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.
By Kirstin Butler
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.
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.
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.
CONFERENCE ON WORLD AFFAIRS
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.
ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL
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.
NEW YORKER FESTIVAL
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.
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.
PORTLAND CREATIVE CONFERENCE
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.
Published February 10, 2010