Think Tank by the Sea -Fall 2013
by: Joshua H. Balling
photography by: Meghan Brosnan
Over the past two years, the Nantucket Project has brought to the island some of the brightest minds in the country, as innovators, visionaries and entrepreneurs have shared their ideas – and sparked new ones – under a tent at the White Elephant hotel overlooking Nantucket Harbor.
Last year’s lineup alone included advisor to four presidents David Gergen, former lobbyist, convicted felon and now lobbying-reform proponent Jack Abramoff, then-U.S. senator and now secretary of state John Kerry, former Harvard president and U.S. treasury secretary Larry Summers, lobbyist Grover Norquist and actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo.
Others in attendance have included former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, lobbying-reform activist and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, microbiologist Craig Venter, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, retired U.S. senator and transplant surgeon Dr. Bill Frist and former White House chief of staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.
This year, project founders Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan have upped the ante even further, bringing in former Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev, American Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, and in a late addition still in the works at press time, political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The trio tops a list of more than 25 presenters that also includes AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, playwright and activist Eve Ensler, political commentator and “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, author and “liberal foodie intellectual” Michael Pollan, and CAA founder and former Disney president Michael Ovitz.
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
The theme of this year's Nantucket Project, set to run Sept. 27-29 at the White Elephant, is “Seek the Truth. Endure the Consequences,” and each presenter embodies those words in their own way, Brosnan said.
“They look at things differently, and with that comes consequences. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they’re bad. Michael Pollan, when it comes to the new food movement, stresses the importance of what we put into our bodies, and the health consequences. Eve Ensler spent time in Africa working on women’s issues, and there are certainly consequences there,” she said. “Consequences can bring notoriety or even destruction. There’s a lot of bravery and courage here. All of these presenters are pretty courageous.”
Scott, the founder of Plum TV and co-founder of Nantucket Nectars, agreed.
“I’m really excited about the lineup. Getting Gorbachev was such a big deal. He was one of the first people we set out to invite. It’s the value of leadership. A guy like that, he’s in the vein of Mandela, one of those guys who set off a peaceful revolution, and did it with humility,” he said.
“Getting Greg LeMond (a staunch anti-doping advocate) in a year where Alex Rodriguez is getting suspended by Major League Baseball, and everything going on with Lance Armstrong, it was a great timely moment.”
Gorbachev presided over the Soviet Union from 1985 until its dissolution and the end of Soviet communism in 1991, brought about by the reforms he championed: perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”). He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his contributions to world peace and disarmament, and since leaving office has remained active in post-Cold War politics, making a failed run for Russian president in 1996 and forming several political parties.
LeMond is a three-time Tour de France cycling champion, two-time world champion and long-time anti-doping advocate. He was one of the first professional cyclists to call attention to the rampant proliferation of performanceenhancing drugs in his sport, and in 2001 accused Lance Armstrong – who has since been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles – of doping.
“LeMond made those accusations years and years ago, and Lance destroyed his career, personally and professionally,” said Brosnan, who worked with Scott at Plum for years before co-founding the Nantucket Project with him and serving as its executive director. “There were consequences for what he did, and he paid the price. Perhaps now, there’s some vindication as well.”
A concentration-camp survivor, Wiesel became a journalist, author and activist. His memoir “Night,” about his experiences in the Nazi death camps, has been translated into more than 30 languages. He is president of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization he and his wife created to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
A devoted supporter of Israel, Wiesel has also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia.
The Nantucket Project is working with The Inquirer and Mirror to host Wiesel in a free event open to the public during his visit.
The main body of this year’s festival has been reduced from last year’s four days to its original three, but a oneday “Finance Forum” has been added Thursday, Sept. 26, where speakers like Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein, New England Development and Nantucket Island Resorts principal Steve Karp, former Barclays bank head Bob Diamond, hedge-fund billionaire Eddie Lampert and others will discuss the interaction of finance and society. Some other minor restructuring of the schedule has also been made, Scott said.
“It was just too much. We felt we took a lot of steps forward from the first Project to the second, and then a few steps back. It’s not an easy formula,” he said.
“People tend to be excited about a certain group of people in advance of the event, and leave excited about another group. It’s always a surprise. It’s really important we continue to do that, and bring in lesser-known names who inspire. To do that well, we have to give people’s minds room to breathe, some time off, and good spacing.
“We can’t overwhelm them with too many speakers. We went from 29 the first year to 55, and now we’re back to around 30,” Scott said. “We want to mix it up, so that in every session, which is at most two hours, we have someone like a Mikhail Gorbachev, then a lesser-known person, then maybe some music.”
The Nantucket Project in its first two years attracted around 300 attendees annually. It was founded on the idea of creating an ongoing institute on the island that could conduct research and share its ideas on a year-round basis. Now in its third year, Scott and Brosnan’s vision remains the same.
“We always started with the goal of putting Nantucket on the map as a place where great ideas are born, something that lasts more than three days a year,” Brosnan said.
The Project also intends to present a number of awards this year, to past participants and others who have executed on their ideas and brought about positive change.
“We want it to be of action, which is why this year we’re honoring people who have done that, who have taken this information and created something. It’s always been about connectedness, where people meet people, and change happens,” she said.
Scott agreed. “We hope this will grow into more than an event, so that year-round, now and again, we can hold symposiums and smaller events, and conduct research on different topics. The event is currently the backbone of what we are, a gathering of people who get together on Nantucket in the fall. If that can exist on its own, and gain its own sense of strength, it will give us the opportunity to build the things that surround the event, the things more akin to an institute: publishing, sharing videos that grow from the Project, other kinds of works,” he said.
“Our goal is to make things happen, to help foster relationships and see progress made. We’ve seen it in a variety of ways, how people have connected, and ended up working together. We want to get more of that, to have the group in a general way, move from one place to the next.
“Our belief is that as long as we can run a successful event that gives us a strong backbone, we’ll have the opportunity to do that. We have some runway ahead of us, to let it stand and grow into something that lasts. Time will tell.”
While the Nantucket Project is in many ways modeled on symposia like the TED Conferences and the Aspen Ideas Festival, what sets it apart is its intimacy and the location, Scott said.
“I’ve always felt like there was a lot of potential energy for this type of thing on Nantucket. The island attracts interesting people generally, in both its year-round population and visitors. It’s an intimate event, in one room over a number of days. I think what we want to do is be in the business of concluding, moving an idea or ideas from one place to another, and see where they take us.”
Brosnan, who lives year-round on Nantucket, sees the island as the ideal location for what she and Scott are trying to achieve.
“Nantucket is the perfect place for this. It sets the right tone. When you walk into this place for the first time, you remember it. There’s a magic that happens in this environment. You get more open-minded, and open-hearted, when you come to a place like Nantucket. Nantucket is my home. If you took this and put it into Manhattan, I think it runs the danger of becoming one of many, and lost in the noise,” she said.
“Besides, it has a strong cultural and intellectual tradition. Great thinkers have always been on Nantucket. It has a history of forward thinking.”
Ultimately, Scott and Brosnan would like to make the Project more accessible to the general public. Tickets currently start at $3,400 for the three-day event, plus $2,750 for the Finance Forum, and don’t include lodging.
Much of the content from the first two Projects is airing on Nantucket’s public-access television channel, NCTV 18, and is available online, but Scott said he and Brosnan are working on ways to make the accessibility more immediate.
Since its inception, the festival has offered a Fellows program in which about 30 participants – the majority from the island – attend for free, and meet several times throughout the year to share their ideas and progress. Past island fellows have included Nantucket High School principal John Buckey, UMass-Boston Nantucket Field Station director Sarah Oktay, young island entrepreneur Craig Arnold, island philanthropist and entrepreneur Darcy Creech, Unitarian minister David Horst, Cisco Brewery partner Randy Hudson, Dreamland Foundation executive director Melissa Murphy, and many more.
“We’ve obviously got the Fellows program, but we’ve talked about finding ways to perhaps simulcast what’s going on in the tent, maybe offering some kind of daily tickets, doing talks off-site, maybe at the high school, as a way to broaden the audience,” Scott said.
“Every extra person who comes into the tent brings a whole extra level of cost, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to spread what we’re doing more broadly,” he continued. “The intent is to be as broad as we reasonably can be. A lot has to do with execution. We’re hoping to do some more stuff, hopefully with some bigger media companies, hopefully with Channel 18, maybe some theater companies.”
In addition to the intellectual benefits of the event, Brosnan also pointed out the boost the conference provides to the island economy. Many of those in attendance the first two years had never visited Nantucket before, and indicated they certainly planned to come back. Participants spent money on transportation, food and beverages, and in the island’s stores.
“It was always the goal to have the Project help grow the economy, to get the people here. That’s why we are doing it in the fall. To have accomplished that, it’s satisfying. It feels good. I live here. I want to help the economy in any way we can,” she said following the inaugural Nantucket Project.
For more information, visit www.nantucketproject.com.
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.