6. Practice more “local universe problem solving.” 21st century global problems require 21st century global solutions, but we also need to influence what is within our control and rationalize our actions.David McConville, president of the Buckminster Fuller Institute emphasized that we need to re-think our role in the ecosystem to understand our impact on it and think more systematically. Our designs and systems need to enhance the regenerative processes that support life. Finally, Alexis Karolides, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, explained that we need to capitalize on the power of place to galvanize communities and institutions around issues like energy efficiency, as explained in its energy roadmap Reinventing Fire.
  7. Break the Rules: art, design and social change. Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, placed the arts on the Festival agenda at the onset by explaining, “As individuals and collectively, we need to develop our moral imagination. Art is central to entering another’s shoes, but our education system is increasingly making that impossible with cuts on the humanities…The point of entering another’s story is not simply to feel sympathy, but to foster a sense of community that prompts action…” Later, Tim Brown, CEO of the world renown design firm IDEO, gave us 9 principles to design our world by:1) Design behavior, not objects, 2) Design for information flow, 3) Faster iteration = faster evolution, 4) Launch to learn, 5) Use selective emergence, 6) Take an experimental approach, 7) Focus on simple rules, 8) Design is never done, 9) There is power in purpose.  Finally, Adam Lerner, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, highlighted that there is a lot to learn from artist who break the rules. Artistic combinations and fusions help bring newness into the world.
  8. Risk was America’s best idea. The biggest risk is the one you never take. Kai Ryssdal, the host of public radio’s Marketplace, and my favorite radio voice on air today, explained, “Political risk is a virtue. Not balance, not harmony, but rather the idea of political risk is America’s founding idea. But we’ve forgotten what political risk in a democracy means, calculated action for the common good without regard for personal gain.”
  9. What separates a product from a brand is an idea. Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo global beverage group, argued that companies who have already thought about commercializing ideas and creating markets for them could become the wind behind small ideas. That is why Brad said they are trying to turn their 300,000 employees into inventors and listen for small ideas that could be recipes for feeding the next billion. Small is the next big.
  10. Lighten up, Revive “the Joke.” Jeffry Goldberg of the Atlantic provided comic ‘shock and awe’ each time he took the stage. He explained that there is too much “self-seriousness” in our policy discussions and less weighty matters, like “the joke” could go a long way. That’s why Goldberg, on the heals of all the buzz about The Atlantic’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” introduced himself to the audience as Anne-Marie Slaughter. Laughter produces all sorts of positive cocktails such as dopamine and endorphins, all of which help our creativity, sociability, problem solving and things like blood pressure and immune systems. Take the issues serious, but not yourself.

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