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Lightbulbs in New York

Yesterday, I attended New York Ideas, organized by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute and the New York Historical Society, an event designed to

assemble a constellation of leaders – in the roles of attendees, provocateurs, and speakers. It will take on the largest issues of the day – through interviews, discussions, and debates. And it will recognize New York’s status as a major actor in all of the significant policy issues facing the country.

While described as a

groundbreaking gathering of newsmakers and journalists […] for fostering original dialogue about critical issues in Washington and beyond.

the event used a well-known format of panel discussion featuring thought-leaders on policy issues ranging from economics, heath care, bi-partisan politics, cities, America as global power, educational innovation and American values, followed by a classic Q & A.

Given the brain power in the room–onstage as well as in the audience–what would truly be “groundbreaking” as a conference model would be to treat these gatherings as opportunities for actual solution-making and innovation, and to move beyond “point/counterpoint” styles of panel moderation into roll-up-the sleeves creative charettes that lead to programs and collaborations in the post conference “real world”.

As Serene Jones, President of the Union Theological Seminary in New York stated during the panel “Are There Such Things as American Values? Were There Ever?” moderated by the renowned playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith, “the biggest form of innovation we need is to rethink the entire system” with “a new meaning map” including “the reconstruction of our desires,” thus redefining everything we have labelled as American success, including “a whole different story about what a job is.” As Anna Deavere Smith pointed out, this leads back to the arts and creativity, which is where innovation begins.

Think tanks need to re-envision the gatherings themselves as opportunities to harness alternative energy sources for transforming broken systems. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, during the panel on “Beyond the Battles: Collaborative Efforts Transforming Today’s Schools” calls it “collective capacity building, collective collaboration and responsibility.” This means moving beyond passive audience-style lecture entertainments toward conference engagement at an entirely different level. Social media is part of this–tweeting the hashtag #NYideas–and liveblogging, but the once-removed aspect of this activity misses the resource potential for dynamic synergy gathered right there in the room, and the opportunity for spontaneous collective inter-engagement. (Ironically, The Atlantic‘s current issue feature story, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely” deals with this alienating shadow side of social media. We still need to engage with one another. IN PERSON, face to face, without looking at our laptops or handhelds….)

What would happen if the dynamos on the program, like Cami Anderson, Superintendent for Newark Public Schools, currently operating with a $100 million challenge grant from none other than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, took to the room to “friend” the ideas of the well-heeled audience members?

Think tanks need to break the tanks and spill the boundaries toward brilliant, spontaneous crowdsourcing in the moment. The ephemeral gatherings, afterall, are replete with potential and brilliance in the form of the headliners, yes, but also the attendees who rarely engage with one another in solution-making dialogue. What would this look like? Spontaneous poetry? Flip camera interviews? Improv dyads in the aisles? Who knows? Creativity spins the possibilities. With all the resources required to produce an event like this, shouldn’t the organizers glean a full solar array of ideas in return?




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