Around the Institute

What to Watch Out For at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival

June 21, 2017  • David K. Gibson

Welcome (very soon) to the Aspen Ideas Festival.

For a dozen years now, I’ve been sitting in the back of the room taking notes like an enthusiastic undergrad. By profession, I am a writer and editor, and my AIF job is to find perfect back-and-forths from the conversations happening in the front of the room, which are then clipped from video and sent to news and social media outlets. Big Ideas deserve exposure, and I’m one way the Aspen Institute makes sure those ideas get out.

I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen news made, and tears shed. I’ve had my heart swell and brain sizzle with the passion of speakers, the performances of actors and musicians, the promise of new technologies. Through headphones plugged into the audio feed, I’ve had a dozen years of expertise, inspiration, and prognostication pumped directly into my skull. In between scheduled events, I’ve stood in line for a hot dog with world leaders and theoretical physicists.

I bring up the hot dogs (try the Devil Sauce) because the Ideas Festival is about so much more than panel discussions. It’s about impromptu discussions over breakfast, and a follow-up to a follow-up question taken in the wildflowers along a walking path. It’s a web of connections among attendees and speakers, it’s engaging demonstrations by sponsors, it’s art on display or created in the moment. It’s a dawn-until-almost-dawn intellectual marathon in one of the world’s most beautiful and hospitable towns.

This year, I’ve been given this platform to give you snippets of that world, too. In this space, I’ll try to give you a feel of what it’s like to be here on the ground, picking up the conversations that happen over lunch, reactions to sessions I couldn’t attend, and excitement for upcoming conversations. I’ll pass on some big ideas that show up in small sessions and aren’t rushed out to cable news.

But it all starts with a highlighter and the 2017 agenda, so I’ll start highlighting. The old aphorism “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything” applies at societal scale, and health policy has impacts we don’t often think about. That’s the thought behind the “Intersections” track at this year’s Spotlight Health forum. (All events are listed in Mountain Time.)

  • Health influences how we vote. (Health and US Politics, Friday at 10am.)
  • Health policy can be harnessed to combat violent extremism. (Quelling Violent Extremism with Public Health Tools, Friday at noon.)
  • The way we view food is health policy. (James Beard: America’s First Foodie. Film and Discussion, Friday at 4:15pm)
  • Art affects health. (Nourishing Heart and Body through Art, Friday at 7:30pm, and Music, Health, and Well-Being: Jon Batiste in Conversation with Walter Isaacson, Saturday at 4:15pm)
  • There will be plenty of talk about what’s going on in Congress this week, as well as of epidemics and crises we are currently facing. This track will be a good reminder of just how integral health policy to every other decision we make.

During Spotlight Health, Kathleen Sebelius will be interviewed by Walter Isaacson, and you won’t want to miss that. Isaacson will also talk with Richard Besser, the new president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and you won’t want to miss that either. And he’ll talk with jazz bandleader John Batiste about health and music, and by now you’re starting to see a pattern.

Walter Isaacson is stepping down from his role as President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, and it’s been our privilege to watch him interview some of the greatest thinkers alive. (If you read his books, he’s even good with the deceased.) So, if you haven’t seen him in action before, make sure he makes your personal agenda.

Some other health issues you might not have considered, but probably should:

  • Red Light for Traffic Deaths, Friday at 3pm
  • The Neuroscience of Poverty, Friday at 4:15pm
  • Human Health and the Planet, Saturday at noon
  • Fake Health News Metastasizes, Saturday at 7:30pm
  • The Epidemic of Loneliness, Sunday at 8am

I’ve packed my suitcase and am ready to go. Business casual, mostly, with a linen blazer because the weather will be perfect for a linen blazer. I’ve also packed a rain jacket and a warm softshell ski jacket, because there will be perfect weather for them, as well. I have notebooks, comfortable shoes, lip balm, and a pass to WeCycle — Aspen’s bikeshare program — already loaded on my phone. If you can’t make the trip, follow along with the festivities from the Ideas Festival site. I’ll be back over the next two weeks with more updates and insights from the festival.