05/27/2013 09:13 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2013

Creativity Has Designs On Aspen Ideas Fest

ASPEN, COLORADO--Maybe it's just me, but when the Aspen Ideas Festival rolls around here every summer--the impending confab is June 26-July 2, 2013--I eschew the bigger picture the smaller signs of societal creativity.

With so many over-the-top problems still on the table--a divided country, a Middle East that can't seem to find a middle that holds, a climate starting to make us feel like shrimp on the barbie--I am nonetheless compelled to look for answers at the Ideas Fest in places where the big picture grows smaller than a movie on a cell phone.

At this year's gathering, the Citizen Artists track will ask: "How do artists today interact with society and its many challenges? This track examines how the arts and artists--musicians, actors, filmmakers, writers, visual artists, dancers, and others--can be active in working in civic life. Explore how in education, health settings, communities or diplomacy, artists acting as citizens can be a powerful force for good in our lives."

I look forward to the questions posed about artists and the greater good--if only to challenge my longstanding conviction that there is no escape, artistically speaking, for artists who bother with the body politic. The statement "artists acting as citizens can be a powerful force for good in our lives" raises my hackles about the role of art. But that's exactly the point, isn't it? The Ideas Fest forces artists and civilians both to confront the meaning of their lives or the lack thereof.

Also worth pondering is the track called Innovation By Design: "Can great design improve our world -- and our lives? Meet the designers and the innovators who apply design thinking to solving tough problems, see the work that defines our sense of place, and hear from the thinkers who imagine how the objects and devices we use daily can be made simpler, more attractive, and--most important-- more useful."

If only it were that simple. As far back as 1949, Aspen hosted an International Design Conference, and it has become incumbent on the Aspen Ideas Festival to pick up the slack. Perhaps because of Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, for the last several years the Ideas Fest has elevated design as a key element about who we might become as a society. The idea that a better mousetrap equals a better world is debatable at best, but debate is what this week in Aspen in the summer is all about. And if Fred Dust, a partner at IDEO, can't come up with a good idea at the Aspen Ideas Fest this summer then we're all in trouble.

Finally, a track like "The Reinvention of Television" is right up my alley: "This icon of 20th-century culture and technology is undergoing a radical makeover, from its morphing business model to the content it offers and how we experience and use it. What's next?"

What's next for me is an episode of "Mad Men" and three seasons of "Justified" just waiting to be watched on multiple devices. What's next at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, to use a television analogy, is a framing of problems and opportunities that's it's hard to find anywhere else. Get the picture?