The Big Think

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 1, 2011

Of course, that doesn't mean the nods are disingenuous; a class that made its fortune on the killer app is serious about the Next Big Thing. And the anti-malaria activist, if sufficiently clever, will no doubt profit from the impression she's made on the wealthy and connected.

Indeed, the social wing of the innovation conference is a sort of cousin of the new, fashion-forward philanthropy— one focused, as Freeland writes, on "big ideas for reshaping the world."

The impact of this so-called "philanthrocapitalism" is, very often, impressive. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is closing in on the eradication of polio. And it is difficult to overstate how the organization is reshaping the debate over public education in this country.

But the trouble with foundations and conferences that would set the agenda on education or health care or the environment is that they are fundamentally anti-democratic; they would remake the public sphere with minimal feedback from the public.

It's not clear that Rhode Island's entry in the field — the IDEAS Salon — marks much of a departure from the trend. The first gathering unfolded at the Ocean House, a sprawling waterfront mansion billing itself as "the last of the grand Victorian hotels."

Participants noshed on beet carpaccio and Chatham cod, took in a privately commissioned bit of performance art, and when time allowed, visited the 12,000-square-foot OH! Spa, complete with herbal steam room and saltwater lap pool.

Goldenberg, who did not charge for the first event, is hardly apologetic about the accommodations. If the invitation-only crowd of 50 was to wrestle with the big questions, he says, "why not give them a glass of wine?"

And he insists that IDEAS, with its emphasis on dialogue, is more in tune with our open-sourced, collaborative moment than its TED-like competitors and, as such, is better situated for a democratic evolution.

He imagines books and exhibits, on-line conversations, research projects involving thousands of people, and regional or issue-specific salons with broad access and affordable entry fees.

Some of that is already in the works.

Jay Coogan, a former Rhode Island School of Design provost who is now president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, attended the IDEAS gathering and says he is thinking about ways to engage his entire campus with the "essential questions" that come out of the salon.

In the meantime, he's working with Goldenberg to convene a regional summit that would build on Minneapolis' new-economy strengths — art, design, food, and health care.

"It's great to have [a conversation] that focuses on something really big," he says, "but then you can chip away at it with bite-sized chunks."

Indeed, if a regional, "bite-sized" gathering could democratize IDEAS and broaden its reach, Coogan suggests, it could also help to answer the other big question hanging over the enterprise.

"What's yet to be seen," he says, "is can it move from ideation to action?"

URGENT Goldenberg, at Ocean House, says his charges must ask themselves, “What am I willing to die for?”


Answering that question in the affirmative is, clearly, a central preoccupation for Goldenberg.

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