What’s the big idea? This new festival, that’s what

Silicon Valley has made a name for itself as the birthplace of some pretty big ideas.

But if Lance Knobel has his way, people will soon be thinking of Berkeley as a comparable hub of innovation — albeit, seeing as it’s Berkeley, a hub with an open-minded, free-thinking spirit all its own.

“Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas” is a two-day event Oct. 25 and 26 featuring more than 35 writers, scientists, economists, artists and academics in conversation with one another at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Organized by Berkeleyside, the 4-year-old online news organization devoted to covering Berkeley, the festival is the start of what founders hope is the beginning of a long-standing tradition: People looking to Berkeley when they think about “the next big thing.”

“Clearly the university has this global reputation, and Berkeley wouldn’t be the same without it, but I also think Berkeley’s lineage is so much more than that, and we wanted to hook into its identity and culture,” said Knobel, a co-founder of Berkeleyside and the festival’s lead organizer, of his inspirations for the festival.

Additionally, he said, organizers wanted to move beyond Berkeley’s image as a ’60s icon. “There’s a modern vision, too,” he said. “This is about being forward-thinking.”

Thus, the lineup of speakers is a who’s-who of thinkers from the Bay Area and beyond, and it includes a noticeable swath of people from the Jewish community: Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the technology website io9; Carl Bass, president and CEO of the design and engineering company Autodesk; Phil Bronstein, executive chair of the Center for Investigative Reporting; cookbook author Mollie Katzen and more. The festival has a hefty price tag at $390 a ticket (one-day tickets are $195), but scholarships are available, and organizers say the program is more than worth it.

“We did a forum last year featuring the three Michaels of Berkeley — Chabon, Lewis and Pollan — and it was such a great evening. We wanted to follow that up with something even bigger that had the same resonance, with great ideas, great conversation, and a lot of fun,” said Frances Dinkelspiel, content producer at Berkeleyside and a festival organizer. (She is also the author of “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created Califor-nia.”)

“There isn’t really an ideas festival like this in the Bay Area,” she added.

Felix Salmon, a U.K. -born Jew and a noted financial journalist, will participate in several of the talks. In one, he’ll interview Donald MacDonald, architect of the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span; in another, he’ll help dissect philanthropy, looking at “the disconnect between the actual reasons people give away money and the reasons they give themselves for doing it.” Another Salmon session, “Money Can Buy Happiness,” will examine whether that title is true.

Katzen, of Berkeley, and another Jewish author, Elizabeth Fishel of Oakland, will speak on “a natural approach to food,” tying in themes from both of their most recent books (Katzen’s vegetarian cookbook “The Heart of the Plate” and Fishel’s “When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?: Loving and Understand Your Emerging Adult”).

Fishel is a journalist who has penned five nonfiction books, mainly about families and relationships. Asked about Berkeley being a center for ideas, she replied, “We’re the Athens of the West. There’s just so much deep thinking and creativity and trend-setting and intellectual firepower here. It’s a very rich place to start something like this.”

“Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas,”
Oct. 25-26 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, and at Freight and Salvage across the street. $195-$390. Opening party at the Berkeley Art Museum. Schedule and scholarship information at www.berkeleyideas.com, or call (510) 516-1866.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.