Brain Trust: 15th Annual IdeaFestival Blossoms, Branches Out

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The thing about ideas is, they go somewhere.

IdeaFestival is an idea that came about in Louisville in 2000. Since then, it has gone around the world to bring in leading thinkers in every conceivable field to present their views, philosophies, actions and, yes, ideas about where the world is headed.

For its 15th year, the festival is going in even newer directions.

Among those, it’s going out to eat. And it’s going to the movies.

As part of its efforts to enhance the experience year after year, IdeaFestival (IF) 2014 will branch out with “Ideas Night Out,” a series of small informal dinners at restaurants all over Louisville. Each dinner will feature an IF 2014 presenter in an intimate atmosphere, where the conversation begun in their presentation can continue – and, perhaps, go somewhere else.

“Let’s say one of the speakers that we have coming this year is Joshua Green, who wrote a book called ‘Moral Tribes,” which is really interesting,” said IdeaFestival founder Kris Kimel. “Somebody says ‘You know, I’d like to have dinner with him.’ The dinners will be no more than about 14 people at a restaurant, so you can sign up and basically go have dinner with Joshua Green and just talk to him and other people at the table about whatever you want to talk about. That’s something we haven’t done before that we’re trying this year. So far, the process has been really positive, so we will see what happens.”

Kris Kimel.

Kris Kimel.

For a small additional ticket fee, you could discuss how our perception of time could make time travel possible with BBC reporter Claudia Hammond. Or probe even deeper into the possibilities of extraterrestrial life with science writer Lee Billings. How about discussing the rapidly changing economy with former diplomat Peter Van Buren over dessert?

Its one of several innovations introduced this year  by  Kimel and his team, with the goal of pushing the festival forward and keeping the experience fresh.

The lineup of presenters for this year comes from the worlds of business, government, academia, art, science, journalism, and more. They will cover ideas ranging from the philosophy of immortality to the jarring realities of working a minimum-wage job in 21st-century America.

There will even be a presentation on how to survive the zombie apocalypse. This is definitely home-grown Louisville.

It’s all part of the spirit of innovation and collaboration Kimel seeks to instill in the festival: connecting thinkers, promoting curiosity, and engaging in the festival mantra of “creating disruptive change.”

“I firmly believe that in today’s world, whether you are an artist, whether you are in a university, whether you run a company or a newspaper, there are only two kinds of organizations in the world, and those are innovative and dead,” Kimel said. “I really believe that, in a world that is literally being driven by and reshaped every day by innovation, creative thinking and disruptive events and things like that, the festival is designed to give people an opportunity to get immersed in that.”

Programming the festival is a process that starts from scratch. Ideas for speakers come from everywhere – sponsors, former speakers, attendees – and Kimel and his team sift through them over the year to make decisions about what they think is interesting, will make unexpected connections and encourage visitors to peel away layers to go deeper into the ideas being discussed.

“It’s a pretty chaotic process,” Kimel said. “There really isn’t a method to it. Every year we start with a blank canvas. We kind a look at the zeitgeist, kind of look at what’s going on, see if there’s anything going on right now that we want to tackle at the festival. It’s a blank screen, and you know, the best way I can describe it is somebody comes up and puts a splash of orange on there, and then maybe a splash of green, and then purple, and then somehow by the end of the year, you’ve got a picture. You’ve got a festival.”

This year, the picture will be moving.

Also new for 2014, the Flyover Film Festival has joined IdeaFestival in its sixth year to transform into IF Film. The independent film showcase will give over a dozen award-winning feature-length and short films their Kentucky premieres. Beyond the movies, IF Film activities will include Q&A sessions with the  filmmakers, live music and a pre-festival reception Sept. 16 at Decca and industry party at Bluegrass Brewing Company’s Taproom Oct. 3. Screenings will take place at the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater, The Muhammad Ali Center and Slugger Field.

“We are excited about that because there’s going to be a lot of interesting stuff,” Kimel said. “There a lot of interesting films, and one of the things we want to do at the festival for everybody that comes, whether they are from Louisville, regional, national or international, is to really try to make it a great experience for them.”

IdeaFestival will also connect tomorrow’s thinkers with today’s at Thrivals 7.0, a panel discussion that will introduce ideas and strategies for thinking about the future (21 years from now, to be exact) and how young men and women can be successful despite obstacles they may face now.

Whether in a screening room, lecture hall, restaurant or casual one-on-one discussion, IdeaFestival presents the chance to have enlightening experiences rarely found elsewhere.

“I learn every year,” Kimel said. “For me personally, it’s like every year I get to get a new PhD in something, just because the people who come are so interesting and I learn so much from their books and talking with them while they are here.”

Kimel said that many of the presenters often stay for several days of the festival and are very approachable in their own right for one-on-one discussions.

“Many of the speakers, probably 70 to 80 percent, are here for two or three days for a couple of reasons,” he said. “They like the idea of coming to someplace and not talking to the usual suspects. They like how diverse the audience is. So many of them encourage that, and they stay two or three days, which means people who have attended the festival have the opportunity to go to these people and say ‘Hey, I’d like to talk to you for a minute. would you like to get a cup of coffee go for a beer?’

“I have found as we have done the festival, there have only been about three jerks,” he added. “Most of them are very approachable. I don’t care if they are Academy Award winners, famous scientists or whatever. All I have found very approachable, willing to sit down and talk to people, which is a great opportunity for people to continue their learning.”

Those opportunities can easily create the next wave of disruptive change.

“A year or two ago, we got a letter from an individual who was at that time a president of his medical school class at the University of Louisville,” Kimel said. “He told me that he decided on medical school when he was 14. It was at IdeaFestival. He was at an event, and he knew what he was talking about. ‘It was Brian Greene. He asked a question and I answered it right, and at that moment I knew I wanted to go into science and medicine.’ He was 14.”

14, and going somewhere.

IdeaFestival runs Sep. 30 through Oct. 3. For a full schedule of all events, speaker biographies, tickets and more information, go to