new york ideas

The third annual New York Ideas forum, held at the New York Historical Society and sponsored by The Atlantic magazine and the Aspen Institute, presented a plethora of world changing innovators. The audience closely encountered over six hundred thought leaders who participated in interviews, panels, debates, displays, and break-out sessions. It was enthralling to hear firsthand descriptions of the trends, innovations, and technologies impacting upon business, politics, and culture.

I trooped up Central Park West and entered the Historical Society in time to immerse myself in the afternoon sessions. Since it is absolutely necessary to have food for thought, I thoroughly enjoyed the lunch consisting of great salad, grilled vegetables, and hearty sandwiches.  I was sufficiently well fortified to plunge into the buffet of CEOs who presented a veritable parade of cool and innovative ideas.

The speakers ranged from physicist Brian Greene describing the entire cosmos in twenty minutes, to James Gorman (CEO of Morgan Stanley) explaining the future of finance and investing, to designer Jonathan Adler insisting that every living room should contain an art deco couch, to Andrew Mcafee (co-founder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy) advising what we should do when robots take over all of our jobs, to Yancy Strickler (CEO of Kickstarter) advocating crowdsourcing our dreams.

Here are what I consider to be the highlights of the interviews I was privileged to hear:

Chef Dominique Ansel, the inventor of the New York gastronomical sensation called the cronut, introduced his new desert confection. Does this sound less then earth shattering? Trust me, it was really, really hot. Ansel literally took a blow torch to a blob of vanilla ice cream suspended on a smoked branch. New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin was lucky enough to parlay possession of all the scrumptious deserts Ansel presented.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of CEO of Chobani, described how he made something—a culinary empire—from nothing. “Only in America does a Turkish guy make Greek yogurt,” he said. It was fascinating to hear how he bought an antiquated yogurt plant, hired five people, and created the fastest growing start-up ever—a business which went from zero profits to one billion dollars in sales. Ulukaya described his recipe for success: “It is not a big deal. Along the way you figure it out.” I loved that he emphasized that “accessibility to good food is a human right.”

Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO, insisted that excellence, not viewer numbers, is responsible for his network’s success. He explained that HBO is trying to create the best possible product. “We want the subscriber to be emotionally involved with our brand. We want to make our content outstanding—and we encourage diversity,” he said. Plepler recounted the most spot on comment of the afternoon when he reported that his lunch server said this to him: “You make good shit.”

Robert Stern, the Dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, insisted that New York contains too many glass buildings. He, however, was not at all upset about the ultra high buildings going up in midtown which are controversially going to cast shadows over Central Park. He attributes the success of his 15 Central Park West, one of the most exclusive residential buildings in the city, to its ability at once to be modern and evoke the past—and to the “club” it provides for the residents. Stern has a very community oriented vision. “Buildings are built for the whole city,” he said. His formula for building successful low income housing: it should not appear to be different from all other housing.

William Bratton, the New York Police Commissioner, offered interesting observations about “stop and frisk.” He advocated “modifying” the practice so that police could only stop a person if they had “reasonable suspicion” that a crime will be committed; police can frisk someone if they think the person possesses a weapon. He said this while explaining why he thought that there is too much stop and frisk: “There needs to be consistency in stop and frisk. You need to articulate the reason for it.” Bratton was not hopeful about gun control. “It’s over. We lost control. We are dealing with gun reform,” he said.

The chance to see Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly provided the most poignant aspect of the afternoon. It was inspiring to witness how far she has come—and the loving attention Kelly lavishes upon his wife. Although Giffords has difficulty choosing her words, she can now communicate effectively and walk independently. When Kelly explained that he and Giffords can now live together in the same city, he gave an example of how something good can emanate from the unspeakably awful. When Giffords, our national profile in courage, vehemently said “enough is enough,” she received a standing ovation. I was close enough to the stage to shout “bravo” and have Giffords make eye contact with me in response.

Enlivened by all the fantastic ideas I heard, I stopped into the closing reception. I was handed a chicken salad concoction perched on a brown spoon implement thing. I enjoyed the chicken and placed the brown spoon thing on a tray.

“You can eat the spoon,” the server insisted.

“What? What do you mean I can eat the spoon?” Even though I routinely eat everything insight, ingesting spoons is even beyond me.

“Yes, you can eat the spoon. It is made of hard bread.”

Now THAT is a good New York idea!

– Marleen Barr

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