Higher Learning at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Riccardo Vecchio

Director Kitty Boone tackles big ideas with a healthy respect for diversity.

The Aspen Ideas Festival began in 2005 as a way for the Aspen Institute to bring its closed-door conversations to the public, and today more than 300 experts (both boldfaced and not) in arenas like the arts, politics, education and science convene to discuss the ideas that are defining and redefining our times. We talk with festival director Kitty Boone about what separates Aspen from the conference pack, the challenges facing the fest and why the best ideas need to go global.

Q: Past participants at Aspen have included Bill Clinton and Richard Branson—who are you excited for in 2013?

A: People always ask me that, but I think everybody’s cool! This year we’ve got experts on dark matter, students from the MIT Media Lab, Arianna Huffington, Yves Béhar, Yo-Yo Ma and David Boies, who, with Ted Olson, recently finished his presentation to the Supreme Court on gay marriage.

Q: Besides being open to the public, what differentiates Aspen from a Davos or TED?

A: Well, we’ve got 200-some-odd sessions over a single week, and many are concurrent, so you’re forced to pick, much like the university format. And rather than a single speaker, we have multiple panelists engaging in conversation. Compared with other conferences, we’re also not as much of a business-networking summit—people come to learn.

Q: And because it’s Aspen.

A: Exactly. In the 1940s, our founder, Walter Paepcke, saw Aspen as a place where people could retreat and think outdoors with a body-mind-spirit connection you can’t get in a city like New York.

Q: Is there any subject matter the festival wouldn’t broach? Maybe fashion or—?

A: We’ve done fashion! There’s not a lot we wouldn’t broach. Our main challenge is to get balance on political issues—this year we’ve got the former president of the NRA, David Keene, coming.

Q: It seems like you value different backgrounds, too.

A: Definitely. To learn about our world, we have to invite everyone to the conversation: women from the Middle East, thinkers about the Arab Spring, younger participants like students in their early twenties from the Stanford Design Program. Last year they knocked our socks off—they’re the next generation of innovators.

The 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival takes place June 26 to July 2; aspenideas.org.