Friday, November 21st, 2008

Kris Kimel Gets It

Is there something in the water in Louisville? For some reason, it continues to attract a core group of innovators and creators who operate at the absolute highest level in the world.

One of the things this has produced for the city is the IdeaFestival, a major international event attracting top international talent across a wide range of disciplines. To keep the excitement going year around, they publish an IdeaFestival blog. A recent article included a video featuring Kris Kimel, who founded the festival. This guy shows in about two and a half minutes exactly the way that cities need to be thinking in order to thrive in the 21st century economy. Among his points:

  • He wanted the IdeaFestival to be the “preemient event in the world for convergent innovation”, covering the intersection of science, business, the arts, design, and philosophy.
  • He wanted to use it as a vehicle to extend the brand of Kentucky and Louisville into the innovation space. His vision was that when people on the streets in LA, Paris, or Banaglore ran into each other and asked “Are you going to be in Louisville this fall?” they’d associate it with the IdeaFestival. That the conference would have a brand recognition in its space similar to Sundance in film.

The IdeaFestival has gone a long way towards achieving that vision, though I don’t know how much it has really changed the city’s brand image. That takes more than a conference. It takes output. That’s one reason I’m so sad to see Museum Plaza dead. But that sort of change is a longer term game.

What does this illustrate? A couple things. Firstly, you never achieve great things unless you aspire to achieve great things. Setting a lofty objective like “being the preeminent event in the world” can inspire and motivate people in a way that mediocrity never will. Just putting on another ho-hum conference wouldn’t have amounted to anything. Also, Kimel didn’t spend his time saying, “Gosh, I wonder if lil’ ol’ Louisville can do something like this.” Rather, he said, why not us?

Successful cities out there in the US and the world have a healthy amour-propre. It takes a certain degree of self-regard to muster the will to compete in the world. The Midwest has long been an understated, modest sort of place. That has its charms, but the whole “nail that sticks up gets pounded back down” routine is not good enough anymore to make it in the 21st century. The IdeaFestival shows that when smaller Midwestern or Southern cities decide they want to compete out there in the 21st century realm of ideas, they can actually do it and be successful. This is an example for other cities and other innovators to emulate.

You can watch the full video here:


Cities: Louisville

5 Responses to “Kris Kimel Gets It”

  1. Donna says:


    Yep, Idea Fest is amazing, I’ve been to two of them and both times wondered why I have to go to L’ville to see important speakers. Of course, Indy has had Daniel Pink and Aaron Betsky in the past six weeks, but there is no excitement about an entire city-wide three day event for thinkers here.

    Also, Kentucky has the Governor’s School for the Arts, which Indy should have.

  2. Jefferey says:

    A healthy self-regard is one way to put it. Another way to look at is a healthy provincialism, where people celebrate the city and do things to enhance the city.

    The concept is somewhat similar to the Rennaissance city-states of Italy and Germany and their merchant princes.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Jeff, I think there is a subtle distinction between amour-propre and provincialism. Perhaps it is a modern day tragedy. The places that, like European burgs, retained their local flavor are some of the ones least able to adapt to the modern economy. I think Cincy and Louisville are good examples of this. They have far greater assets than their regional peers, yet have lagged in growth.

    What we need is forward thinking provincialism, one firmly anchored in a realistic appraisal of where a city is, and which is heartily determined to do what is necessary to succeed. That is what is so often missing and is such a hard ingredient to find.

  4. emlingj says:

    I applaud this kind of forward thinking and high-bar-setting in Louisville. However, I don’t see this as necessarily a sustainable competitive advantage to put and keep Louisville on the international map. Maybe it will, but I can see cities with an already higher profile copying this very easily. They have first-mover advantage here, and I wish them well, but I’m not convinced this will be more than a novelty in 10 years. I think the IdeaFestival is too broadly cast to be consistently attached to Louisville in the minds of great international movers and shakers. I hope I am wrong and Louisville joins the likes of Davos, Switzerland on the world stage.

    It seems subtle, but a slight narrowing of the scope of this event and a positioning of it into whitespace would pay greater dividends for Louisville and Kentucky, in my opnion. Focusing the festival on a broad topic like urbanization or cultural preservation in an amalgamating world would give it more of an identity. And slightly changing the name to something like “The Louisville Conference” will solidify the association between the event and the city. This is the brilliance of the Indianapolis Prize. Indy isn’t particularly known for its efforts in conservation, but with the Prize it is marketing its brand and becoming associated with global conservation efforts. This is the largest prize of its kind in the field and it gained instant recognition from the day it was launched. Think about this, in the context of a “Louisville Conference.”

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    emlingj, I appreciate the thoughtful comments. Perhaps this is something that the IdeaFestival should consider, particularly the co-branding with Louisville in the name. Clearly, to reach its ambition, the event needs to keep evolving. Now that you mention it, it occurs to me that I don’t even know exactly where Sundance is actually held.

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