A problem as complex and potentially intractable as climate change demands equally big solutions. At the first Harvard Thinks Green on Thursday, six Harvard professors gathered at Sanders Theatre to provide just that kind of thinking.
The event was meant to tap into the “original fundamental reason why we are all here on campus for four years: ideas,” said Peter Davis, a senior who co-foundedHarvard Thinks Big, which co-sponsored the event with the Office for Sustainability and the Center for the Environment. At Harvard, students have the opportunity “to propose them and play around with them and fight against them and to sometimes even work to implement them.”
Their ideas, which touched on corners of society from science and medicine to politics and urban planning, made it clear that reversing the declining health of the environment can’t be left to any one group.
CommonPlace, our web platform for local community engagement, was inspired by the Professor Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Thus it was a joy to see Putnam’s Saguaro Seminar post about us:
Peter Davis, Harvard University senior, got motivated to launchOurCommonPlace in 2009 after taking Bob Putnam’s course on social capital. He co-launched OurCommonPlace with Max Novendstern confident that the internet could be utilized to build up American civic life.
CommonPlace is a web-based platform that greatly facilitates local community engagement. It makes it far easier for you to connect with and share information with neighbors and local leaders.
Residents can find out what’s happening locally or post about local happenings, needs (a good roof repair company, or interest in starting a Boomer ultimate frisbee league, for instance). They can:
Ask to borrow a ladder or power drill
Publicize a tag sale or block party
Find out how they can take cooking classes
Ask who has a used loft bed they can have or buy
Find people and organizations with shared interests or hobbies around them
Harvard Thinks Big, our annual event for bringing together all-star professors for one night to share their big ideas, has lived to see another year. Harvard Thinks Big 2 was covered by The Harvard Crimson:
Davis said he was delighted with what he referred to as the increased legitimacy of this year’s Harvard Thinks Big, and that he hopes to make the event a new Harvard
Harvard Thinks Big is a symposium of ten of Harvard’s most renowned professors that come to speak about the one thing they are most passionate about in ten minutes or less. Richard Beaudoin, Lecturer on Music, makes his presentation. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
He also said he wants students take away an important message from the event, that they too can think big.
“I hope that they don’t think they are surrounded by great ideas,” Davis said. “I hope that the think that they, themselves, have great ideas.”
One cool aspect of Harvard Thinks Big is that students don’t just recruit big names. They look for “cult figures” within departments, as one organizer put it: teachers who may not be famous, per se, but who leave students writing lots of exclamation points on their course evaluations.
This year, they included the music lecturer Richard Beaudoin, who guided students through a piece by Bach, and Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist who explained what it would mean for the universe to have dimensions that we can’t yet grasp. “It could be that we are only seeing some small plane inside a higher visual world,” Randall said. Even for an idea that large, the professor got only ten minutes. Concision’s the thing.
“We want this to be a festival of Harvard ideas and an inspiration to the people in the crowd that big ideas drive our world forward, and that discussing them, thinking about them, coming up with your own, testing them out, implementing them, are really … what we should be doing,” said Peter Davis ’12, who founded the event along with Derek Flanzraich ’10.
Here was the original promo:
We also had a twist this year — student ideas videos:
And Professor Lawrence Lessig brought down the house with a campaign finance reform pitch:
CommonPlace’s Falls Church launch was featured in the Falls Church News-Press:
Falls Church’s Peter Davis, a 2008 graduate of George Mason High School, has teamed with his Harvard University roommate to launch a new on-line community organizing effort called “Common Place America,” and they’re chosen the City of Falls Church as their second community to begin their efforts.
The Falls Church website, which is designed to serve as a way for residents to share and receive information about things as routine as a lost cat, or a public event, to either fellow residents of specific neighborhoods, or community-wide. “It’s success will depend on our ability to sign up 1,000 to 2,000 people to participate, Davis told the News-Press. The Falls Church site lit up on New Year’s Day, and Davis is spending his January break from Harvard in Falls Church generating interest by leafleting door-to-door with fellow GMHS Class of 2008 friends, and meeting with local leaders and groups. Falls Church residents can sign up at www.FallsChurch.OurCommonPlace.com.
Also, here’s how I pitched CommonPlace to the City Council:
CommonPlace, our project to build a web platform for local community engagement, was featured in The Falls Church Times:
Peter and his partners have been creating CommonPlaces in neighborhoods around Massachusetts this past year, and now CommonPlace is coming to Falls Church this January. “Falls Church seems like the perfect city to try out a community information network in– it’s one of the most civic towns in America, it has high levels of internet access, and is known for trying new things out (in fact, my experience growing up in such a civic town as Falls Church is what inspired me to build CommonPlace)” Peter stated. As we talked he laid out commonplaces history of development and what he hopes to gain by offering this software to Falls Church City.
They have no titles. They cast off bureaucracy for what one member describes as “effortocracy.” They have “digs,” not meetings. So what is it exactly that the Diggers do?
According to member Talia N. Lavin ’12, the Diggers are committed to creating ways for students to come together and share ideas, feeding already-established passions and sparking new ones. Frustrated with the “intellectual parochialism” she sees at Harvard, Lavin wants people—herself included —to feel free to abandon the “pre-formed self-definition” that makes many scared to venture outside their specialties.
Peter D. Davis ’12, another Diggers founding member, said that the group provides opportunities for students to communicate their different passions in an encouraging environment.
“We knew we were onto something with the concept of finding things that could bring Harvard students together, bring us out of our little segmented, compartmentalized, Harvard subcultures together into a unified intellectual community,” he said.
Davis was thrilled with the result. “One of the goals was for people to go there and be reminded, even though we grind away at our homework, in the end, what’s our goal? It’s the whole idea of Veritas, truth… It’s to take big ideas and mix them together, to share them and make them accessible to people, to make them meaningful.” The crowd that night clearly left with a sense of intellectual enthusiasm beyond that of a normal day of classes. Cynically, one might ask whether such energy is merely ephemeral, spurred on by the dynamism of a one-night event. But it is encouraging that, even before the lecture began, Sanders was packed full merely at the prospect of a night dedicated to the sharing of ideas.
And here’s part of an essay I wrote for the Harvard Gazette on the event:
The real innovation of “Harvard Thinks Big” (and the West Coast “TEDTalks” that inspired it), though, is not that it made knowledge bite-size. It was that it made professors take their years of work and boil it down to its core, to find the driving force behind their passion for exploration, to find and share the answer to the lingering question: “Professor, what’s the takeaway? What’s the big idea?”
And what they shared was not “truth for dummies” or “truth, glamorized” or “truth, action-packed.” What they shared was an idea, a tremendously important form of veritas that has been lost to many in academia. Ideas are infused with passion. Ideas are often subjective and often have (gasp!) a spiritual element. Ideas are organized and poetic. Ideas are relevant. They take data and make it matter to people. All ideas, as English Professor Matthew Kaiser said that night, “start as emotion.”
(Cambridge, MA – February 11, 2010) Ten Harvard Professors talk for ten minutes about what they are passionate about during Harvard Thinks Big at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. Crimson Staff Photo Kristyn Ulanday/Harvard University