I wasn't sure what I'd find at Chicago Ideas Week. Yes, the weeklong series has more than 60 events that feature a collective 170 speakers ranging from Chicago Bears defensive end Israel Idonije to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor but nobody could really tell me what it was about. It's about innovation, said the website. Creativity, said my confirmation e-mail when I signed up for events. But those are vague, abstract terms. To find out what they meant, I'd just have to see for myself.
As far as I can tell, Chicago Ideas Week has one main goal: to get people talking. And boy, is it working.
Last night I attended a panel discussion between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Pulitzer Prizewinning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman moderated the talk. The self-professed "frustrated optimist" started with a lecture about how the U.S. was not living up to its potential. In this "hyperconnected" world, said Friedman, "You are literally competing against people ... in Shanghai ... people who don't just do their job, but people who reinvent their job."
Friedman pointed out that when he wrote The World Is Flat in 2004, Facebook was still just a start-up and "for most people, Skype was just a typo." In seven years, those two companies, along with Twitter, YouTube, Groupon, Kickstarter and dozens of other technological tools have reinvented the way we live. The world is changing at such an uncommonly fast pace, that at times it can be hard to keep up. This led me to the first idea I had at Chicago Ideas Week:
Idea No. 1: By the time you're done reading this, someone will have already invented something new.
Someone will have applied for the job you want. Someone will have pitched your ideas. Someone out there is ready to take your spot in line. I think Reed said it best when he talked about Atlanta's reaction to the recent recession. "We were such a go-go city, we were the fastest growing metropolitan area for almost a decade," he said. "Suddenly losing 50,000 construction jobs has been a shock to us." What's happening in Atlanta is also what's happening all over the U.S. These past few years have been a very rude, very unpleasant shock to most Americans. We can't ignore it anymore.
Idea No. 2: We feel poorer. Some of us actually are poorer.
Median income in the U.S. is falling. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between June 2009 and June '11, inflation-adjusted income fell 6.7% (it had already fallen 3.2% during the two years before that). "America has always been about the future," said Bloomberg. "Even if you weren't a great success, you could work hard so that your children could become a great success. Now I don't know if that's true anymore."
This feeling that we can barely keep our head above water financially is what's driving the Occupy Wall Street protests across the country. "The income gap between the rich and the poor is ripping this country apart," said Emanuel. "There are right and wrong answers to this," said Reed. In the coming months, the Occupy Wall Street protests will probably grow louder and more organized; last weekend, the Chicago chapter voted on a 12-point platform that it wants Washington to adopt. The mayors didn't comment on protesters' individual demands last night, but they were sympathetic to their frustrations. "We need a fight," said Reed. "Let's get this over with."
Idea No. 3: We still have to take out the garbage.
Emanuel is really interested in garbage. "I take it out at home, and now I'm going to pick it up all over the city," he quipped. But he has a point. We can opine on big-picture topics like job creation and education reform all we want, but we still have to take out the trash, police the streets and make sure our cities' buses and trains run smoothly. A mayor's job is to make his or her town a pleasant place to live. The rest of us just need to stay organized, return e-mails promptly, pay our bills on time and call our parents on their birthdays. We may have some big problems to tackle, but the little things are still important too.