Washington Ideas Forum

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Being a student at a liberal arts college has taught me that the translation of thought is our society’s most valuable currency. So when I got an email from a subscription mailing list about the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic hosting an “Ideas Forum,” I knew it was time for me to embark on a spontaneous adventure. After lots of last-minute bookings, frenzied “fitting-my-life-into-a-bag,” and red-eye bus rides, I found myself at the doors of Washington, D.C.’s Sidney Harman Hall, ready to be seated in an auditorium filled with remarkably passionate people, all restless to talk about our time’s most pressing issues.

Networking Washington Ideas Forum
Photo Courtesy of AtlanticLIVE.

With our appetites primed for important topics, it was almost a no-brainer that Ebola would be on the menu. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was that it would be one of the conference’s main meals. Everyone from tech gurus to acclaimed novelists were asked for their opinions, making me wonder...Is Ebola really that big of deal? Especially with the press’s recent criticism towards our nation’s “fanatical” response (see EliteDaily’s sensitively-put “9 Reasons Why You Need To Calm The F*ck Down About Ebola in America”), were the organizers of the event just overreacting?

No. I soon learned that the conversation about Ebola tells us a lot, not only about infectious disease, but several bigger, important trends in our society. In particular, Ebola teaches us about the necessity for:

Storytelling. 

Award-winning author of Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, expressed that America’s response to Ebola perpetuated the danger of a “single story” (see her widely-viewed TED talk here) about Africa as a continent needing help. The way we craft a narrative around a person, a place, an idea, an event, or a product defines how people will perceive it. Stories are important. Founder of Not Impossible Labs, Mick Ebeling, has worked in teams to create life-saving products in ocular recognition and prosthetics. But these developments have come from the desire to help one person, one friend—by pursuing a happy ending to one story, Ebeling has achieved fairy tales for thousands. The power of an idea lies in the way its story is told.

Collaboration. 

Ebola, and communicable disease, is the responsibility not just of one country or one continent, but the world. This means that we will have to work harmoniously and effectively through global partnerships, since we are, as U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice claims, “only as strong as the weakest link” in the fabric. 

John Kerry Washington Ideas Forum
Photo Courtesy of AtlanticLIVE.


Cross-national collaboration becomes increasingly important as we see other developing societies become more and more stable. South Korea, for example, used to be a U.S. aid recipient, but has now reached the status of a donor country. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, this shift in global responsibility will require more diplomacy and dialogue between the U.S. and foreign governments. International collaboration is becoming increasingly vital for markets as well. Southern Company’s CEO Thomas Fanning noted that 80% of the world’s purchasing power lies outside the U.S. For business owners and entrepreneurs, this means that considerations of scaling globally and engaging international markets should be factored into business models.

Preparation. 

Ebola requires readiness. Health infrastructures must be bolstered and strengthened to account for the possibility of outbreak, which is why President Obama commissioned a Global Health Security Council earlier this year. The theme of preparation is critical, and is especially applicable to preparing the next generation for our progressively technological society. Code has become a modern-day language and the alphabet needs to be taught early, according to White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, who claims that code should be taught to 2nd graders. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker believes that the U.S. would be leading the world in 3D printing, internet design, and phototonics, underlining the importance of investing in innovation. 

With over a third of the conference’s speakers holding “CEO” or “Co-Founder” positions (such as edX’s Anant Agarwal, Etsy’s Chad Dickerson, and DEKA’s Dean Kamen), the notion became very clear that several groundbreaking advancements are on the horizon, and we need to get people involved and excited about the process.

The Washington Ideas Forum spanned diverse topics—everything from energy, to food, to political campaigns, to genomics, to defense, to sports. Without a doubt, though, Ebola held a special place in the conference, and for good reason. Not only did it speak to issues of science policy and health research, but it tied together other greater messages worthy of attention. 

So instead of criticizing the “unnecessary hype,” let’s continue the conversation, think out loud, and share our ideas.