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How We Build the Aspen Ideas Festival

Have you ever wondered how we put together the programming for the Aspen Ideas Festival?

  • April 25th 2023

We’re diving deep into this year’s themes to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we create the program tracks that will guide 7 days with some 300 speakers, 150 sessions, and 3,000 attendees. 

These themes change every year in response to the news of the world, the emerging challenges we face both locally and globally, and the cutting-edge ideas that are inspiring us. 

Age of Uncertainty: Imagining a New World Order

The international arena is highly unsettled – with no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, China and Russia flexing their muscles around the globe, and questions surrounding the stability of liberal democracy where once it seemed certain. We think it’s critical to examine how global alliances are shifting and how the United States should navigate these rough waters. 

Plus — a hands-on workshop with Karen Brunwasser of FeelBeit, a Jerusalem-based community center, will explore art as a force for peace.

Questions we’re grappling with

What can be done about democratic backsliding around the world?

Is the global balance of power shifting or fracturing? What will new geopolitical arrangements mean for the U.S. and its allies? 

How should we approach competition with China and Russia around the globe?

With no end in sight for the war in Ukraine, will our alliances and public support for U.S. engagement endure? 

What is our way forward with China? Should we be preparing for hostilities or are we overestimating the threat?

How can cultural activities like sports affect foreign relations for the better and for the worse?

Powering the Future

A typical global greenhouse gas pie chart will show that energy production is the biggest contributor to emissions. We’re taking a closer look at technology that holds great promise for getting carbon out of the electric grid and out of our industrial processes.

Plus — In partnership with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, we’ll take people outside to learn about local ecosystems on a tour under the towering peaks of the Maroon Bells. Attendees will also get the opportunity to walk along the burn scar of a recent wildfire and take tree core samples to see how a changing climate affects forest health.

Questions we’re grappling with

What does the latest climate science tell us about how fast we need to transition away from fossil fuels?

How will the developing world adopt new low-carbon technologies given the costs and other challenges it faces? 

Is there a chance that climate hysteria is overblown? 

How will geopolitical ties with countries like China and Russia impact the world’s ability to meet climate targets?

The Mind

We’re living in what’s been called the “golden age of neuroscience.” What does this mean for human thriving? We’ll explore how biology is being integrated with technology in unprecedented ways; the science of creativity and consciousness; nervous system hacks for better living; and tips for navigating mental health when our minds work against us.

Plus — Dan Harris, founder of 10% Happier and author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, will guide attendees in a meditation workshop.

Questions we’re grappling with

As big tech influences nearly every aspect of our lives, what do we need to know about cognitive liberty?

What are the latest breakthroughs in improving brain function as we age, and how much difference does lifestyle make?

What do advances in brain computer interfaces (BCIs) portend for the general population?

A mental health crisis is gripping our youth — how do we help?

Can we use science to unlock creativity?

How might we harness emotional responses like stress and anxiety to enhance our lives rather than hinder them?

The Edge of Intelligence

Everywhere you look, there’s a splashy headline about the power of artificial intelligence and how it will impact all aspects of our lives in ways we have not yet imagined. Just like the introduction of social media, the ubiquity of AI will have both positive and negative consequences, and this track will consider how we can proceed with caution.

Plus — a fun, hands-on workshop will show you ways to save time and hack your life by using ChatGPT to do work for you.

Questions we’re grappling with

What are the implications of rolling out AI applications across industries without government regulations in place?

How will AI impact our jobs? 

From diagnosing cancer to personalizing education and even understanding animal language, what possibilities lay ahead as machine learning gets smarter? 

Some are speculating that AI could be a humanity-ending technology. Could it?

What are the most hopeful advancements that will arise from AI?

Driving the Economy Forward

There are so many critical issues facing our economy right now, both domestically and globally, and they top the headlines: Are we in recession? Is ESG a function of misguided platitudes or a tool to better all kinds of outcomes? How should we approach the debt ceiling? How are CEOs leading change? How do firms (and policy makers) address disruptions? 

To generate these and other questions about economic health, we work with advisors who are adept at thinking through the fundamentals and implications of economic change, several of whom work at the media outlets above. We also work very closely with our partners at CNBC and the larger NBC News Group to develop and frame the best questions to consider from the stage, and then who should address them.

Questions we're grappling with

Can we afford purpose? Should shareholder or stakeholder capitalism define our economic system?

How will Artificial Intelligence affect our jobs?

What are the key challenges to the global economy right now, and how should we address them?

We have been looking at interest rates as the tool to manage inflation and issues of economic growth for close to a century now. Is it time to think about new tools that could offer a broader range of economic outcomes?

Given the significant attention to and investment in clean tech, is it fair to say that we are in a new industrial revolution driven by electrification?

What are the pros and cons of remote work?

Post pandemic, we are seeing downtowns across our major cities experiencing economic pain, largely due to the rise of remote work. What does this signal about the future of downtowns?

We the People

Americans seem more culturally and ideologically divided than at any point in most of our lifetimes, with no prospect of bridging those divides any time soon. The only thing we seem to agree upon is that our politics are broken and our leaders are unable to solve the nation’s most fundamental challenges. What will this mean for our future, collectively and individually? Is there a way forward? Can American democracy be repaired?

Plus — Eric Liu will facilitate "Civic Culture Academy," Josiah Ober and Alison McQueen will take attendees through the "Skills of Citizenship," and Jeff Rosen will teach a "How to Interpret the Constitution" workshop.

Questions we're grappling with

Who are “We the People”?

What can be done to save American democracy from itself?

Can we learn to talk to each other? To listen to each other?

What should Americans know about their country and who makes the important decisions?

Life Well Lived

Despite the fact that philosophers throughout history have debated what it means to live a good life, it’s an ongoing and unresolved question. Interrogating different approaches and talking to others about what makes a good life can broaden our own understanding and challenge our assumptions. 

We approached the question of what makes for a life well lived by examining what might be considered the individual components of a good life, such as meaningful work and fulfilling relationships, and our speakers reflect these different components.

Plus — Catherine Price will lead attendees through a “funtervention” workshop, showing how we could all use more fun and some ways we can find it in our everyday lives.

Questions we're grappling with

What can ancient philosophy teach us about living a good life in the modern world?

When is life good enough? 

How should we think about work in our “good” lives?

Who are we responsible for?

Do we need faith or spirituality to be happy?

What do our religious traditions tell us about how to build a meaningful life?

How can we age purposefully?

We're excited to dig into all these topics and more at the 2023 Aspen Ideas Festival. We hope you'll join us.

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