Seattle’s Idea-sharing Explosion

New groups join TEDx in creating events where big thinkers gather.
Karen Johnson  |   June 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
One of Seattle's new 'thought leaders,' Brady Forrest, is the co-founder of Ignite and cochair of San Francisco-based media conference O’Reilly’s Where 2.0

It’s a sunny Saturday in early March. Nearly 150 media, tech and business professionals, academics and students are squeezed into a meeting room at Adobe’s Fremont campus. The crowd quietly sips bottles of specialty ginger beer and listens intently, many taking notes, as author Eric Liu discusses citizenship and leadership with the host of the afternoon discussion, Hanson Hosein. “If you think about our role in civic life as citizens, thinking like gardeners is so much of what makes Seattle special and so much of what we have to offer and export in civic life,” says Liu, referring to his belief that Seattle is a city in which innovation and creativity are organically cultivated. It’s a particularly esoteric statement coming from the Yale- and Harvard-educated author, who has both the credentials and the conference-room cool to pull it off without sounding preachy. The duo goes head to head for half an hour, batting around ideas such as mentorship and Seattle’s changing role as a global city.

That gathering—a Four Peaks “salon”—is one of a growing number of intellectual idea-sharing events that aim to stimulate talk and elevate thinking about everything from global health to education, to the art of buying a new car. Thanks to the Internet and social media networks, the messages from these rhetorical jam sessions are all around us; perhaps you have a friend who went on and on about Melinda Gates’ inspired TEDx talk on what nonprofits should learn from Coca-Cola, or maybe you’ve stumbled upon a YouTube PowerPoint demo of a PechaKucha or Ignite presentation.

Locally, a handful of these groups is thriving amid Seattle’s entrepreneurial culture, bringing people and ideas together, each operating with a signature mission. Seattle-based Ignite tends to attract a tech and startup crowd; the digital-technology-focused Four Peaks, also founded in Seattle, has its fingers in academic and new-media circles. (Editor’s note: Writer Karen Johnson sits on Four Peaks’ organizing committee.) Some are local chapters of national and international groups, such as scholarly and science-minded TEDx, and design-centric PechaKucha. These groups are broadening the networks of people within niche communities: Liu leads an annual “Guiding Lights Weekend” at which activists team up with educators; poets converge with philanthropists at Michael Hebb’s Night School and One Pot gatherings. “Seattle is replete with very smart people, but it’s also siloed,” says Hosein. “[TEDx Seattle] convened communities we hadn’t seen before. We’d never seen geek, business and philanthropy cross-pollinate.” Local idea-sharing events are hitting what University of Washington history professor Margaret O’Mara calls Seattle’s “sweet spots”—hives of civic activity emerging from particularly vibrant communities. A half-century ago, such influential groups usually operated within legal or government circles, typically centered on distinct issues or people. Fast-forward a few decades, and Seattle’s new idea-sharing confabs reflect a totally different scene: Seattle has become a city in which techies, baristas and artists are shaping the agenda. “[Idea sharing] is the quasi-leisure activity of the knowledge class,” says O’Mara, who notes that most of these groups are nonprofits, marketing their messages mostly off the commercial grid, using personal social media networks.

This new guard is changing the tenor of discussion in Seattle, O’Mara says, emphasizing innovation over production; tackling global issues as readily as local ones. And most groups say they’re dedicated to diversity. “Old, young, men, women—we try to represent the broadest cross section of the community,” says Ana Pinto da Silva, founder of PechaKucha Seattle. Ignite Seattle makes certain that about half of all presenters are women. At Seattle’s TEDxRainier, speakers and even audience members are vetted to reflect a broad mix of backgrounds. (But even with careful attention to diversity, TEDxRainier’s audience—like those of most of these organizations—remains, as co-organizer Phil Klein puts it, primarily “intellectual, white and Seattleite.”) The reasons people attend these events vary, from professional networking, inspiration and continued learning to building communities and making like-minded friends. Liu has his own theory about the explosion of idea-sharing groups: “What you’re seeing is people who feel that the usual channels of civic engagement can get clogged up. Seattle is a place where people can make their own spaces for engagement.”

With so many of these groups now hitting their stride, you might wonder: Is all this talk translating into the actual changing of the world, or is this just a bunch of people repurposing tried-and-true networking? It’s too soon to tell which—if any—of these groups will have staying power, but if a recent comment from New York Times blogger and Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser is any indication, if it can happen anywhere, it will happen here: “Dense, smart cities like Seattle succeed by attracting smart people who educate and employ one another.” Who knows, perhaps over drinks at a One Pot gathering or a PechaKucha mixer, someone will stumble upon an idea as exportable as the 747 or Kindle.


Technology, Entrepreneurship
Ignite
Enlighten us, but make it quick
Montlake resident Brady Forrest, 37, has never been bashful about borrowing good ideas. While attending a party for the technology news website Tech Crunch in Seattle, he realized there was an opportunity for bringing together local geek minds. Forrest, a former Microsoft program manager turned conference organizer for tech site O'Reilly, teamed up with friend Bre Pettis to a create a social gathering—complete with cocktails and networking—at which ideas are explained in five-minute demos culled from exactly 20 slides (15 seconds per slide). Since launching in 2006, Seattle “Igniters” have presented on topics ranging from practical (how to buy a car) to absurd  (“Building a Multi-person Pogo Stick”), to informative (“The Evolution of the Meme” by Cheezburger Network’s Ben Huh). Anyone can submit a presentation proposal. At the heart of Ignite is a simple idea: “True geeks are passionate about their work and finding out how things work,” says Forrest. “When you tell a geek an idea, they want to know what’s backing the concept up.” Hundreds of Ignites have been held worldwide, with regular events happening in New York, Portland and Boulder. igniteseattle.com


New Media, Technology, Community
Four Peaks 

Cultivating conversations
Following the success of the TEDxSeattle event, Hanson Hosein, 42, and Kraig Baker, 43, wanted to find a more participative way to present TED-like ideas. Their solution: a series of small group discussions open to the public but mostly focused on Seattle’s media and tech communities. The goal is to put the Northwest at the forefront of four “peaks”: innovation, entrepreneurship, entertainment and community. Since launching its first event in February—a moderated discussion on innovation and entrepreneurship with former Microsoft exec turned molecular gastronomy cookbook author Nathan Myhrvold—Four Peaks has hosted dialogues on everything from the future of food to new tools for local activism. “TEDx was about exposing people to great ideas; Four Peaks is about ideas, but also connecting people and building infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest,” says Baker. Both say Four Peaks is also about bringing complex topics—such as the role of storytelling in environmental justice, entrepreneurship and innovation—to the broader community. “We look at higher education differently from most people; we see community engagement at the heart of what we do,” Hosein says. “I despise the panel discussion. We don’t want to shower wisdom from on high, we want to have a participatory, collaborative interaction.” He and Baker hope to grow Four Peaks into an event that will compare to Austin’s much-buzzed-about festival, South by Southwest. “Austin and Seattle are both considered second-tier cities,” jokes Hosein. “So why hasn’t such an event happened here?” fourpeaks.org


Academia, Science, Culture
TEDx
Ideas worth spreading

Launched in 1984 in Monterey, California, as a tech- and design-centered event for elite Silicon Valley types, TED (the acronym stands for technology, entertainment and design) encompasses global and national conferences and a multimedia platform. The nonprofit has since shifted into an international do-gooder network aimed at spreading ideas that “change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.” Since the community-based TEDx programs (independently organized by local “curators”) arrived in Seattle in 2009, our region has seen about a dozen of these events, catering to everyone from business leaders (TEDxPugetSound) to youth (TEDxRedmond was organized by a 12-year-old Redmond girl), to TEDxSeattle, a one-off event held in April 2010. Much of the conference’s overall success lies in the authority of the presentations; the typical TEDx presenter is an expert who walks attendees through a complicated subject, boiling it down to a three- to 15-minute talk. “I think of it as a church for intellectuals, a place to feel inspired by ideas that matter, ideas that are changing the world,” says Nassim Assefi, the 38-year-old Capitol Hill resident who curated TEDxRainier 2010. Local presenters have included Bill Gates Sr. (on defeated income tax initiative I-1098), Cheezburger Network’s Ben Huh (on making the Internet laugh), and Michael Hebb (on the art of “tablemaking”). A robust video-sharing platform means virtual attendees from all over the world take part. Though organizers Hosein and Baker have no plans yet for a second TEDxSeattle event, local “TED heads” can get their fix on November 12 when TEDxRainier returns for round two. tedxrainier.com, tedxseattle.com

 

Community, Leadership, Politics
Guiding Lights Weekend
Teaching the Zen of citizenship

Eric Liu has built a career out of an obsession with civic engagement and mentorship. In 2002, at the age of 33, the Yale- and Harvard-educated former presidential speechwriter appeared set on a path in the other Washington. Instead, the young father took to the road, traveling the country in search of great mentors. “I felt like I’d collected all of these gold stars, but when I looked around, I realized that nobody was watching out for me,” says Liu. His travels led him to write his first book, Guiding Lights: How to Mentor, and form an annual Seattle event, the Guiding Lights Weekend (now in its sixth year). The intensive two-day leadership conference draws more than 400 attendees and speakers from around the country who are hungry to discuss such topics as the art of citizenship, including skills such as how to facilitate debate, and leadership in the face of conflict. “People come to Guiding Lights Weekend for several reasons,” says Liu, “inspiration, concentrated skill building and the serendipity of being mixed up with lots of people that they might not otherwise encounter.” Recent speakers have included Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (via video). “Some people have the opportunity and know-how to make change, and some people don’t,” says Liu, who aims to build an army of “great citizens” at his events through a program that includes small skill-building workshops and lots of inspirational panels and discussions. What’s next for the 43-year-old Madrona resident? Perhaps one day, a stint in public office: “It’s something that I could imagine doing later in my life, when my 12-year-old daughter’s grown. I believe in this democracy. People who care and have the ability can and should jump in.” guidinglightsnetwork.com/weekend


Design, Architecture, Culture
PechaKucha
Structured inspiration

On a Thursday evening in March at SoDo’s Piranha Shop gallery, Ana Pinto da Silva, a UC-Berkeley- and Harvard- educated interactive media artist turned design lead at Microsoft, gave her very first PechaKucha Seattle presentation: a look at finding visual inspiration in her own life. Founded by architects living in Japan (the name means “chitchat” in Japanese), PechaKucha events feature local presenters—who have ranged from city council members to a local burlesque dancer—each giving a talk for six minutes and 40 seconds with 20 slides (20 seconds per slide). Pinto da Silva launched the Seattle chapter of this idea-sharing project in 2006. Along with her team of volunteers, which she calls her “PechaKuties,” she has mounted more than 30 events with such themes as love, creating change, and finding your inner pirate. “It’s about creating an experience of listening,” says the 42-year-old Capitol Hill resident, who likes her ideas spontaneous and a little messy. Slides range from professional to images sourced from Google to hand-drawn. “There’s so much perfect media out there,” she says. “PechaKucha is about channeling the best of people in real time.”
pecha-kucha.org/night/seattle


Food, Ideas, Culture
One Pot 
Ideas that get inside you

Along with its serious business- and tech-centric siblings, Seattle’s arts and food communites have put their own spin on the ideas concept. Michael Hebb’s intimate dinners and his salon series use the breaking of bread as a vehicle for sharing ideas. Hebb, a 35-year-old Capitol Hill resident, has a background in classical literature and studied architecture at Portland State University (he left the program early to cofound several restaurants and host underground suppers in Portland). In 2006, Hebb landed in Seattle to start One Pot, which began as a foodie event at which chefs would literally serve a dish made in one pot to a group of anywhere from a dozen to 70 strangers. One Pot has matured into a robust program including a dinner series with local coffee company Caffé Vita created to educate diners on the principles behind farm-direct buying, and a series of “Night School” classes at Seattle’s Sorrento Hotel. (Night School events range from music-themed nights to small dinners with visiting authors and various “seminars” with cultural movers and shakers.) “The power of One Pot is less about the menu and more about getting people to share a story-worthy experience,” says Hebb. “It’s merely a vehicle for ideas, for sharing a common experience. The whole idea is to get [attendees] to realize that ‘tonight is different from other nights.’” Hebb, who has recently teamed up with national philanthropic groups, including Architecture for Humanity and the FEED Foundation, hopes to continue to influence how people use and think about the table—around the table. “The table is this great engine for activating ideas. Food is sexy, but really it’s a Trojan horse for ideas.” onepot.org