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Asking After The Future At The World Frontiers Forum

A polymath inventor and entrepreneur debuts a TED-like conference for cross-pollinating ideas.

Asking After The Future At The World Frontiers Forum
[Screenshot: World Frontiers Forum / phase one photography]

You know you’re at a big ideas conference when Segway inventor Dean Kamen offers a ride to the X-Prize Summit on his private jet to Matthias Sundin, a young member of the Swedish parliament who funded his campaign with Bitcoin donations.

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This kind of cross-pollination was at the core of the first World Frontiers Forum last week, where astronauts mingled with ballet dancers, and bioengineers exchanged bon mots with conceptual artists.

“We’re interested in the frontiers of human experience, where there’s great ambiguity, great uncertainty, and there are no answers,” says David Edwards, the entrepreneur-inventor and Harvard professor who spearheaded the invite-only event in partnership with the MIT chemical engineer Bob Langer and Chief Emeritus of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital Dennis Ausiello.

David Edwards [Photo: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/GettyImages]
Edwards, who has developed inhalable insulin, smokable chocolate, foods self-contained in edible skins, and is now creating a platform for delivering digital scent, is refashioning himself as an intellectual impresario. He brought 150 big thinkers (with big wallets) from across disparate disciplines to his Le Laboratoire, a public-facing art and science hub in Cambridge, Massachusetts with its own restaurant and gallery space, for 36 hours of lectures, performances, and networking meals.

Edwards hopes the Forum will be a cross between TED and the World Economic Forum. But right now, it’s more TED than Davos. The conference opened with a presentation about the Long Now Clock (TED 2004), and included presentations from animal welfare activist Temple Grandin (2010), architect Bjarke Ingels (2011), and chef Sam Kass (2015), among others. The price of entry is equally steep, with a $5,000 initiation fee (waived for most guests in its inaugural run).

Sponsors, including Verily and the Paul Allen Foundation, who donated as much as $100,000 apiece, helped fund the 15 “Young Pioneers,” who were invited from around the world to offer four-minute snapshots of their work. Roya Mahboob, a software developer, educator, and internet activist, flew in from Afghanistan. And starting in early 2018, Edwards will be putting out an open call for young people (18 to 35) to submit five-minute video “dream pitches,” from which 45 will be selected as next year’s “Young Pioneers.”

“People around me said, ‘Are you modeling it after Vanity Fair, Aspen Institute, TED?’ I said, ‘I’m not modeling it after anything,'” says Edwards. “I’m just closing my eyes and sort of saying, ‘What do we need right now?'”

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While Paul Allen and Eric Schmidt were both last-minute no-shows, the crowd did include contemporary art star Doug Aitken (winner of the Forum’s first art prize), astronaut Cady Coleman, ballet dancer Wendy Whelan (who’d performed the first morning), an assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, and the directors of the Guggenheim and Whitney museums.

“We’re not so much focused on the next three years as we are on the next 30 years,” said Edwards, standing on a box kicking off proceedings last week. “If you look far enough out, frontiers, all of them, merge.”

Here’s a sample of what the view into that future looked like.

Cato Laurencin, professor, University of Connecticut, orthopedic surgeon, limb regeneration pioneer. “We can create these systems for regeneration that really depend upon the convergence of science, technology, advanced materials, ceramics . . . We’ve actually created almost all the different tissues of the musculoskeletal area. We can create bone, cartilage, tendon, ligament, nerve . . . What’s next? Where can you take this? There are 185,000 Americans undergoing amputation each year . . . There really is a pressing need.

“Two years ago, on Veterans Day, I announced our new project to be able to regenerate lost limbs, Hartford Engineering a Limb project, HEAL . . . to regenerate the knee and limb tissue, using these properties of convergence . . . While our bodies are not salamander or newt, we have newt-like and salamander-like qualities that we can actually bring out . . . We expect to regenerate a limb in 15 years.”

Esther Wojcicki, founder, Palo Alto High School Media Arts Center. “I’m using [journalism] as a platform to teach all the 21st-century skills. You need to get that information, get it right, figure out what the source is, write it in some way that somebody wants to read it, not just your poor teacher, and also spread it everywhere. It makes the knowledge real, it gives kids skills and develops character.

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“With 600 kids I have 10 publications, a newspaper, multiple magazines . . . a foreign affairs magazine. It’s their magazine, they want to tell you how things should be. They have radio and television, broadcast every single day. They are doing the whole thing . . . How can we change the way that we teach? That is the goal.”

Sam Kass, former White House chef, food activist, and entrepreneur, introducing his “Last Supper,” served at the Forum, featuring foods that may vanish in a generation. “Experts are predicting that our kids and grandkids aren’t going to have wine and chocolate and coffee . . . Everybody is ready to riot for one of those three things. We’re also going to lose seafood, like shellfish and crustaceans, lobster and shrimp, all of these things are really in jeopardy.

“This meal is about communicating that. The plates you’re going to eat tonight, our kids and grandkids very well likely will not be able to eat this food, and that’s a pretty stunning and terrifying reality. Hopefully this provokes a sense of urgency that our thinking today has to be both big and bold, but also real, and that we put some of these ideas into practice.”

James Collins, researcher, Wyss Institute, pioneer in synthetic biology (created inexpensive rapid-response diagnostics for Ebola and Zika). “We and others have now engineered bacteria that can record the presence of inflammation in your gut, and give you a readout . . . Imagine that you could now engineer bacteria that you could take as a probiotic in the form of a pill that can record. Do you have inflammation, do you have early signs of cancer? We’re not far from that. Could you go further? Could you also make them as living therapeutics . . . engineer bacteria to sense pathogens and try to treat pathogens? . . . We’ve engineered bugs that can indicate whether you been infected or not, as well as to help keep the infection at bay.

“It sounds futuristic, but these bugs are not just the subjects of academic papers . . . The next pathogen outbreak is unfortunately coming, and we are woefully unprepared . . . I think synthetic biology can help in two major ways: One is using these and other tools to rapidly develop diagnostics for these new outbreaks as they appear. Harnessing engineering with biology, we estimate within a week we can come up with a whole panel.”

Daniel Schrag, director, Harvard University Center for the Environment. “I’m working with 17 marketing and advertising firms on Madison Avenue on something we’re calling ‘Potential Energy,’ a fresh look at how Madison Avenue might be able to move people’s minds on climate change. This isn’t taking Al Gore’s message and marketing it, its taking their perspective and social science research, using their most creative people to target groups across the country—geographic groups, age groups—and hit them where they live. One very creative ad guy came up with this idea for the under 25 group, a full ad campaign based on the idea that your parents are trying to kill you.”