Can the solution to South Florida's vexing problems be found in its most plentiful natural resource, complaining?
That is one of the motivations behind Power of Design 2014: Complaints, an inaugural four-day think tank opening Thursday at the Wolfsonian-FIU museum on Miami Beach that combines the collective kvetching of local influencers with a diverse list of experts in art, technology and design, including cultural historian and public radio host Kurt Andersen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, fashion celebrity Todd Oldham and Wired magazine contributor Clive Thompson.
Offering expertise in how to use humor to get your ideas heard will be political satirist and semi-professional grumbler Andy Borowitz, whose backhanded observations in "The Borowitz Report" can be found in the New Yorker magazine.
"I have no complaint about being in Florida this time of year," Borowitz says from his home on New York's chilly Upper West Side. "I guess my only complaint IS Florida. My job is taking reality and raising it to the level of absurdity. And Florida, you get high on bath salts and shoot people over anything. … You're putting me out of work."
Funded in part by a $200,000 Knight Foundation grant, Power of Design seeks to inspire debate on problems in a wide range of real-world topics, including air travel, urban planning, social media and journalism. Free, public events on Thursday and Sunday bookend ticketed talks on Friday and Saturday, most taking place at the museum. A weekend pass costs $1,000, but all discussions will be live-streamed and posted on the Wolfsonian website.
Talking about problems, which often begins with a complaint, is how solutions happen, says Wolfsonian director Cathy Leff, who brands the weekend an "idea fest, not a gripe fest." She credits the Wolfsonian's younger, thirtysomething board members for pushing the museum to start the conversation.
"These are active, engaged, young professionals, who are building their networks; continuous learners, who want to learn, want to meet new people," she says. "They just don't want to go out and have a good time. They want there to be some kind of exchange, and not just a social exchange."
Power of Design is the most prominent manifestation in the intellectual crowdsourcing trend that is popping up in South Florida venues large and small.
On March 29, Nova Southeastern University will hold a local offshoot of the national TED ideas conferences (the acronym standing for Technology, Entertainment and Design), which unite creative communities to grapple with "world-changing ideas" via lectures, demonstrations and arts performances. The theme of TEDxNSU is an exploration of "life's most transformative lessons, moments and ideas" titled "Game Changers!"
On a smaller scale, the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium last week began a "science café" series that drew more than 100 people to a talk by a neuroscientist in a downtown West Palm Beach pub. Another event is now being planned for mid-May with a focus on forensic science.
South Florida Science Center COO Kate Arrizza says she was stunned by the number of guests (some arrived three hours before the event) and their diversity, from teenagers to seniors in wheelchairs. She credits pop culture blips such as TV's "CSI" and "The Big Bang Theory" with removing the stigma from intellectual exploration.
"It used to be that old men in white lab coats were the only ones who did science," Arrizza says. "But the word is getting out that science is done by young women, minorities, people from diverse backgrounds. Science is no longer for nerds. It can be sexy and fun."
One of the more high-profile free events (advance tickets required) at Power of Design, with the daunting title "Prophets of the Digital Age," will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Perez Art Museum Miami. The discussion will merge Michael Chabon (author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union"), scientist and composer Jaron Lanier ("Who Owns the Future?" and "You Are Not a Gadget, A Manifesto") and Wired's Clive Thompson ("Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better"), who compiles the popular blog Collision Detection.
The evening will be hosted by complaints ombudsman Kurt Andersen, the Spy magazine founder and former Time magazine design critic, now host of public radio's "Studio 360," whose novels, including 2012's "True Believers," are distinguished by wide-ranging cultural intelligence.
Andersen is a veteran of many TED conferences and the Aspen Ideas Festival, but says the Wolfsonian gathering has a unique appeal, especially its "gleeful eclecticism."
"It isn't about people in an industry trying to network to get the next deal or the next job," he says. "It's actually about ideas, people from all different sides of the culture and the world coming together to talk about these nonobvious subjects."
The success of an event such as Power of Design is highly subjective, Andersen admits. He defines it as "hearing things I haven't heard before. Dots freshly connected."
Andersen has particularly high hopes for "Prophets of the Digital Age," sponsored by the international debate organization Intelligence Squared.
"Michael Chabon and Jaron Lanier talking about what is bad and good and in between in the digital world? That strikes me as potentially fantastic," Andersen says. "I kind of know what each of them thinks, but to have these two big brains in one place for one hour talking about that subject in a new way, there will be plenty of fresh connections."
Power of Design 2014: Complaints
Where: The Wolfsonian-FIU museum, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
Cost: Four-day pass costs $1,000, but there are a number of free events, including "Prophets of the Digital Age," 7 p.m. Saturday at Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd.
Contact: 305-531-1001 or PowerOfDesign.Wolfsonian.org