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Speaker events spread in Baltimore

With Light City U and Future History Fest, it's clear that Baltimore's a market for enlightened entertainment.

Future NFL Hall of Fame inductee Ray Lewis wants to talk about environmental sustainability. Sociology professor Raj Ghoshal hopes people think more critically about how and where they donate to charity. And after going on 200 dates in two years, marketing consultant Christine Osazuwa thinks singles in Baltimore should focus on falling in love with their city rather than prospective mates.

You never know what you might hear at an event like Light City U, Ignite Baltimore or any of the other speaker events coming to town. But one thing is certain: The ideas presented aim to be fresh and engaging.

Speaker-driven events designed to facilitate idea sharing are on the rise in Baltimore. And with large-scale events like Light City U's innovation conferences and the Future History Festival on the horizon in Baltimore, it's clear there's a market for this form of enlightened entertainment.

"There's a sophisticated audience who is looking for new cool stuff to do," said Mike Subelsky, founder of Ignite Baltimore, which brings together about 16 speakers who have five minutes each to present a topic of their choice.

That's true in Baltimore and beyond. People are hungry for new ideas, TEDx deputy director Salome Heusel said in an email. Public lectures have existed for centuries. But in the modern era, the idea of bringing disparate speakers together for consumption by a well-heeled public became more prominent after the 1984 inception of the nonprofit TED. The "Technology Entertainment Design" organization showcases high-profile names sharing ideas in a quick, powerful format.

Founded in 2009, TEDx is a collection of TED's independently organized spinoffs.

"Whether you're watching TED Talks online or attending a TEDx event, these talks can transform the way you think," Heusel said. "They connect people to fresh ideas, interesting people and different communities around the world."

The concept has gone viral nationally and locally. The TED Radio Hour on National Public Radio explores one topic per hour with several speakers on the subject. And Maryland has hosted more than a dozen TEDx events, in addition to similar talks at Ignite Baltimore events. The newest idea-sharing conferences heading to Baltimore are Light City U — four conferences over six days focusing on innovating to create a better society — and the Future History Festival.

The Future History Festival, coming to Baltimore April 8-9, is the first event of its kind in the city. Hosted by the Spark Camp organization, a national nonprofit that typically draws invitation-only attendees to craft solutions to social problems, the Mount Vernon conference will gather Spark Camp alumni and "unusual suspects" to discuss present-day socioeconomic issues from the vantage point of the future. The topics touch on gadgets, language and artificial intelligence, with speakers as varied as Glynn Washington, host of the public radio program "Snap Judgment," and former Slate editor David Plotz, now CEO of the digital media company Atlas Obscura.

"If we were historians, what would we say about this moment in time?" Spark Camp* co-founder Amy Webb said. "Part of what you want to do is examine some of the realities of 2016, and we think that Baltimore is an interesting place to examine those things, not because Baltimore is this horrible bombed-out place, but because Baltimore is full of promise."

At $750, the Future History Festival may be more accessible to the well-to-do (though stipend recipients can get free admission).* Peer think-tank events typically target the "1 percent," according to Webb. Each of Light City's conferences costs $200, although organizers created scholarships for 20 percent of the 1,500 slots to make the sessions more accessible to attendees of all income levels. On the flip side, tickets to the volunteer-run Ignite Baltimore events cost $5.

At face value, events that promote idea sharing through speakers are enjoyable for attendees who want to broaden their minds. Events like TEDx Baltimore and Ignite Baltimore draw many listeners from the local tech community.

"The draw of it, I think, is to be able to see a smattering of really cool ideas from all different backgrounds and takes in succession," said John McGready, an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. McGready will speak about making research more accessible to those outside academia at Ignite Baltimore's next event, April 18.

A self-proclaimed "geek event," the Ignite series has events in more than 100 cities nationwide. Ignite Baltimore is approaching its 18th event next month, and they sell out every time. Upcoming topics include "Plant Politics: The Lasting Impact of Natural Colors," "Loving Your Child Unconditionally" and "Godless Spirituality."

"It's very inspirational, and these are like everyday people," said Melissa Macchiavelli, Ignite Baltimore's lead organizer. "They may be experts in their field, but they're just everyday people like us who are inspired, and the format isn't easy."

Osazuwa practiced relentlessly to cram her talk into five minutes before her Ignite Baltimore presentation last year. She gave a lighthearted talk about her experience dating in Baltimore, when she went on about 200 dates between 2011 and 2013. She started a blog cataloging her dates called Charmed and Dangerous, and now she uses the forum to advise singles on local events that would make great dates.

"Dating guys really became me just dating the city, and they just got to come along with me," she said. "My whole talk for Ignite was all about dating your city because I fell in love with Baltimore."

Ghoshal, another Ignite Baltimore speaker, attended and spoke at his first Ignite Baltimore event last year. He will present at the group's next event, and his talk will cover "effective altruism," a theory behind the organization The Life You Can Save that explores how donors to charity can make the most difference by giving to organizations that provide the greatest aid for the lowest costs. Instead of donating close to home for the sake of bettering a donor's community, the organization encourages global giving to organizations where each dollar has a greater impact.

"My hope would be that people who don't know about this idea or this organization would check it out and would be kind of compelled by the idea that 'I give some of it to charity but maybe I'm not doing as much good as I could,'" Ghoshal said.

For the Future History Festival, the idea is to get people thinking in new ways.

"What we're really trying to do is to challenge people to have different kinds of conversations about the present as they are thinking about the future," Webb said. "I think through some of the challenges and opportunities that we face today and that they will continue to face into the future."

Light City U's conferences have a similar purpose of acting as a catalyst for social change. Jamie McDonald, co-chair of the Light City Baltimore Steering Committee, said organizers of the light and innovation festival don't have a prescription for what social action they want it to spark, but they're trying to provide forums for real conversation through staged interviews, panel discussions and keynote speeches. This week's festival incorporates a series of conferences in addition to free art and music components. The conference topics — innovation in health, sustainability, creativity and society — are organized around the concept of powering social change in Baltimore and beyond.

The sessions will include 146 speakers over six days, with a lineup including AOL co-founder Steve Case, retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Director Marin Alsop, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, writer Wes Moore and street artist Gaia. In total, Light City U's six days of conferences are expected to attract about 1,500 people, according to Jamie McDonald, co-chair of the Light City Baltimore Steering Committee.

"Light is a literal thing in terms of Light City because of the light art," McDonald said, "but also it's metaphorical name for the conference that's about brightness and lighting the path to the future and seeing our own city in a different light."

Upcoming speaker events

Light City U Social Innovation Conference: Reimagining the status quo. Monday-Tuesday, Columbus Center, $200.

Light City U Health Innovation Conference: Creating a healthier future. Tuesday-Wednesday, Pier V Hotel, Harbor West Room, $200.

Light City U Sustainability Innovation Conference: Moving smart energy forward. March 30-31, Columbus Center, $200.

Light City U Creative Innovation Conference: Designing our future. April 1-2, City Garage, $200.

Future History Festival: An exploration of today's world from the vantage point of the future. Presented by Spark Camp. April 8-9, Mount Vernon, $750.

Ignite Baltimore No. 18. April 18, Maryland Institute College of Art, $5.

* This article has been corrected. A previous version incorrectly indicated that Webb said the Future History Festival caters to the well to do. It has been clarified to indicate that Webb is the co-founder of Spark Camp and to report that stipends lower the costs for some participants. 

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