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10/03/2011 Cusp Conference 2011 – Part 1


Last week I attended the Cusp Conference in Chicago. The title of the event was “The Design of Everything.” For two days I watched, listened and met some of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve met in years. For a few days, all of us attendees felt our energy and engagement go through the roof.

Now it’s Monday of the following week. I feel like Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” where he learns how to put Spock’s brain back into Spock’s body, but as time goes by, McCoy feels the knowledge and remembrance slipping away. I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure that the energy from Cusp doesn’t slip away amidst my “normal” work. Because, after Cusp, normal can take a hike.

Day One started off with the blindfolded former priest Mike Ivers talking about “Fear.” If there’s one thing we all know all too well, it’s fear. As Mike stumbled around the stage, he made an amazing point: That almost all of us are afraid of stepping into our own power.

The Fear of Stepping Into Your Own Power. You could almost hear the audience gasp. All of the reasons and excuses we have for not doing things start here. It’s the difference between people with potential and the people who make a difference. If there was a sub-theme to this conference, this was it.

And then things went from the sublime to the surreal. Dr. Richard Satava, U.S. Army senior science advisor, stepped up to talk about technological advances in medicine and robotics. He talked about operating rooms with no people and how we’re moving from instruments to energy. With micro-robots to operate, we’re creating miniaturized surgical cockpits that go far beyond human capacity. Although, Hollywood got there first on this one, back in the 60s with “Fantastic Voyage.” 

Ultimately he posited that medicine was going to move from “fixing” to “replacing.”  Here’s his money quote: “We’ve replaced every part of the body except the brain.” Guess what’s next? The implications for us are profound.

For the first time in history, we’ll have the ability to choose the species that follows Homo sapiens. We will enter the era of Chimeras and Cybrids.

Guess how we’re going to figure some of this out? Gaming. Jerome Waldispuhl of McGill University works in the field of comparative genomics. He’s comparing animal DNA to understand where key differences show up. It turns out that computers are not very good at doing this. People are. His solution? He’s crowdsourcing this by turning it into a puzzle to solve the problems. The game Phylo is available online or through mobile apps. We’ve heard a lot about gamification this year, but Waldispuhl is gamifying science to do something that matters (in a way that Scvngr can’t). Get ready for the age of citizen scientists.

Okay, I’ve got to admit, my head was spinning after just three speakers. It’s not like I’ve lived in and intellectual desert for the last few months. But this was the first non-digital marketing or social media conference I’ve been to in years. More on that later.

The first session ended with some students from Design for America. This college program [started by Burlington native Liz Gerber (Go Vermont!)] at Northwestern University, enables design and engineering students to do something simple: Use design to change the world. 

Mert Iseri and his colleagues solve problems, trying to have social impact through local projects. He told us how they spent time with homeless people and learned that the homeless walk, on average, 36 miles per day! Their feet are their weak link and they suffer from a variety of pedal infirmities that makes their lives more hellish than they already are. So Design for America developed a sustainable shower mat for homeless shelters that reduced foot problems by 50%.

Cusp
They spent time with a local hospital with the goal of reducing hospital sickness that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. They developed a tool called Swipe Sense that fit right on doctors’ and nurses’ pants and that allowed people to disinfect their hands with a motion they were already doing. Smart, smart, smart.

Boy, those kids were not only incredibly smart, they were some of the most passionate and self-confident speakers I’ve ever seen! I left that first talk with imperatives:

  1. I HAVE to get my kids involved in something like this. I can’t imagine a more exciting, stimulating and worthwhile education.
  2. I have to get this to Vermont. Some of these students had already received seed money for their ideas. This whole educational program struck me as one of the best incubators and business development tools around. We need it here.

You know, I could have left after that first session and the conference would have been worth it. But there was oh so much more left.

To be continued…

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