The past several years has showed an increasing sense of polarization of various groups over ideology, religion, political choices and positions, and even lifestyle choices.
Self-isolation into echo chambers on social media has not been helpful in promoting civility in discourse or opening minds to new ideas.
The proliferation of safe spaces and increasing pushback against controversial or politically challenging speakers on university campuses has reached the critical level of presenting security concerns and creating a sense of spreading and viciously self-enforcing conformism and groupthink.
And grandstanding by leading politicians around the world has done little to address the substance of the issues that has caused a feeling of abandonment among the public and led to the hijacking of parties and movements by increasingly radical elements. Bad news and politicization of any given topic is eagerly fed by the media, which overall, feeds off negative publicity and superficial soundbytes, regardless of perspective.
What is the solution to these isolating elements of modernity, which create nothing but friction, aggression, and atrophy of mindfulness.
Andres Roemer, the CEO of La Ciudad de las Ideas, found a solution by those who are willing to be challenged to the point of discomfort, rather than triggered, by different perspectives and unexpected ideas.
This year, the festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in Puebla, Mexico from November 16-19, bringing together thousands of people from all over the world, and hundreds of speakers from every imaginable backgrounds, as well as a spectrum of performers and artists, who entertained and stretched the horizons of the audience.
The theme of this year’s gathering was “Beyond X”, with the running refrain of “Do not believe everything you think”. The festival was wholly dedicated to showcasing and promoting “dangerous ideas” from the world’s most brilliant minds. Through a series of debates, panels, presentations, film clips, contests, and other expositions, the festival opened the eyes of the audience to paradigm-shifting experiences, innovations, and concepts. Where else would you have seen supporters and admirers of Steven Pinker and devotees of Noam Chomsky, whose ideas are frequently in tension, listen to both, and then chat amiably together over coffee? Such open-minded and learning-oriented attitude may be seen increasingly as a rarity in the political correct climate of most of today’s Western societies, but in the festival, the numbers of admirers of intellectual diversity has actually been on the rise (which works well to counteract the generally gloomy outlook for our collective future).
This year’s spectacular extravaganza featured a number of innovative projects, which are growth and solution-oriented, and seek to create the dimension of practical skill-building to the academic, policy, and entertainment Colossus of Nobel Prize laureates, public intellectuals, and iconoclasts of all stripes. One such project was the inauguration of the Gifted Citizen contest, which identifies social entrepreneurs, who contribute solutions to global problems. The winner receives a check for a million pesos. Another contest was the British version of the Shark Tank, called “PitchPalace”, run in conjuction with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. The finalists would pitch their innovative concepts to the audience, who would vote for the top three via phone apps. Top two winners get to go to London to pitch their projects in front of an international audience.
Additional projects included an international cartoon contest, featuring sharp and creative social and political commentary through drawings from all over the world. The festival also paid homage to the victims and rescuers of the recent earthquake in Mexico.
A heated but fascinating moderated debate on climate change even managed to change a few minds, as we learned through an open feedback session from the audience afterwards.
And there was also plentiful opportunity for networking, including interactions with and among speakers, with an opportunity to apply the new knowledge from the areas as widespread as genetic engineering, AI, virtual reality, and the current advances in the quantum theory to the opportunities in meeting an 18 year old entrepreneur Julian Rios, who is disrupting the non-invasive breast cancer diagnostics market with his invention, the Mexican-born Dr. Tobias, the deputy-head of the neurosurgery department in the Israeli border hospital that operates on wounded Syrians, or the famed behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
We learn best not by retreating into our ideological and socioeconomic bubbles, but through a vibrant exchange of ideas with people who may disagree with us on every imaginable issue, but who are passionate, motivated, knowledgeable in their areas of expertise, and open to such contacts.
Thanks to Andres Roemer, perhaps many of us have taken our first steps towards overcoming the social tendency towards entropy and self-isolation, and towards a whole new world where knowledge is cool, and disagreement is embraced, celebrated, and used to advance society.