Shannon Brownlee

Berkeley: Annual Festival of Ideas seeks to inspire, engage

by Karina Ioffee
09.30.2015

By Karina Ioffee
Bay Area News Group / Published 9.23.15

BERKELEY — Since the days of the Roman forum, humans have come together to discuss their society’s most pressing issues. Today, this communal experience has been replaced by more one-on-one time with computer screens and smartphones, as we tap, scroll and type our way toward intellectual discovery.

But not entirely.

Next month, some of the world’s leading thinkers, writers and innovators in the fields of social policy, politics, environment and the arts will gather in Berkeley for the third annual Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas on Oct. 16 and 17 at venues in the downtown arts district.

The event will include nearly 30 sessions on such far-ranging topics as national drug policies, robotics, innovation and foreign policy, and give participants a chance to not only listen, but engage the speakers in dynamic conversations.

Along with the talks, there will also be performances by musicians and comedians, interactive labs, food, beer and wine.

Another conference for the cognoscenti this is not.

“We’re not setting out to solve the world’s problems in two days, but hoping that the people who attend will get excited about something new and become engaged, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or new technology,” said Lance Knobel, the co-founder of Berkeleyside, the community news website that organizes the event. “If people can come away with new ideas or make a connection between something they’re already been studying or thinking about, that’s incredibly valuable.”

The more than 30 speakers at this year’s festival include Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to the war on drugs; journalist Shannon Brownlee, author of “Overtreated,” a bestselling examination of the medical care industry; and Masha Gessen, whose reporting on Putin’s Russia can often be seen in The New York Times and The New Yorker.

Uncharted speaker Masha Gessen

Uncharted speaker Masha Gessen

Others hail from closer to home, such as Regina Y. Evans, an Oakland native who founded a social enterprise vintage boutique that hires and mentors survivors of sex trafficking; UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks; and Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist, technologist and entrepreneur and the co-founder of Socos, a company that combines machine learning and cognitive neuroscience.

For some of the speakers, the festival is a chance to rally the troops around ideas they’re deeply passionate about and inspire others to get involved in reforming the aspects of society that are broken.

For Brownlee, who frequently travels the country speaking about medical overtreatment, it means changing how medical care toward terminally ill patients is administered.

“Medical overtreatment is a disease that is driven by a health care system driven by money,” Brownlee said in a recent interview. “The more treatment is given, the more money somebody makes.” The problem is perpetuated by the ever-constant fear of being sued by doctors and the belief that “more is better,” she said.

“A lot of doctors are aware of this problem, but feel powerless to stop it because there are so many forces working against them.”

The festival is also a fundraiser for Berkeleyside, which launched in 2009 and relies on a combination of ads and memberships to sustain its operation. Knobel, one of the co-founders of the site, said he was inspired to create the conference by his time helping organize the Davos World Economic Forum, and The New York Times’ DealBook conference, the latter of which brings together leading thinkers and influencers in the world of business and finance.

But unlike many of the highbrow conferences — such as TED Talks — Uncharted organizers say they’re not afraid to get political and controversial.

“The Bay Area is a center for not only politics and academic research, but also technology and lifestyle movements and we feel we’ve tapped into this incredible tradition,” Knobel said. “Berkeley is the place where community policing was invented in the ’20s, where busing was first used to integrate schools and where the disability movement started. What we’re doing is trying to celebrate the next thing people will be buzzing about.”

For more information about Uncharted, visit berkeleyideas.com.

Contact Karina Ioffee at 510-262-2726 or kioffee@bayareanewsgroup.com.