The Big Think

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 1, 2011

"We are absolutely committed to making actual change," he says, sitting at HQ for his design firm, IP.21 Studio, which occupies one of a series of colorful shipping containers fashioned into a jagged office building on Harris Avenue.

He will not stand, he says, for some "bullshit Ivory Tower" exercise.

But it is clear that Goldenberg, if pleased to be part of a summit on Minneapolis' art and food culture, will not settle for the small bore.

He is convinced that we are at a moment of epic change and that no one is talking about the fundamental questions underpinning, say, the protests in Wisconsin or the systemic problems with American education.

Goldenberg pushes a sheet of paper toward the center of the table and draws two circles for me: one large and one very small. The big one, he says, represents all the people in the country debating the prosaic, if important, questions of teacher layoffs and charter schools.

The tiny circle, he says, represents those asking something more fundamental — something like the nascent IDEAS question about nurturing a love of learning.

Sure, I say. But however small that circle might be, it exists. Aren't there plenty of extraordinarily smart people posing essential questions about education, health care, and the environment in other venues?

Yes, there are experts, Goldenberg says. Yes, there are conferences — TED among them — filled with brilliant people giving brilliant speeches. But those are just speeches, he says. The really good stuff — the conversations that build off those speeches — happens in the hallways afterward.

Goldenberg says he wants to focus on that hallway conversation. And the conversation should include unexpected voices. We should ask for a designer's insight on sustainability, for instance, or get a psychologist to ponder how we might develop new mythologies and narratives for our time.

In short, Goldenberg suggests, the nation needs a big, public dialogue for a world in flux — and we don't have the means.

"Where is the Chamber of Commerce for innovation?" Goldenberg asks. "Where is the Interdisci-plinary Asso-ci-ation of America?"

These are big questions; this is the 20,000-foot view.

And it's not clear that even the members of Goldenberg's IDEAS community are fully on board with the massive — and massively complex — undertaking that he envisions.

The handful of members I've spoken with are, to be sure, enthusiastic about engaging the big questions. Eric Dawson, president of Boston-based Peace First, which aims to curb violence in America's urban core, speaks of working with a few of the people he met at the salon to turn peace from some nebulous concept of "holding hands" into "something more muscular."

But Dawson, who is planning a sort of Nobel Peace Prize for young people, is at least as enthusiastic about the practical advice he got from other salon-goers: Naveen Jain, CEO of Intelius, helped trim parts of his too-large Nobel proposal and Bill Jemas, a former executive with Marvel, suggested he think about a comic book to promote the effort.

Goldenberg says he fully expects the IDEAS community to trade professional advice — to do some work hovering, say, 500 feet above the ground. But the salonnière, who wants to create a "Davos for innovation" at Watch Hill, plans to keep yanking them higher.

"The space I would like to fly in is that 20,000-foot view," he says.

"Frankly, I'm going to challenge people to rise to the occasion."

The fate of the world, he seems to think, could depend on it.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at  dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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