Home » IdeaFestival offers fresh ideas for the future

IdeaFestival offers fresh ideas for the future

Author and former U.S. Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren spoke Thursday at IdeaFestival, giving a firsthand account of the civilian side of the surge in Iraq, what he calls “that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed.” Photos by Lorie Hailey

By Lorie Hailey
lanereport.com editor

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Sept. 26, 2012) — Last week’s IdeaFestival offered participants the chance to hear from a diverse network of global thinkers who offered thought-provoking yet informal talks about a variety of issues that impact and shape the future.


Billed as a celebration for the intellectually curious, IdeaFestival “brings together over 500 passionate minds and voices from a variety of disciplines – all working towards the convergence and exploration of how ideas shape our future,” the group says on its website.

The annual event, which began in 2000, is a chance to explore, discuss and celebrate innovation, imagination and world-changing ideas.

“IdeaFestival attracts those extraordinary people who drive diversity, accelerate art, induce awe and define significance, while  hosting a wide range of attendees ranging  from  Fortune 500 CEO’s to high school freshmen … because the answers are everywhere,” according to ideafestival.com.

The four-day festival is organized by the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., based in Lexington, and is renowned for assembling one of the world’s most cutting-edge collections of creativity each year. The goal, according to KSTC President Kris Kimel, is to support and stimulate innovation and creativity in Kentucky, especially in its business community.

Each year, IdeaFestival offers an impressive list of emerging and well-known influencers from a variety of disciplines including science, the arts, design, business, film, technology, education and more – all working towards the convergence and exploration of how ideas shape our future.

This year was no exception.

In the first two days alone, presenters included: Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, who discussed the relationship between chess, business strategy and success; entrepreneur, venture capitalist and author Peter Sims, who explored how small discoveries and actions of “experimental innovation” can lead to breakthroughs ideas; MIT’s David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and Department Head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society, and a Senior Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Physics; Kevin Colleran, one of the first 10 employees who helped build Facebook into a global phenomenon; Rich DeMillo, head of The Center for 21st Century Universities, who delivered a talk called “Reimagining Higher Education;” MIT professor Rosalind Picard, who led the audience through a journey into the future of the exciting new field of affective computing, which uses technology to help measure and communicate emotion; among others.

Captivating presentations

Days 3 and 4 also were filled with riveting speakers. A Thursday session called “Art on the Edge” offered a look at five innovative and highly diverse artists from across the nation — Tahir Hemphill, Hasal Elahi, Liz Cohen, Ruby Lerner and Sam Van Aken. They each shared their latest cutting-edge work and ideas.

Hemphill, a multimedia artist working in the areas of interdisciplinary thought, collaboration and research, shared “The Hip-Hop Word Count,” his searchable, ethnographic database built from the lyrics of over 40,000 Hip-Hop songs from 1979 to present day. The database is the heart of an online analysis tool that generates textual and quantified reports on searched phrases, syntax, memes and socio-political ideas.

The Hip-Hop Word Count locks in a time and geographic location for every metaphor, simile, cultural reference, phrase, meme and socio-political idea used in the corpus of Hip-Hop, Hemphill explained. It then converts this data into explorable visualizations which help to comprehend this vast set of cultural data.

The data can be used to chart the migration of ideas and builds a geography of language and is the engine for a teaching curriculum, he said.

Elahi, an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines issues of surveillance, simulated time, transport systems, borders and frontiers, shared the story of his name being mistakenly added to the U.S. government’s watch list and how he fought the assault on his privacy by turning his life inside-out for all the world to see.

He figured once his name was in the system, he’d never get out of it. A frequent international traveler, Elahi decided to turn the tables and cooperate. He began calling the FBI frequently, and sent emails to agents about his whereabouts. He set up a website, trackingtransience.net, where he posted photos of his minute-by-minute life, up to around a hundred a day, including hotel rooms, train stations, meals, receipts. He also wears a GPS device that tracks his movements on his site’s live Google map.

The best way to protect his privacy, he said, was to give it away. And while he is still being watched by the authorities, according to server records, he hasn’t been bothered since he began his open-ended art project.

Whistleblower gives eyewitness account of Iraqi reconstruction

Author and former U.S. Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren gave his eyewitness account of the complex U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq and his own role in “helping lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.” His new book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” offers a firsthand account of the civilian side of the surge, what he calls “that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed.”

Van Buren led a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq. In his book and on stage at IdeaFestival, Buren detailed his yearlong encounter with “pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers and oblivious administrators secluded in the world’s largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can’t rebuild a country without first picking up the trash.”

He told the audience to ask their legislators why they can afford to spend billions rebuilding Iraq but not take care of America’s needs?

On his blog, he poses the question: “Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended?”

The Finland Phenomenon, black holes and water for the world

WaterStep volunteers construct water filtration systems at the IdeaFestival. The organization set up a series of tents outside the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts in Louisville.

A discussion about the Finland Phenomenon was led by Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner, who discussed how Finland’s schools, which are consistently ranked among the best in the world, achieve this distinction while operating on a very different set of assumptions about effective learning and teaching than the U.S. and many other countries, including no standardized tests.

Other presenters included: Lisa Randall, Harvard theoretical particle physicist, cosmologist and best-selling author, who took the audience on a journey through some of the most perplexing aspects of the universe, including extra dimensions in space, cosmological inflation, dark matter and black holes; theatre troupe Shakespeare Behind Bars; Jodie Wu, entrepreneur, Echoing Green Fellow and CEO of Tanzania-based Global Cycle Solutions Inc., who transformed the bicycle into a vehicle that adds important value to smallholder farmers around the world; and Dr. John Barker, who heads a new regenerative medicine institute in Frankfurt, Germany, that is on a path to develop novel and perhaps breakthrough ways to help the body regenerate and restore hand and facial tissue, among others.

WaterStep, a Louisville organization formerly known as EdgeOutreach that works to provide solutions to the root causes of waterborne illness through training and readily-available technology, set up a series of tents outside the Center for the Performing Arts where volunteers constructed 140 water purification systems during the four-day festival.

A team of GE engineers and volunteers assembled WaterStep’s M-100 chlorine generator and demonstrated the technology behind what enables the M-100 to provide 10,000 gallons of safe drinking water in a 24-hour period. The M-100 is one of WaterStep’s most valuable tools in fighting the world water crisis.

Less than one percent of the world’s water is suitable for human consumption, WaterStep said. Of the 6.7 billion people on earth, 1 in 6 lacks access to safe drinking water on a daily basis. That translates to 1.2 billion people who are at risk every day.

A child dies every 20 seconds because of a waterborne illness.

Louisville Water Company along with GE employees and retirees have been volunteering their time with WaterStep to help design a water purification system that is more affordable, more compact and easier to install in developing countries, while being manufactured with components and tools typically available at any hardware store.