A model for a different Kentucky image, reality

September 25, 2011

While driving to Louisville last week, I listened to a radio interview with Bob Edwards, who has published his memoirs. The Kentucky-born broadcaster talked about having to lose his accent for network radio and having to endure lots of hillbilly jokes.

Kentuckians cringe at such stereotypes, but I took it in stride that morning. I was on my way to the Idea Festival.

The festival, which started in Lexington in 2000 and has been an annual event since moving to Louisville in 2006, shatters stereotypes about Kentucky as a place of nothing but under-educated, narrow-minded, backward people.

People from around the world come to the festival to hear fascinating speakers discuss new ideas about every subject imaginable. The program strives to create an intellectual mash-up of scientists, business people, artists, students, politicians, academics and technology geeks.

The format is similar to the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences, whose “TED talk” videos have become an Internet sensation. The goal is to help attendees stretch their minds and open themselves to the kind of creativity that will produce the breakthrough ideas of the future.

IBM’s Watson computer was there to play Jeopardy! against high school students after the leader of the team that created the supercomputer explained how it works. An astrophysicist discussed string theory. A “neuromarketer” talked about how to trigger buying impulses in the brain. A researcher explained the science behind kissing.

A geo-strategist analyzed world political trends. A spoken-word poet talked about preserving humanity in a Facebook/Twitter world. A top IBM executive and the head of an organic tea company compared notes on fostering business innovation. Other sessions covered health care, climate change and the value of historic landscapes.

Author Wes Moore told the compelling story of his life and the life of a man with the same name and a similar hard-luck upbringing who became a cop killer, instead of the Rhodes scholar that he became. The idea Moore wanted to explore: how others’ expectations of us shape the life-altering decisions we make.

Then, out of nowhere, the stage belonged to Linsey Stirling, a hip-hop violinist from Arizona whose creative musicianship reminded me of what Lexingtonian Ben Sollee does with a cello.

“We all act as if math, science and poetry are different things, but all knowledge is connected,” said Kris Kimel, the festival’s founder and president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. “What the festival is about is how to deconstruct and reconnect that knowledge.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and his staff worked from desks in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where the festival was held, so they could attend as many sessions as possible.

About 300 city employees got to attend at least one session. Ted Smith, the city’s innovation director, encouraged them to use the experience to come up with ways to make local government more effective and efficient. “A lot of innovation comes from empowering people to bring ideas forward,” Smith said. “We want to encourage that.”

Eighty-five students from Louisville’s duPont Manual High School spent all week at the festival. Principal Larry Wooldridge said that happened because senior class president Michael Perry attended last year’s festival and convinced him that more students should come. Perry even set up a meeting between Wooldridge and Kimel to work out the details.

“These kids challenge me and the teachers every day. They come in with ideas, and they also say, ‘Here’s how we can do it,'” Wooldridge said. He said he hoped the festival would give him ideas for better integrating his school’s five diverse magnet programs.

Kimel said each of this year’s sessions — many of which were ticketed separately — attracted about 500 people. But he was disappointed that there were some empty seats. Next year, he wants more Kentucky business people and students to attend.

“When you get people in an environment like this, you get them to begin to understand that the world really is changing,” Kimel said. “If we don’t understand that, we’re going to be left out.”

Each time I attend the Idea Festival, I think about its potential to change outsiders’ stereotypes of Kentucky — and, more importantly, how such creative thinking could change the realities at the root of those stereotypes.

Ted Smith, left, debriefed some of the 300 Louisville city employees attending the Idea Festival last week to see what ideas for improving local government the festival's sessions and atmosphere may have sparked. He was sitting at the temporary office of Mayor Greg Fischer, which set up in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts during the festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

Idea Festival: Unlocking secrets to ‘deep innovation’

September 23, 2011

IBM had Think Pads long before the invention of the laptop computer that now goes by that name. The original Think Pads were leather-bound pads of paper that IBM employees were given by management, beginning in 1923, to record their ideas and inspirations.

David Barnes, an IBM executive whose official title is “technology evangelist”, used the example to explain that innovation isn’t so much about a company’s technology as its attitude. He spoke at the Idea Festival on Friday about how to create and foster business innovation.

Too many companies are unwilling to trust employees enough to give them the time and flexibility to think creatively — or support innovation and new ideas when they come out of the rank-and-file.

“Too many companies are looking quarter-to-quarter; they are not looking long-term,” Barnes said. “They pretend they’re interested in innovation, but they’re not.”

Also talking about innovation was Heather Howell of Rooibee Red Tea, a Louisville-based organic tea company. The keys to her company’s success: “Get to know your customer. Be passionate.”

Howell said creating an innovative company is only possible if you trust employees and give them the freedom to innovate.

“Give them the leash to be creative,” she said. “The best thing I ever did was to not follow the rules.”

Idea Festival: Where art, technology collide

September 23, 2011

Artist Shih Chieh Huang created this sculpture using plastic bags and blown air at the Idea Festival in Louisville. Huang's work is being featured at the Land of Tomorrow's gallery in Louisville until Oct. 23. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — The Idea Festival‘s third day Friday included mini-lectures by five artists supported by Creative Capital whose art uses modern culture, technology, everyday experiences and touches of humor to help us see things in different ways.

Shih Chieh Huang creates fascinating art installations by adapting modern technology to quirky, humorous and sometimes amazing new uses. It’s hard to describe his work; you just have to see it. To do that, click here. Or, better yet, see an exhibit of his work at the Land of Tomorrow gallery’s Louisville space, Sept. 23 – Oct. 23. For more information, click here.

Mark Shepard showed an “instructional video” that uses humor to comment on modern life, technology and urban architecture. His tool is the “Serendipitor” — an imaginary device for finding something by looking for something else. The device provides such useful instructions as: “Walk toward the heart of the city. If it doesn’t have a heart, give it one.”  See more of his work by clicking here.

Julie Wyman is a photographer whose art has evolved into recording “light events” without a traditional camera. That has included recording full moons to light in Antarctica. See more of her work by clicking here.

Pamela Z bends and synthesizes her voice and other sounds with images to create dazzling audio-visual experiences. She also has expanded into audio-visual art installations. See more of her work by clicking here.

Richard Pell is the creator of the Center for Post-Natural History, which has a location in Pittsburgh and does installations around the country. With big doses of humor, he explores how human culture and science has altered nature. He especially likes to focus on creatures who through selective breeding and genetic modification have become part of what he calls the “post-natural world.” Read more about his work by clicking here.

Creative Capital is a New York-based nonprofit that tries to be “a catalyst for the development of adventurous and imaginative ideas by supporting artists who pursue innovation in form and/or content in the performing and visual arts, film and video, and in emerging fields.” For more information, see its website.

Idea Festival: Brain secrets to making sales

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — Sales success is not so much about selling. It is about easing potential customers’ pain and fear and appealing to their “reptilian” brain.

That was the message of Patrick Renvoisé, an author and former head of global business development for Silicon Graphics who calls himself an expert in neuromarketing. He studies how the human brain makes buying decisions, and he offered tips for influencing those decisions.

Decisions are primarily governed by the “reptilian” brain — the part of our brain where instinct and basic survival skills reside — rather than the intellectual or emotional parts. The best way to sell customers is to diagnose their pains and fears and offer ways to ease them, Renvoisé said.

“When people want and need your product, what is their pain?” he asked, adding that fear-avoidance is one of the strongest human motivations.

For example, he told the Idea Festival audience on Thursday, Dominos Pizza figured out years ago that people who ordered delivery pizza were more anxious about when it would arrive than how good it would taste. Thus, the Dominos sales pitch of delivery within 30 minutes or the pizza was free.

After easing pain and calming fears, appealing to emotions is important. “We make emotional decisions and then try to rationalize them, not vice versa,” Renvoisé said.

Other advice: explain how your product is different and better than competitors’ products, and prove it somehow. Also, keep your message simple and visual.


Idea Festival: preserving humanity in a virtual world

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — Spoken-word poet Azure Antoinette struggles with the problem as much as others do.

She worries that we are losing our humanity in a virtual world of digital communications, where many people pay more attention to their Facebook friends than their actual friends. Still, she said, she is addicted to her BlackBerry and is constantly on Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s this false popularity that’s very strange,” Antoinette told her audience Thursday at the Idea Festival. “We are all so self-centered.”

Technology has opened up amazing new ways to expand communication, she noted, but we must avoid short-changing the genuine interpersonal communication that enriches our lives. “We are moving away from a time when things are physically tangible,” she said, and that is not good.

As a poet, she also worries about what social media is doing to young people’s language and grammar skills. And she fears that popular culture is being confused with meaningful art and literature.

During a question-and-answer session after her lecture, an audience member had the best line I have heard this morning: “I’ve heard it said that a book commits suicide every time somebody watches Jersey Shore.”

Idea Festival speaker explains the science of kissing

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — To Sheril Kirshenbaum, a kiss is not just a kiss.

The researcher and author opened the second day of the Idea Festival on Thursday with a lecture on the topic of her new book, The Science of Kissing.

Smooching, she explained, really is about chemistry. And biology. And evolutionary impulses about reproduction that are very different among men and women.

“A first kiss is nature’s ultimate litmus test,” Kirshenbaum said.

While men often see kissing as a means to an end (sex), women, who often have more acute senses of taste and smell, use it as an important indicator of whether to pursue a relationship. They literally are trying to find “the right chemistry” because “kissing acts on the body like a drug.”

Among kissing behavior she noted: Most people tilt their heads when they kiss, and two-thirds of them tilt their head to the right. Why is that? One theory is it is the way most infants nurse. Also, she claimed, people are more likely to pass germs through shaking hands than pressing lips.

“The best advice I can give is when you love someone, kiss them often,” she said.

Kirshenbaum is a scientist at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. Aside from studying kissing, her work focuses on increasing public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans and culture. She also writes the blog Culture of Science.


Idea Festival opens in Louisville by ‘rethinking’ city

September 21, 2011

The Idea Hub in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts has become an outpost for offices of city government and several local companies during the Idea Festival, which began Wednesday and continues through Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — The Idea Festival opened in Louisville this morning with a panel discussion called “Rethinking Louisville.” But moderator Ted Smith, the city government’s director of innovation, was quick to point out that “rethink” is not the same as “change.”

Those two concepts are often confused. The annual Idea Festival is about opening people’s minds to new ideas that lead to innovation. Some of those ideas and innovations will lead to change — a concept many people see as threatening — but not always. Sometimes, solving problems and improving communities and economies is about preserving what you have that works.

The Idea Festival began in Lexington in 2000 and moved to Louisville in 2006, seeking the sponsors and facilities that would allow it to become an annual event at a central facility. At this year’s festival, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is that place.

Mayor Greg Fischer has moved his office to the Idea Hub, a group of desks in the Kentucky Center’s lobby.”The mayor wants to promote entrepreneurial thinking, so he said, ‘Let’s just move the office here,'” spokesman Chris Poynter said.

Fischer was in Washington for a meeting Wednesday, so won’t actually get to the festival until Thursday. But Poynter said that about 300 city employees will be attending festival sessions, as well as daily discussions led by Smith about how those ideas can be used to make local government more effective and efficient.

Several major Louisville companies also have rented desks in the Idea Hub to serve as a base for employees attending sessions.

Here were a few ideas from this morning’s sessions:

Louisville traffic patterns have adapted pretty quickly to the sudden closure of a cracked Interstate highway bridge. Rather than creating Interstate gridlock, local commuters are finding secondary streets and bridges that can get them where they need to go. That won’t solve larger issues of interstate commerce, but it provided a lesson.

“The discussion about bridges has always been about Interstate bridges,” Smith said. “Maybe it takes a crisis to say ‘Are all the alternatives on the table?'”

Another example of not always seeing things in front of our faces came up in an earlier session. Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation talked about how, when preserving and enhancing historic and signature buildings, cities often overlook the importance of the surrounding landscape. Landscape design and functionality is important, he said. “It’s another way to see and value place.”




Blogging this week from the Idea Festival

September 20, 2011

What’s the big idea? Well, there will be many of them in Louisville this week.

I’ll be there Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, blogging from the Idea Festival, writing about what this year’s stellar lineup of speakers has to say.

If you have never been to the festival, you’re missing something. Kris Kimel, who heads the Kentucky Science & Technology Corp., started the now-annual event in Lexington in 2006. It moved to Louisville in 2006 because it needed bigger venues and corporate sponsors.

Click here to check out the festival’s website, which has a complete program, speakers bios, a blog and other information.

Watch this space throughout the day Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, or follow my Twitter tweets here. Also, my column in Sunday’s Herald-Leader will look at some of the interesting things that happened at this event that is helping make Kentucky an internationally known place for ideas and innovation.