‘Festival of Ideas for the New City’: A New Kind of Conference?

by Sarah A. MaineFestival-of-Ideas-for-the-New-City

This weekend New York City was host to The Festival of Ideas for the New City, ‘a major new collaborative initiative’ founded by the New Museum.  The festival stretched over 4 days and included symposia, lectures, workshops, a StreetFest, and exhibitions of more than a hundred independent projects around the city.  Three major themes were woven throughout the festival: The Networked City, The Reconfigured City and The Sustainable City, each representing a different layer of the archetypical metropolis of the future and of the actual cities that we are living and working in right now.

A first glance it was hard to get my head around what the goals of the conference were, but the more I experienced the more I saw the value of the festival organizers’ open ended approach.  The decentralized structure of the conference reflects the decentralized nature of the problems being discussed and the diverse solutions needed to overcome them.  The haphazard quality of creative idea generation was embodied in the variety of grass roots non-profit groups and social entrepreneurs lining the sidewalks of the StreetFest and exhibiting as Projects.  Two World Cafe group-idea generating sessions, one covering Downtown NYC Policy Issues and another the Built Environment of the New City, situated the Festival of Ideas within the trend of action oriented conferences that aim to catalyze tangible long term results.

Lecturers and panel participants included architects, designers, artists, technology experts and an array of mayors.  Each segment of the conference asked the question – what do we want from our cities?  And how can we use creative cross-disciplinary civic engagement to produce the behavioral change necessary to develop cities that are safe, fair, engaging and resilient?  The energy behind the ideas being presented was palpable, whether meaningful cross-pollination was occurring between participants was harder to discern.  Behavioral change is the key design challenge of this pivotal moment, in order to tackle it we must all be willing to break out of our specializations and engage with each other in a transparent manner.

There was surprisingly little use of technology in the structure of the conference – no WiFi for conference guests, no live feed for remote viewing and participation, no sourcing of questions via twitter, no experimental crowd-sourcing activities, no online report-out from the World Cafe sessions.  If any of these things were available they were not well publicized.  The StreetFest offered a little more creativity in the realm of networked technology: a mobile app called Broadcastr allowed StreetFest attendees to hear stories connected to the Festival and the surrounding area, StoryCorps’ Getting Closer app allowed users to access stories about the Lower East Side stretching as far back as the 1890s.

The Festival of Ideas for the New City was interesting and chock full of inspiring ideas, and its inclusive, cross disciplinary style holds great potential for meaningful change.  I look forward to more radical tinkering with the conventional conference format in the future, complete with innovative ways for conference attendees to participate in the generation of applicable technical, environmental and behavioral change.

Sarah A. Maine is a Co-Founder and Editor of RecipeRelay, an online hub for local and seasonal recipes.  She holds a Green MBA from Antioch University New England.

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