Learning to forgive the unforgivable and move on

September 27, 2008
Immaculee Ilibagiza. Photo by Tom Eblen

Immaculee Ilibagiza. Photo by Tom Eblen

Immaculee Ilibagiza lost most of her family in the tribal genocide that gripped her native Rwanda in the 1994. She would have been killed had not she and seven other women hidden silently in the cramped bathroom of a pastor’s home for 91 days until the danger passed. When she emerged from that room, she weighed only 65 pounds.

She came out of the experience and became a United Nations employee, a human rights activist and author of the best-selling book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. What allowed her to survive, and to thrive in the years since, she said, has been her faith in God and the ability to forgive.

“Forgiveness came to me as a gift,” from her horrible trauma, she said.

Ilibagiza said people can’t do anything about the past, but through love, faith and forgiveness can make a better future. “If there is no forgiveness in our heart, no business will go on,” she said.

She also learned to judge people as individuals, rather than groups. And she takes pleasure in the simplest things in life. “Hold on to hope,” she told an enthusiastic audience at one of the Idea Festival’s most well-attended sessions. “Don’t give up.”


Bjarke Ingels: Imagining what a building can be

September 27, 2008

Bjarke Ingels of Denmark, considered one of the world’s best young architects, gave a dazzling presentation at the Idea Festival.

In discussing project after project that his Copenhagen-based firm has done, he impressed the audience with not only his creativity and artistry, but with how he used architecture to solve each project’s “problems” and make it something special.

That isn’t easy, because many developers “are more interested in the bottom line than the skyline,” he said Friday.

“Functionalism liberated architecture from style” in the 20th century,” he said dryly. The result “was a lot of big boring boxes.”

Ingels works all over the world, and some of his most stunning projects are under way in China and the Middle East. But one of my favorites was the Mountain Dwellings apartment complex, which now dominates the view out Ingels’ own apartment window in Copenhagen.

The developer started out wanting to build two big boxes on the property: One for apartments, one for parking. Instead, Ingels’ and his co-workers created a stunning — and stunningly practical — solution to the developer’s needs that has become a design landmark. The interior parking garage is no less impressive than the living space.

The inspiration for some of Ingels’ ideas comes from the place-specific architecture of the past. There are reasons, he noted, that certain styles evolved in certain places hundreds and thousands of years before there were professional architects. Climate — and social climate — play important roles in a building’s design.  A glass tower might work fine for New York, but it makes no sense in an Arabian desert, he noted.

“We end up reinventing traditional forms and shapes, not as style, but as a new vernacular,” he said.

Ingels urged architects to become more pro-active in suggesting urban development, rather than waiting for politicians, developers and financiers to bring ideas forward.

Environmental sustainability is an important consideration in Ingels’ work. But, looking at it from the perspective of an Idea Festival, it was remarkable to see how he recycles and refines his ideas. An idea he pitched as a project in Sweden was rejected, but after much refinement, it turned out to be a perfect fit for a building for Shanghai.

It reinforced the notion that many Idea Festival many speakers stressed. They said ideas and creativity don’t come so much as flashes of genius, but from kernels of inspiration and a lot of hard work and persistence.

You can see more of Ingels’ work at his firm’s Web site.


Imagine Ohio River bridge as public art

September 26, 2008

Beligan artist and designer Arne Quinze is known for his large public art installations, many of which involve fluid masses of colorful wooden planks.

Quinze spoke at the Idea Festival on Friday, and he had a fascinating slide show of his work in cities around the world. Then, at the end, he had a surprise: A series of renderings and models of the old Ohio River railroad bridge turned into one of his art installations.

As it happens, Quinze met Louisville art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson in Europe last year. They invited him to Louisville to see their 21C Museum Hotel. When Quinze was here in March, he walked along Louisville’s emerging Waterfront Park.

“Within an hour of walking downtown, he saw the bridge and said, ‘I have an idea,'” said Alice Gray Stites, managing director of The Center for Contemporary Art at Louisville’s proposed Museum Plaza.

Quinze’s vision calls for turning what is to become a pedestrian bridge into one that would be a timeline of local history, with markers along the way. It would have music and lights powered by solar cells embedded in a mass of red and white wooden planks that would wind through the six arched steel spans atop the bridge. You can see some of Quinze’s renderings below.

“It’s a huge project, but I believe in it,” Quinze said. “We can do it and it would work.”

Stites said the Idea Festival presentation was the first time anyone in Louisville had seen Quinze’s proposal, so she doesn’t know what the reaction will be once it is shown to Mayor Jerry Abramson and officials developing public art projects for Waterfront Park. In addition to city approval, city funding also would be required to pull it off, Stites said.

Photo credit: copyright Arne Quinze

Photo credit: copyright Arne Quinze


Teller speaks, and reveals what is behind magic

September 26, 2008

Teller, the quiet half of the famous magic team Penn & Teller, started his speech at the Idea Festival by pulling a carpenter’s hammer from his coat pocket and placing it at the edge of the stage.

Teller said he planned to reveal some secrets of his magic, but he didn’t want videos of it showing up on YouTube. So he asked audience members to use the hammer to smash any video cameras they saw among them.

That introduction drew laughs. Many others were simply surprised to hear Teller, who is usually silent on stage, actually speak.

As it turned out, Teller was a terrific speaker, and he explained how he performs one of his most difficult illusions — making a red ball dance around in thin air. Let’s just say it has to do with thread, skill and lots and lots of practice.

Some magicians want to keep their secrets secret.  But Teller said his theory is this: “If you know how a trick is done, you’ll like it more, not less.”

During the explanation, he offered several insights into magic tricks and illusions and why they work, such as:

“Magic’s cause and effect are linked by poetry instead than physics.”

“Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.”

Teller may be one of the world’s most famous illusionists, but that doesn’t mean he no longer needs to practice.  In fact, he said he spends much of his time practicing tricks over and over to improve his skill and make them look effortless.

“The muses don’t drop by unless you keep regular office hours,” he said.


Looking to the past for signs of the future

September 26, 2008

Sometimes, it’s best to ignore conventional wisdom and look to the past for guidance.

The past week’s financial uncertainty set the stage for Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the controversial book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable at the Idea Festival on Friday.  Taleb describes “black swans” as the hard-to-predict events or developments that have profound impact.

Randomness plays an increasing role in society, and many people suffer from “an illusion of control.”  He criticized economists for long-term forecasts, most of which turn out to be wrong. Success often involves avoiding mistakes, and paying attention to what has happened in the past rather than experts’ theories of what might happen in the future.

He said people need to figure out ways they can gain from uncertainty, but protect themselves from risk. And, he said, “We need to teach people to have the guts to say ‘I don’t know.'”

Amy Chua speaks at the Idea Festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

Amy Chua speaks at the Idea Festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

Yale Law School professor Amy Chua looks at lessons America can learn from the past in her book,  Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fail.

Chua’s thesis, which she outlined at the Idea Festival, is that nations that have dominated the world during different periods of history prospered by using strategic religious tolerance, ethnic diversity and inclusion. They fell from power and sometimes collapsed when they became less tolerant, more ethnically exclusive or lost their social “glue.”

Success throughout history has relied on a hyperpower’s ability to attract and take advantage of the world’s best and brightest talent. Rome dominated the world by making people it conquered Roman citizens. The Mongol empire was smart enough to incorporate the skills of other ethnic groups it conquered, especially Chinese engineers. America has prospered largely because of religious tolerance, immigration, opportunity and ethnic diversity, she said.

So, what could this theory portend for America’s future?  Chua said America must protect religious freedom and diversity and, while controlling immigration, must make sure that the world’s best and brightest can continue to find opportunity here.

But Chua also worries that if recent U.S. immigrants don’t assimilate as previous generations have, the U.S. could lose much of its social glue. “We really do have to take seriously the issue of national cohesion,” she said.

As long as the United States remains a nation of immigrants, it will have an advantage over countries such as China that are far less diverse.

American culture may rule the planet. But the exclusivity of U.S. citizenship makes it harder for America to maintain clout worldwide as other nations become more wealthy and powerful. “Wearing a Yankees baseball cap and drinking Coca-Cola will not make a Palestinian feel like an American,” she said.

One future challenge will be figuring out how to give people in other countries “more of a stake in America’s success and leadership,” Chua said. “You can really learn a lot from Rome.”


A prize for using design to help humanity

September 25, 2008

There is no shortage of international  prizes honoring flashy, provocative, beautiful or breathtaking architecture and design.

The new $100,000 Curry Stone Design Prize, administered by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, is different.

The first Curry Stone Design Prize was awarded Thursday at the Idea Festival in Louisville to a South African architecture firm that, working without pay, designed and is building 10 houses for poor people in Capetown. The houses are made of timbers of wood and steel and bags filled with sand. They cost less than $7,000 each and can be built by their owners.

Beautiful? Provocative?  Not in the world of architecture. But for a world where it is estimated that 1 billion people — about 15 percent of the population — live in shanties, projects like this have the ability to reshape the way much of humanity lives.

That was the idea when Clifford Curry and his wife, H. Delight Stone, of Oregon decided to create the prize as part of a $5.5 million gift to UK. Curry had been a successful architect, pioneering the design of housing for elderly people. Curry, a UK architecture graduate, wanted to honor breakthrough design ideas that improve the human spirit, increase awareness of the environment or responde to areas of human need.

Like the famous MacArthur “genius” grants, the Curry Stone Prize comes with no strings attached.

“The concept is they can do whatever they darn well please” with the money, Curry said. “These are motivated people. I want them to figure that out.”

MMA Architects principal Luyanda Mpahlwa, 49, was unable to get a U.S. visa to attend the ceremony because of his anti-Apartheid work in South Africa years ago. But in a telephone interview, Mpahlwa said he expects to use some of the money to continue this sort of work, as well to expand a scholarship program for architects he has started in South Africa.

“There is a lot of need for these projects,” he said. “I am starting to look at what other materials combinations and types we could use. We want to take part in a body of knowledge that contributes to local housing situations.”

MMA was chosen from among five finalists; the others attended the ceremony and received $10,000 cash awards. Thirty anonymous nominators around the world suggested candidates, and a panel of judges met in New York in July to choose four finalists and a winner.

David Mohney, a College of Design faculty member, former dean and secretary of the prize, said MMA was chosen because it is an example of using conventional architecture in an unconventional way to promote social good. But all of the finalists had amazing stories to tell.

Wes Janz, 55, an associate professor of architecture at Ball State University in Indiana, helps people in third-world slums build well-designed housing from scavenged materials. Marjetica Potrc, 55, an artist and architect from Slovenia, works in impoverished communities. One project she discussed was a toilet that doesn’t need water that has been used in shanty communities in Guatemala. Antonio Scarponi, 34, an architect based in Venice, Italy, uses architecture and multimedia arts to illustrate social and political lines that unite and divide people.

The most unconventional finalist was Shawn Frayne, 27, an inventor in Hawaii, who has invented the first non-turbine wind-powered generator. It is small and looks like a violin bow. It uses wind to create very cheap electricity that can replace batteries. It can be used to power lamps, run small refrigerators and charge cell phones.

“Harder problems make for better inventions,” said Frayne, who created the generator after visiting Haiti and thinking that poor people there needed cheaper and safer sources of light than kerosene lanterns. “The problems in emerging countries are no longer isolated, but are showing up everywhere in the world.”

Emiliano Gandolfi, an Italian architect who led a panel discussion of the finalists at the Idea Festival, said the Curry Stone Design Prize recognizes a new sensibility among architects and designers, especially young ones like him, that design is about more than creating beautiful things. It can be about improving the human experience at all levels.

“What we are discovering is a new sensibility,” he said.

Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design, said he’s glad to see the university on the forefront of that movement.

“Many people understand design to be the engine of innovation,” he said. “This prize recognizes social innovation and not just commercial innovation.”


South Africans win first $100,000 design prize

September 25, 2008

A South African architecture firm that has pioneered simple, affordable housing that poor Capetown families can largely build themselves has won the first $100,000 Curry Stone Design Prize.

The new prize, administered by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, is intended to recognize breakthrough work being done around the world that uses design to accomplish humanitarian goals.

MMA Architects of Capetown is headed by Luyanda Mpahlwa, 49, and Mphethi Morojele, 45. It came up with a design for a house made of timber supports and sandbags that a family or community can construct for less than $7,000.  The firm is helping a Capetown neighborhood build 10 of the structures.

MMA Architects was one of five finalists for the award, and the only one not able to attend the announcement today at the Idea Festival in Louisville. Because of post-911 security, Mpahlwa was unable to get a U.S. visa because he had been imprisoned years ago when blacks were resisting white rule in South Africa.

The other finalists, who will receive $10,000 prizes, are Shawn Frayne, inventor of the world’s first non-turbine wind-powered generator; Wes Janz, architect and associate professor of architecture at Ball State University in Indiana; artist and architect Marjetica Potre; and Antonio Scarponi, an Italian architect and multimedia artist.  All have used design to help solve health and housing problems in poor, developing parts of the world.

Click here to view videos of each finalist’s work.

Clifford Curry, co-founder of the prize, said there are no restrictions on how the winners use the prize money.

“The concept is they can do whatever they darn well please,” he said. “These are motivated people. I want them to figure that out.”


How would you handle the bailout?

September 25, 2008

I’m sitting here at the Idea Festival this morning thinking that some of the world’s smartest people shouldn’t be in Louisville today, but in Washington helping figure out how to design the Wall Street bailout.

It’s a frightening — and fascinating — story. It almost makes me wish I were still a business editor in Atlanta. Almost.

I’m glad that Congress is insisting that any bailout limit the obscene compensation top executives of failed firms can receive. They should be getting a bill, not a check. But I’m still waiting to see how the government plans to help Main Street as well as Wall Street.

But here’s the main thing I don’t understand about the Bush Administration’s initial bailout proposal: Rather than just buying up bad loans, why isn’t the government taking the Warren Buffett approach and buying equity as well?  That would give taxpayers an ownership stake and some up-side potential in this whole situation, rather than just taking all the garbage off Wall Street’s hands.

I’m sure many readers of this blog know a lot more about high finance and economic policy than I do. So, how would you handle the bailout?  What advice would you give Congressional leaders as they put together a plan to keep our economy from sinking because of Wall Street’s greed and incompetence?  Comment below.


Seeking transformational ideas for Kentucky

September 24, 2008

The afternoon session of the Idea Kentucky conference was basically a big brainstorming session.

After hearing from the speakers, the 240 or so attendees passed around microphones and expressed their ideas. The moderators asked for ideas about investments Kentucky could make in developing people and talents that could produce “transformational” change within 10 years. It was a tall order.

The audience was heavy with educators, and there was a class of high school students from Breckinridge County. So many of the ideas had to do with improving education.

Russ Meredith, a University of Louisville senior, addresses the audience during the afternoon brainstorming session. Photo by Tom Eblen

Russ Meredith, a University of Louisville senior, addresses the audience during the afternoon brainstorming session.

Larry Hujo, a Jefferson County school board member, suggested more apprenticeship programs to help students learn job skills. At the same time, though, he thought there should be more classes that teach students how to think, rather than commit facts to memory. “We’ve got to have classes in our schools that teach creativity,” Hujo said, remembering how his father once told him, “Son, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Other education ideas:

  • Restore physical fitness programs, and recess time, because students learn many life skills on the playground.
  • Move to year-around schools, rather than having long summer breaks.
  • Pay teachers much better, but also abolish tenure to weed out lazy, ineffective teachers.
  • Require teachers to visit the home of each student for dinner one time during the year, as is done in some places in Japan.
  • Create better scholarship programs that help students with the cost of higher education and provide incentives for them to remain in Kentucky after graduation.
  • Encourage employers to provide more tuition reimbursement and other continuing education benefits to keep workforce skills sharp and up-to-date. Also encourage employers to be more flexible in helping workers achieve work-life balance.
  • Create school-based innovation funds that could finance ideas for solving community problems.

Aside from education, the ideas were all over the map.  One man suggested rebuilding old railroad beds and reopening commuter train service, at least among Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky. It would be good for economic growth, and good for the environment.

Russ Meredith, a University of Louisville senior who also manages a farmer’s market, suggested more promotion of local foods, including using local foods in school cafeterias. A woman suggested more support for community-owned businesses, and urged people to shop less at Wal-mart.  (It wasn’t mentioned, but Wal-mart is now Kentucky’s biggest private employer, with more than 32,000 workers.)

A man suggested requiring public buildings to be meet LEED environmental construction standards. A woman said Kentucky’s forests could be developed more — not just for cutting timber to be shipped elsewhere, but to develop finished wood-products companies.

Another woman suggested that heavy-smoking, tobacco-growing Kentucky should set a goal for becoming a “smoke free” state as an example to the rest of the world.

Several people suggested more development of alternative energy sources, and new ways to use coal that would be more environmentally friendly.

Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, talked about the potential for more efficient power plants, noting that the average age of Kentucky’s plants is about 35 years old, and 50 years is generally considered maximum life. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for (Kentucky’s energy profile) to look very different than it does today,” he said.

Kris Kimel of the Kentucky Science & Technology Corp., the Idea Festival’s founder, said he was pleased with the conference, and the ideas that came from it, even if they weren’t necessarily bolt-of-lighting revelations. “A transformational strategy involves multiple ideas,” he said.

Which ideas did Kimel think were most promising?  He liked restarting commuter rail service in the Golden Triangle, and requiring teachers to visit students’ homes to help get parents more involved in their children’s education. He also thought that becoming a “smoke-free” state was an intriguing idea, whatever form it might take.

All in all, it was a good warmup for a week devoted to ideas.  What ideas do you have to add to the mix?  Comment below.


Idea Kentucky: Getting past a commodity economy

September 24, 2008

Jeffrey Manber is a New York entrepreneur who works around the world helping develop commercial applications for space and space travel.

In his remarks to the Idea Kentucky conference today, he focused on the need to create an innovation economy rather than a commodity economy.  It’s a concept that resonates in Kentucky, which has long had commodities at its economic core: Coal, timber, tobacco, etc.

Manber said Iceland presents an interesting example. In the early 1980s, it had high unemployment and an old-world economy based on commodity — fishing. Iceland’s leaders decided then to focus on creating an economy for the modern age, so they invested heavily in education, technology and creativity. And they weren’t afraid to take risks.

Now Iceland, with a population a little smaller than metro Lexington’s, has full employment, an exploding consumer market, a hip culture, growing eco-tourism and geothermal energy industries and big technology companies.

“We’re going to have to train our young people to focus on the new economy,” Manber said.

Manber said the United States has a key strength: The freedom of individual decision-making. People succeed in this country based on their ideas and their work ethic, rather than their pedigree or social standing. “They don’t do that in most places in the world,” he said. “We have this flexibility that no one else has.”

However, a key weakness is that Americans are reluctant to travel elsewhere in the world and learn from others. “We don’t mind people coming here, but we don’t think we can go learn from others,” he said.

Manber said the biggest immigration problem facing the United States isn’t what most people think it is — illegal workers coming to take low-wage jobs.  The real problem is that it’s difficult for talented people from other countries to come work legally for high-tech, top-performing American countries.

“The free flow of talent is as important as the free flow of currency has been for the past 20 years,” he said.

Manber said the United States also must get used to the notion that it must be more creative and innovative, because we’re no longer the world’s only superpower.  To keep its economic edge, the United States and Kentucky must invest more in education and innovation.

He noted that India’s focus on education is not only transforming that country, but India is sending talented, well-educated professionals throughout the world. He cited figures that 38 percent of U.S. physicians and 12 percent of U.S. scientists are from India, as are the CEOs of several of this nation’s top companies.


Idea Kentucky: Taking notes in pictures

September 24, 2008

Here at the Idea Kentucky conference, people are taking notes, taking photos and recording audio and video. And then there’s Keith Bendis, a graphic artist and cartoonist from New York state, who has been brought in to capture the conference’s main themes in drawings.

Bendis is working along one side of the big conference room at the Muhammad Ali Center, on three big white boards with a fist full of magic markers. As speakers speak, he draws.

“It’s called graphic recording,” said Bendis, who has been in this business a little more than three years after a three-decade career in cartooning and graphic arts in New York City. “I capture the main themes of the presentations graphically. People remember things more visually than just listening to them. People really respond to these.”

Bendis will keep his board up all day, then take it home, photograph it and turn it into a PowerPoint presentation for Idea Kentucky organizers.

Photos by Tom Eblen.  Click photos to enlarge them.


Idea Kentucky: Setting the stage for innovation

September 24, 2008

Before Gov. Steve Beshear spoke at the first Idea Kentucky conference today in Louisville, the stage for discussion was set by organizer Kris Kimel of the Kentucky Science & Technology Corp. and Michael Childress of the Kentucky Long Term Policy Research Center.

“I think there’s a palpable sense in Kentucky that we need a different path for this state,” said Kimel, who also is the force behind the international Idea Festival that will follow this conference, Thursday through Friday in downtown Louisville.

“It’s not about the sky falling,” he said. “It’s about finding ways to change the trajectory for the Commonwealth in a lot of different issues. We’re not going anywhere unless we do some things dramatically different. In today’s world, it’s about breakthrough innovation.”

Childress outlined four areas he hoped the afternoon discussions would focus on: Economy, education, healthcare and energy. “We know it’s possible to do better” in all of those areas, he said.

He showed statistics that told how Kentucky’s per-capita income was 65 percent of the national average in 1950. That had grown to 81 percent by 2006. Funny thing is, we were still 46th among the states. In other words, we were not making progress compared to the rest of the country.

Childress noted that because Kentucky’s economy is so tied to manufacturing, the state uses twice as much energy as the national average in overall economic production. And only 3 percent of the energy used in Kentucky is from renewable sources. That could be a liability as energy prices increase and environmental concerns grow more acute.

Kimel noted that incremental improvement is no longer good enough for Kentucky, if, indeed, it ever was. At the current rate of income growth, it would take 154 years for Kentucky to reach the national average, he said.

Technology now allows work to move to people, rather than forcing people to move to where work is. That could be a big advantage to Kentucky if the state can create a more innovative culture and invest more in developing and attracting talented, creative people, Kimel said.

“In today’s world, it’s all about people and talent and creative capacity,” Kimel said. “There is a perception of this state that while we have a lot of things gong for us, we’re not a place of innovation.”


Beshear: ‘No time to be wishy-washy’

September 24, 2008

Gov. Steve Beshear kicked off the first Idea Kentucky conference in Louisville this morning by calling for more innovation and action in Kentucky.

“This is no time to be wishy-washy,” Beshear told about 200 leaders from across the state who came to the conference at the Muhammad Ali Center. “We keep doing things the same way and expecting different results. If we don’t watch out, we’re going to fall further and further behind.

“We have to be bolder. We have to be more aggressive. And we have to take action now.” Beshear said, adding that he hoped the conference would be a “Pep rally for boldness.”

Beshear outlined several areas where he thought bold action was needed:

Citizens in Kentucky, which has the nation’s highest adult smoking rate and one of the highest obesity rates, must take more individual responsibility for improving their health. A more healthy population would save millions, if not billions, in future healthcare costs that could be invested more productively, he said.

Kentucky must stop living in the past, using outdated and often failed economic development strategies that produce only incremental improvement. Instead, he said, the state must invest aggressively in innovation, education and technology.

“We must invest in modernizing our economy,” he said. “Ideas without resources are just clever ideas.”

Beshear urged more investment in early childhood education and healthcare. Many Kentucky children don’t get any formal education until age 4, when 90 percent of brain development has already occurred, he said.  And in order to develop mentally, a child must be physically well.

Beshear said food and energy could be important areas for innovation in Kentucky, noting the state’s rich agriculture history and coal reserves. “Coal isn’t going away,” he said. “Our challenge is to make it cleaner and greener.”  He also called for more investment in alternative energy sources such as solar energy.

“We are moving,” Beshear said. “We are doing things that will get us where we want to go. But we aren’t moving fast enough. And we’re not investing enough.”

Beshear received loud applause from the audience when he called for a “significant increase” in the state’s cigarette tax, a proposal he made earlier this year but which the General Assembly rejected. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said, because it would both raise state revenue and promote a healthier lifestyle that would save healthcare costs.

Beshear wrapped up by quoting the pioneering scientist Charles Darwin, who noted that survival doesn’t go to the strongest or smartest creatures, but those most able to adapt to change.


No shortage of ideas in Kentucky this week

September 24, 2008

If you go to the Web site for Idea Kentucky, a big gathering Wednesday in Louisville, there’s a link that takes you to the conference’s ground rules.

Click on the link, and this is what you see:

Statements not allowed during discussions

That’s a crazy idea.

That will cost too much.

That won’t work in Kentucky

Those rules set a perfect tone for the six-hour conference at the Muhammad Ali Center. And they work equally well for the bigger event taking place in downtown Louisville from Thursday through Saturday: The 2008 Idea Festival.

This is the sixth Idea Festival, a now-annual gathering that was started in Lexington in 2000 by Kris Kimel of the Kentucky Science & Technology Corp. The festival moved to Louisville in 2006 because it needed bigger venues and corporate sponsors.

I’ll be attending both events and blogging throughout the day, each day, at The Bluegrass & Beyond on www.kentucky.com.

There should be a lot of interesting things to write about, because the Idea Festival each year brings some of the world’s smartest and most creative people to Kentucky to explain their big ideas and expand the minds of those in the audience.

I love it that the festival links Kentucky with brainpower, creativity and innovation. Kentucky isn’t often on the cutting edge, but considering our state’s problems and opportunities, now would be a good time to get sharper.

A quarter of Kentuckians smoke. A third are obese. At the current rate of per capita income growth, it would take Kentucky 150 years to reach the national average. And when it comes to educational performance, we’re just ahead of the bottom third of states.

Those are some of the issues that will be discussed at Idea Kentucky. Speakers include Gov. Steve Beshear, Kimel and Michael Childress of the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center. But much of the conference will be about audience participation and group discussion. Maybe some new ideas will emerge.

It should be a good warm-up for the Idea Festival, whose speakers range from off the charts to off the wall. Unlike Idea Kentucky’s agenda, which seems focused on practical ideas for problem-solving, the Idea Festival simply tries to expand your mind. What happens after that is up to you.

Speakers include scientific types, such as neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik, author of the book Another Day in the Frontal Lobe; Richard Gott, a Princeton University astrophysicist who’s originally from Louisville; and Richard Kogan, a distinguished New York psychiatrist and award-winning concert pianist.

There are business types, such as pioneering marketers Bridget Brennan and John Gauntt. Artistic types such as filmmaker Soozie Eastman, chef Howard Dubrovsky and dance artistic director Jacques Heim. And top international architects such as Emiliano Gandolfi of Italy and Bjarke Ingels of Denmark.

The University of Kentucky’s College of Design will award the first $100,000 Curry Stone Design Prize to someone whose breakthrough design solutions have improved our lives and our world.

And then there are speakers from all walks of life and disciplines: Rwanda genocide survivor and peace activist Immaculée Ilibagiza; ninjutsu martial-arts master Peter King; crossword puzzle master Will Shortz; and Vova Galchenko of Russia, who is perhaps the world’s best juggler.

And many more. See the festival’s Web site for more details. And read my blog for reports several times each day.

Can’t get to Louisville? There also should be some good ideas bouncing around Bluegrass Tomorrow’s “Inno Vision 2018″ breakfast Thursday at the Marriott Griffin Gate. Speakers include Beshear, Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.

The morning-long conference will discuss a comparative analysis of innovation in 22 metropolitan regions around the country similar to Central Kentucky. For more information, call (859) 277-9614 or go to Bluegrass Tomorrow’s Web site.