As ideas go, Chicago Ideas Week isn’t very original. The irony isn’t lost on Brad Keywell, founder of the seven-day, citywide series of talks, performances and networking events. The Aspen Institute, the Renaissance Weekend, the national Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conferences—the Groupon cofounder has attended (and was inspired by) all the preeminent summits. But when he looked at his hometown, he saw nothing of the sort, despite local businesses like GrubHub, Orbitz, Navteq, Centro and FeedBurner—not to mention his own deals site—as evidence Chicago has become a petri dish for game-changing global concepts.
“I saw a need for a great platform in the Midwest that helps connect thinkers and doers,” Keywell told me by phone last week. “Chicago is finding its place as a powerhouse of ideas, and we need more to connect people who are active in the realm of innovation.” The restless entrepreneur, who also cofounded the investment firm Lightbank, already has designs to brand Chicago Ideas as a yearlong platform for similar, smaller events that he likens to an itinerant version of New York’s 92nd Street Y.
But for the time being, he’s focusing on Ideas Week, October 10–16, which also comprises the TEDxMidwest conference. More than 100 A-list speakers convene to chew over topics such as social entrepreneurship, the future of news, baseball and tradition, food, education and the creative process. The lineup includes the expected talking eggheads: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Segway inventor Dean Kamen. But there are a number of head-scratchers booked, too (Fran Drescher?!).
“On every topic we’re tackling, we’re looking to approach it from multiple angles,” Keywell explains. “We’re trying to expose people to radically different perspectives, which we hope provokes radically different conversations.” Below, we shed a little light on the ideas some of these unexpected guests have to add.
Best known as Footloose heartthrob, the more celebrated member of the Bacon Brothers band
His big idea Riffing off the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game—which connects the ubiquitous actor to any Hollywood notable in six or fewer moves—Bacon started SixDegrees.org. The charitable-giving network operates on the “I wanna be like Mike” principle: The celebrity obsessed see which organizations their favorite A-listers (Kanye West, Nicole Kidman) are helping, and make donations to the same causes.
Forum TEDxMidwest, October 13 at the Oriental Theatre
Best known as Scream sequel-happy horror-meister
His big idea In 2007, the director-writer branched off from blockbusters to form Midnight Entertainment, a production company and breeding ground for new directorial talent. Its focus is making horror films with young talent behind the lens and budgets of less than $15 million, including the 2009 remake of Craven’s The Last House on the Left.
Forum TEDxMidwest, October 14 at the Oriental Theatre
Best known as that shrill, garishly dressed woman on The Nanny
Her big idea After surviving uterine cancer (misdiagnosed for two years), Drescher founded the Cancer Schmancer Movement to educate women about the disease. The org emphasizes prevention, early detection—and particularly asking doctors the right questions at key moments.
Forum Health & Wellness, October 16 at noon, at Thorne Auditorium
Sandra Day O’Connor
Best known as the retired first female member of the United States Supreme Court
Her big idea “Barely a third of our fellow citizens can name the three branches of government,” O’Connor recently groused in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed on the 224th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. In response to dismal national civic engagement figures, the retired associate justice launched iCivics.org earlier this year. Designed for teachers and sixth- through ninth-grade students, the teaching and learning tool concentrates on democracy, history and laws through games like “Do I Have a Right?” in which kids run their own constitutional law firm.
Forum Education, October 15 at 3pm, at University of Chicago