Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Idea Festival highlights the best of Kentucky

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

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.

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