Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

10 FEBRUARY, 2010

10 More Great Cross-Disciplinary Conferences


More ways to get stimulated in public, or how to fit a wealth of innovation into a plenary session.

After the fantastic response to the 10 Contemporary Cross-Disciplinary Conferences post last year, we decide do a follow-up, highlighting — both ones that didn’t make our cut the first time around and ones suggested by readers.

So here are 10 more such boundary-spanning, silo-busting events. The kind of occasion that encourages lateral-brain connections and odd-couple lunchmates. Though many of the conferences this time around are closely tied to specific locations or institutions, they share the same fundamental mission — to provide a broadly curated experience for the curious.


Kicking off our list is a conference that actually seemed too obvious to feature in our round-one writeup. PopTech convenes 700 innovation-minded individuals each fall in Camden, Maine for a three-day idea blitz. With an emphasis on futurist thinking and technology, PopTech lineups are an eclectic affair; this past year’s event featured musician John Forté, activist-economist Esther Duflo, and architect Laura Kurgan. (And yes, PopTech even has the obligatory Malcolm Gladwell talk from 2004 — he’s on the organization’s board).

Much as TED has its vaunted TED Fellows program, PopTech chooses a new roster of Social Innovation Fellows each year; we featured 2009 Fellow Emily Pilloton on Brain Pickings not too long ago. To experience what TIME calls “Davos for cool people” (and what the less generous call “TED for people who can’t get into TED”), check out more videos from the PopTech archive.


The Business Innovation Factory summit — or BIF for short — is an under-the-radar annual event in Providence, Rhode Island, which has been gaining ground since its inaugural year in 2004. As its name suggests, BIF focuses on transformative enterprise, looking at disruptive deliverables and design in areas like education, energy independence, and healthcare. A good number of our intellectual idols have spoken at BIF, among them Paola Antonelli and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman. We were particularly inspired by social entrepreneur Cat Lainé’s talk about bringing sustainable infrastructure to the developing world, made all the more poignant by recent events in Haiti.

You can catch up on videos from the past five BIF summits, or even join the recently launched BIF reading group.


Since 2005, DLD — which stands for “Digital/Life/Design” — has brought together the world’s cultural creatives, entrepreneurs, investors, and techies for three days of cross-disciplinary discussion in Munich. A veritable who’s-who list of 21st-century changemakers has passed through its panels on topics ranging from China to user-centric experiences. Highlights for us include TEDster (and Brain Pickings favorite) Jonathan Harris talking about his most recent work, and hacker-inventors Pablos Holman and 3ric Johnson on the advantages of approaching life with a hacker’s phenomenological stance.

Last year, we featured highlights from the 2009 event, and this year’s confernce just wrapped up. The next DLD isn’t until January 2011, but in the meantime you can see videos from the past five conferences online.


The BIL Conference — which stands, alternately, for “Business, Impromptu, Levity,” “Brilliance, Ingenious, Learning,” “Booze, Intellectuals, Logic” and similar acronymic summations — traces its roots directly back to TED. In fact the founders’ original plan, hatched in 2007, was to go to Long Beach, California and crash TED’s annual flagship conference. From this dream of subterfuge, BIL’s “open, self-organizing, emergent, arts, science, society and technology unconference” model was born. With titles like “Rethinking the Modern GUI” and “What’s Funny About the Interwebs,” talks at BIL often reflect their origins in tech circles; however, some of the unconferences take specific themes, such as the upcoming BIL:PIL in October of this year which will look at the future of healthcare. While several BIL events have since been held on the heels of TED, the general non-profit BIL model has also been used in Boston, Phoenix, and San Diego for a total of nine events held or scheduled to date.

Check out Architecture for Humanity founder (and TEDster) Cameron Sinclair, TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoski, and other videos from BIL events here.


The PICNIC festival is an artsy gathering that takes place in venues across Amsterdam. Held annually in September since 2006, the three-day-long PICNIC describes itself as a conference where creatives come together for “inspiration, networking, and dealmaking,” and indeed, professional development takes its place on the agenda alongside formally scheduled networking sessions. Past speakers include Second Life founder Philip Rosedale, AREA/Code founder Dennis Crowley, and design consultant Chee Pearlman. Last year, Sir Richard Branson chaired a jury for the PICNIC Green Challenge to award the best carbon-reducing idea, and sponsors such as Microsoft held design camps and other interactive workshops for attendees.

Watch selected videos from PICNIC 2009 here or check out its Vimeo channel.


Hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Conference on World Affairs marks its 62nd year in 2010. For a week in April, 100 attendees take part in more than 200 panels, performances, and plenaries on various topics, all of which are free and open to the public.

The event was founded in an era of classic internationalism with an emphasis on foreign relations, but today sessions are held around “arts, media, science, diplomacy, technology, environment, spirituality, politics, business, medicine, human rights, and so on.” (If that isn’t interdisciplinary, we don’t know what is.) The university setting brings an academic bent to the whole affair — an orientation unfortunately reflected by the conference’s old-school approach to recordings, available by check or money order. (What is this, PBS?) If you happen to be in the area, however, it looks like there’s plenty of inspiration and reflection on hand.

Thanks @slainson!


Bearing the burnished pedigree of its hosts, The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the Aspen Ideas Festival is entering its sixth year of wide-ranging, high-minded discussion in the tony enclave of Aspen, Colorado. Each April heavy hitters from academia, business, media, and politics ascend the mountains for a week of seminars, panels, and presentations; however, we hear the real scene takes place as much after the official events as during. The theme of this year’s festival is “Ideas in Action” with an emphasis on Latin America and the region’s educational, environmental, and health challenges. (While we’re not sure whither the southern hemisphere focus, we suspect it has something to do with wanting to differentiate the festival from last year’s PopTech theme, “America Reimagined.”)

If you want to play with the big boys (and the occasional big girl — that’s right Arianna Huffington, we’re talking about you) without leaving home, check out the Aspen Institute’s archive of A/V resources.


If you like The New Yorker in print, you’ll be in heaven experiencing it live. In the fall the annual New Yorker Festival assembles a rich lineup of culturally oriented talks and tours in (where else?) Manhattan and the occasional outer-NYC bureau. Like a pop-up version of the magazine, glossy profiles take the form of in-person interviews with editors and writers from the mag’s masthead serving as interviewers. Attendees can purchase tickets to individual events or passes to the three-day shebang, making this one of the more economically efficient options on the conference circuit.

If you’re still jonesing for more Gladwell, you can see videos from past New Yorker Festivals or catch up on dispatches from the various events’ blog coverage.


Winning the prize for most unlikely location, BIG Omaha held its inaugural 2009 conference away from the standard loafer-beaten conference path, placing it smack in the middle of the United States. “Come to the heart of the midwest,” the event enticed potential attendees. “And let’s rebuild this country from the inside out.” The brains behind BIG Omaha started the Silicon Prairie News, a webzine dedicated to featuring midwestern creatives and entrepreneurs. The conference extends both the brand and an invitation for skeptics to come and view innovation in the heartland for themselves. Speakers from BIG Omaha’s first year included Crush It! author Gary Vaynerchuk, 37 Signals founder Jason Fried, and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg.

This year’s event is scheduled for May 13-15th; you can sign up to get the BIG Omaha newsletter for more details or check in with the conference blog to view videos of past presentations.


Finally, in the city we like to think of as the Brooklyn of the west, the Portland Creative Conference was held in 2008 and then again last year after a seven-year hiatus. Four hundred attendees gathered to hear perspectives on the creative process from Wieden+Kennedy co-founder Dan Wieden, The Simpsons writer Bill Oakley, and pitcher-turned-stockbroker Larry Brooks, among others. All signs indicate that the conference will happen again in fall of this year, and you can stay in-the-know by following the Portland Creative Conference website or watch a few videos from last year’s event.

This concludes our second roundup of alternative conferences to satisfy your infinite intellectual appetites. Once again, if we’ve left any big ones out — particularly non-English-language events — please let us know. And in the meantime, catch up on Part One and follow editor Maria Popova on Twitter for live coverage of this year’s TED, running today through Saturday.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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21 JANUARY, 2010

The School of Continuing Education


Five outposts for ongoing learning, or how to master French cuisine, rock music, and sailing at your leisure.

Lifelong Learning People crave information — you’re reading this, aren’t you? And the fundamental human drive to seek out more and more knowledge has only grown since ur times. We’re still blown away by the recently mentioned 34-gigabytes-of-data-per-day diet of the average American.

One area where we’re really excited about the possibilities of on-demand data delivery is education. (Excitement we’ve voiced in a recent contribution to GOOD Magazine.) Whether it’s using online media to organize collective learning in the analog world, or the classes themselves take place online, the Internet enables people to seek out and receive education in ways they never could have before. These opportunities for lifelong learning take advantage of simple supply-and-demand economics — those who want to learn finding those who want to teach — for every conceivable subject, and then some. (Shoe Shining 101, we’re looking at you.)

Here, then, are five examples of extension-style schooling that can change the way we think about acquiring knowledge.


(un)classes The first tuition-free global education with real academic cred, University of the People was founded by e-learning entrepreneur Shai Reshef with the developing world in mind. It may not have the brick-and-mortar facades of McKim, Mead, and White but that’s precisely its point; thanks to open-source courseware and without the need for endowments, the University can focus on delivering degrees at the lowest cost possible. Requirements for attendance include a high school degree, fluency in English, and an admissions fee of $15 to $50 on a sliding scale depending on a student’s country of origin.

University of the People screenshot

University of the People‘s first class of 178 students representing 49 countries enrolled in its grand educational experiment in fall of 2009. While the University’s results are as up in the air as its curriculum, we’re optimistic about what this virtual institution heralds for the future.


(un)classes The product of LaidOffCamp, a BarCamp-style event for unemployed New Yorkers, (un)classes offered its first class in March of 2009. (It was “How to be a digital nomad,” a course on sustaining an itinerant lifestyle while still holding jobs.)

To set up an unclass, you register with the site and then create a new course listing, either as a prospective student or as an instructor. Other people in your area interested in the same topic can join in, and since the process is self-organizing, the group determines when and where to meet. Most unclasses are one-off experiences, since the site bills itself as casual learning for people “who have hectic lives and struggle to find fun and interesting ways to satisfy their intellectual curiosity in the limited free time they have. Think of it as educational snacking, a low-touch way to explore topics that interest you.”

(un)classes has built a base around major cities in the Americas from Bahru to Vancouver (with a strong skew toward California), offering a range of un-course options from Ayurvedic cooking to Zen meditation.


Brooklyn Skillshare With its roots in DIY, craft, and hacking culture, Skillsharing has gained adherents during the current recession as a way to acquire new skills without dropping a lot of dough. Volunteers donate their time and talents to organize a weekend of events that share a distinctly makers’ faire flavor; many of the offerings involve bartering and tinkering, whether with kombucha or Wii remotes.

Brooklyn Skillshare bike workshop

Brooklyn Skillshare screenprinting

At a recent Skillshare event in In addition to Brooklyn, participants chose from a session listing that included hands-on workshops in bicycle repair and screenprinting (above, respectively). Other major Skillshares exist in Austin and Boston, and we bet there are more — let us know in the comments if you’ve shared your skills elsewhere.


Supercool School logo Supercool School bears the tagline “Start your own online school,” and while it doesn’t provide physical materials, it does come with a host of virtual tools you’d want to create and customize an educational experience. The e-learning startup is based in Berlin, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, where its founders are located.

Supercool School screenshot Once you sign up to start your own school, you can choose between a free hosted version, which accommodates 15 students, or subscribe to access Supercool School‘s more robust suite of media options. (There’s also an enterprise-level service for heavy-hitting educators who really want to have more control over their online learning environment.)

Just think — where individuals and small collectives once had to raise extensive funds as endowments, they can now open a school with a series of mouse clicks. Perhaps the future of the Internet holds more than LOLcats after all.


School of Everything logo
With big-time investors like Channel 4 and Esther Dyson, and unique monthly site visits in the hundreds of thousands, the UK-based School of Everything is strongly positioned as a cross between a networking platform like and the online classifieds behemoth Craigslist.

School of Everything screenshot

A marketplace for learning opportunities, the School of Everything lets you browse by location or topic, and then register your interest in either learning or teaching. Instructors have the option of charging for lessons, so the site lends itself to the kinds of listings you were likely to see tacked to bulletin boards in earlier years, with a strong showing in arts instruction and tutoring topics. School of Everything recently received a contract from the British government to grow domestically, bringing more of everything to those who want to learn it.

We know that these five initiatives are but a sliver of today’s e-enabled education landscape. If this post has tickled your passion for lifelong learning, you might enjoy one of our favorite websites, Open Culture — a fantastic compendium of free and low-cost learning opportunities.

Just don’t blame us when you emerge hours later, bleary eyed but much stronger on the fundamentals of biology.

Kirstin Butler has a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter. For more of her thoughts, check out her videoblog.

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12 JANUARY, 2010

FaceSense: Mind-reading from MIT


70′s-style mind-reading for the digital age, or why we all say one thing and mean another.

We have a longstanding fascination with the human face and the wealth of data that it holds. Now, the Affective Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab (another Brain Pickings darling) has developed FaceSense — a software application that detects head and face gestures in real time, analyzes them and deduces information about the person’s emotional disposition and mental state.

The principle, of course, is nothing new — back in the late 70′s, legendary psychologist Paul Ekman pioneered FACS, the Facial Actions Coding System, which is used to this day by anyone from academic researchers to the CIA to draw information about cognitive-affective states based on the micromuscle contractions of the human face. Though the MIT project doesn’t explicitly disclose it, we bet the data encoding is based, at least to some degree, on FACS.

But what makes FaceSense different and important is that it enables the extraction of such cognitive-affective information from pre-recorded video. And in the midst of all the neuromarketing hype — which is, for the most part, just that: hype — it offers an interesting model for collecting consumer psychology insight remotely, a scalable and useful tool for the age of telecommuting and sentiment analysis. What’s more, it helps bypass the quintessential unreliability of self-report in product testing.

Its applications can, of course, extend far beyond the marketing industry. An accurate disposition detection model for video can be used in anything from analyzing politicians’ televised appearances to testing news anchors for bias. And, judging by the abundance of all things video at CES this year, FaceSense has firmly planted its feet in a rich and ever-expanding space.

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