Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A city of ideas

An extraordinary learning festival will be held November 6-8 at the Cultural Center of Puebla’s Benemérita Autonomous University.  3500 people will gather for a fast-paced exchange of ideas. Selected from all over the world, 70 speakers will each have 14 minutes to present on diverse topics from the fields of medicine, science, law, education, the arts, economics, gender issues, and politics.        

This event, the Seventh City of Ideas Conference, is titled “Change the World.”  In their invitation to participate, conference director Andres Roemer and co-creator Ricardo Salinas Pliego of TV Azteca, suggest each individual can effect change.  “Don’t underestimate the power of the beating of the monarch butterflies wings in Michoacan to generate a tsunami in Tokyo.”

I was fortunate to attend last year when the topic was “Dangerous Ideas.” I witnessed a spirited debate on the existence of God between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins.  I was moved by Sanjit “Bunker” Roy talking about his Barefoot College – an educational concept that has successfully trained illiterate grandmothers to become solar electricity engineers, able to electrify their poor and remote villages with solar panels they have learned to both manufacture and maintain. 

I was thrilled to hear a world-wide choir of 7,000 people all singing the same song as the camera moved from nation to nation.

This year’s presenters include economist, author and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and Canadian Nicole Ticea, the creator of a new HIV testing process.

Tickets for the City of Ideas Conference are being sold on a waiting-list basis. However you can register and watch online in real time at www.ciudaddelasideas.com.

Videos of last year’s talks are posted on the same site.  Most are in English with Spanish subtitles.
Dr. Roemer conceived of the City of Ideas as a “Renaissance event, where people come together to discuss ideas and to network on how one can effect change in the world.”

Leonardo Da Vinci was the ultimate Renaissance man.  During the Renaissance it was possible for one person to possess wide-ranging knowledge. Now the world is complex and areas of knowledge highly specialized.

The City of Ideas wants to create a new population of Renaissance people. People whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas are known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve problems.  In a world where there is increased specialization of knowledge these people are vanishing breed, yet necessary to confront and solve the challenges facing today’s world.

Conference director Andres Roemer lives in San Francisco, where he is Mexico’s Consul-General. Perched on the Pacific Rim, with the converging influences of distant Asia and close-by Silicon Valley, he says “I’m here in the U.S. in an area where there are some unique business people.  Their ideas are what’s moving the world.”

Roemer looks to the conference sponsors not just for resources, but also for ideas. The conference was co-founded by Mexican entrepreneur Ricardo Salinas Pliego, who he called a “curator” of ideas. They look to participants from both the private sector and government for ideas.

Roemer added, “This is a festival of science where more importantly than what is said you learn how to think.  The purpose is to become questioners.  How do we empower social as well as individual prosperity?”

I asked Dr. Roemer why, since Mexico revolves around its capital, Mexico City, Puebla was chosen as the site for the City of Ideas.  “For that very reason.  It is important to get away to a retreat-like atmosphere where participants will not only attend but bond and network with one another during breaks, share their own ideas.  Puebla is a World Heritage Site, has one of the best Conference Centers in Mexico and the necessary infrastructure to support the City of Ideas.”
Indeed I was thoroughly impressed last year with the first-rate installation operated by the University of Puebla.

Change the World’s mission makes me think of the phrase attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Is it a bit too much to bring him into a meeting sponsored by wealthy business people?  Maybe it’s exactly what needs to be done.  Sanjit “Bunker” Roy certainly got a thundering applause at last year’s meeting when he described illiterate grandmothers becoming solar power engineers.  

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