As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, it became clear that gathering together, the raison d’etre of the Institute’s Public Programs team, was not going to be an option. Yet the team realized that sharing ideas would be a powerful balm, even if it had to be done from home workspaces and kitchen tables.
Introducing Aspen Ideas Now.
A multimedia platform that launched in April, Aspen Ideas Now puts forward the experts and activists, the poets and politicians who examine and imagine the new world. It features interviews, podcasts, essays, performances, visual expressions, social media and—always—engagement with the public on issues. Each week features a theme, addressed through a variety of relevant angles and a diversity of formats. AIN spans the economy, health, democracy, the arts and literature, geopolitics and diplomacy, science and ethics. It amplifies key insights representing the work and ideas expressed throughout the Institute’s many programs—and finds serious, smart thinking beyond the focus of existing programs. Within only a few months its audience numbered 80,000, with expectations of accelerated growth.
Then, of course, came the question of what to do with the Institute’s signature public program: the Aspen Ideas Festival. Even as plans for AIN were only coming into final focus, the team made the decision to launch the very first Aspen Ideas Digital Festival, condensing the usual hundreds of sessions over six days to eight hours of programming presented over five end-of-June and start-of-July evenings.
The decision was, like everything else in the first half of 2020, unprecedented. It meant puzzling out how to convert a festival with a 16-year history of in-person conversation and personal connections and remake it for a digital audience in a short eight weeks—and in a way that would cut through the clutter of digital content everyone else was producing. The key objectives were to stay connected with our most loyal attendees, speakers, and sponsors. The team achieved that—but somewhat unexpectedly also introduced the festival and the Institute to thousands who had never engaged with us before.
The response was overwhelming. The strength of the festival’s brand appealed to tens of thousands of people from all over the country and across the globe who registered to tune in. The festival’s website increased its traffic by a factor of 10 during the livestream events and the days before and after. At the same time, loyal attendees, nostalgic for the connection of being together on the Aspen Meadows campus, shared stories of watching the programming every evening during dinner hour with family or inviting a few friends over to watch together on their outdoor decks.
Whether it was Anthony Fauci or Bill Gates weighing in on vaccines and the Covid-19 response, or activists like Alicia Garza and Stacey Abrams discussing racial inequality, or speakers sharing Big Ideas from how Americans should experience Supreme Court cases to closing the gap around economic inequality, the Aspen Ideas Digital Festival delivered new ideas and different ways of thinking about the critical problems of a time challenging for everyone—and, for five summer evenings, exhilarating, too.