12:26 PM EDT, October 8, 2012
Chicago Ideas Week headquarters is a brightly lit, sprawling, open room in a River North office building where scores of workers sit at long rows of desks working the phones, rat-a-tatting their keyboards and keeping the din level high.
Actually, only about 15 of the people here are working on Ideas Week. The rest are engaged in various young businesses: the technology-oriented venture capital company Lightbank, the video production service Lightswitch, the boutique-products-promoting oBaz and the subscription-consolidating Monthlys. What all of these ventures — as well as Groupon, headquartered on a different floor — have in common is that they were co-founded or at least heavily backed by business partners Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky.
"The whole thing is basically a big incubator," said Ideas Week Executive Director Jessica Malkin as she looked out from a glass-walled conference room to what could be a scene from one of those '90s films about hustling young business big shots.
That "incubator" description could apply as well to Chicago Ideas Week, the second iteration of which runs Monday through Oct. 14, because that's what Keywell, who founded it, and Malkin would like the event to be: a giant petri dish where ideas and solutions can grow and spread. On one hand, Ideas Week's program of discussions and demonstrations is a form of entertainment, with the traditional measure of success being ticket sales. As such it could be viewed as occupying a similar cultural space as the Chicago Humanities Festival, the bulk of which runs Nov. 1-11 and also revolves around speakers discussing ideas (this year on the theme "America").
But on the other, Ideas Week purports to be after something more nebulous and not quantifiable: the planting of seeds, the sparking of discussion, the connecting of invisible dots.
"Ideas Week isn't just meant to be a platform where people come to present," Malkin said. "It's an opportunity for the community across all different industries to come together and to crowd-source solutions to any issues or any problems or anything that can just be improved."
"When an idea meets a community and inspires a community, that's when exciting things happen," said Bruno Giussani, global director for the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, Calif. "Ideas have a special nature, so some ideas can be tracked and other ideas can't be tracked, but that doesn't mean things don't happen. You put them out there in the right way, you share them freely and globally, and somebody picks them up."
Chicago Ideas Week is a successor of sorts to such ideas-oriented programs as TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival, the World Economic Forum (a.k.a. Davos) and Renaissance Weekends (various locales), but those events are invitation-only and cost thousands of dollars and aren't rooted in the fabric of large host cities. Last year one of the many franchised TEDx events, TEDxMidwest, was incorporated into Ideas Week, but this year Ideas Week is launching its own kind of mini-TED: an invitation-only daylong program of speakers (including scandal-tainted cyclist Lance Armstrong and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg) called Edison Talks that costs $395 (including lunch and reception). (Meanwhile, TEDxMidwest, under other organizers, is scheduled for May 2-4 next year, TEDxWindyCity is scheduled for Feb. 23, and there have been TEDxUChicago and TEDxMichiganAve conferences as well.)
But Ideas Week itself — set up as a not-for-profit organization with proceeds covering expenses and Keywell writing "a big check" to help out — is open to the public, with its many Talks and Labs priced at $15 apiece.
"The long-term vision of Ideas Week is that we are this accessible platform that really anybody can plug into at a $15 price point," Malkin said. "We'd like it to be a Davos for the everyman."
"The tone, the structure of what we've done in terms of accessibility and price point, the programming, the inclusiveness — there's nothing like this," Keywell said, adding: "There's no nonprofit chamber of commerce. What exists to connect the dots of people that are not in the profit-making business but are in the business of trying to help or instigate for good? There is no connector."
Upping the ante in its second year, Ideas Week is offering more than 30 Talks (90-minute sessions featuring multiple speakers) compared with last year's 17, 100 Labs (behind-the-scenes tours/demonstrations) compared with last year's 40, 217 speakers compared with last year's 160 and a total capacity for 28,000 attendees compared with last year's 12,000.
"My goal is to sell out every house like we did last year," said Malkin, whose staff also has doubled since she had seven workers on board for last year's festival. She said Ideas Week also is benefiting from 1,000 volunteers pitching in on registration, front-of-the-house activities and other duties, as well as 200 community partners opening their doors for Labs and offering various forms of support (including United Airlines and the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt hotels facilitating guest travel arrangements) and the city throwing its muscle behind it through active promotion and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's participation.
The festival boasts some marquee names, including Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, model/actress Elle Macpherson, authors Deepak Chopra and Mitch Albom, and actor/philanthropist Edward Norton. Those familiar people, Malkin said, help get first-timers in the door, but "more often than not the people you haven't heard of are the ones that end up blowing you away during a session." She cited, among others, the "Explorers: Seeking the Edge" session (1 p.m. Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art) featuring Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica.
Peter Kageyama, author of "For the Love of Cities" and a speaker at "Cities: Local Ties, Global Impact" (noon Tuesday at the Goodman Theatre), has appeared at four TEDx events and said the greatest inspiration often comes from speakers who appear to be more approachable.
"People want to be inspired, and what inspires them is not just the Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses of the world but someone next door who (makes you say), 'Holy (moly), look at what he's doing,'" Kageyama said.
The audience composition makes a difference too, he added.
"You get these highly engaged entrepreneurial audiences," Kageyama said. "I say 'entrepreneurial' not in the sense of starting businesses but people who notice opportunities. Any time you can bring your young, excited, engaged people together in a room, good things happen."
There are numerous examples of projects and collaborations being launched out of ideas events. A TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson calling for schools to nurture rather than kill creativity has accumulated almost 13 million video views and, Giussani said, a South African school was founded by someone inspired by the presentation. Closer to home, Malkin said that after Manchester Bidwell Corporation President and CEO Bill Strickland spoke last year about his Pennsylvania-based job training center for at-risk youth and disadvantaged adults, "he ended up talking to three or four different people, and now he's working on two or three projects in the city."
The festival has scheduled 60-minute receptions after each Talk in hopes of fostering such interactions.
Ideas Week also has moved to Twitter to try to have an impact, creating the hashtag #whatifchicago, for example, to ask the question "How do we get illegal guns off streets?" The idea, Malkin said, is to "try to find some good community-based solutions that will help push the conversation in a positive direction." The culmination is a Lab at 9 a.m. Thursday at gravitytank (114 W. Illinois St., No. 3) with Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy among the speakers.
Whether Ideas Week ultimately functions more as entertainment or societal change agent remains to be seen, but its organizers are comfortable with it straddling both worlds.
"This is very much intellectual theater," Malkin said. "It is high production. It is intellectual recreation. We have palate cleansers between speakers. You are intended to go there and almost feel like it was an intellectual performance."
Said Keywell: "(It's) theater, meaning you are fully engaged while you are there, and you walk out totally energized around the topic that you're there to experience. That's our hope, that we leave somebody exceptionally excited about what it is they just heard and wanting to go do something about it."
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