December 31, 2018

Cusp Conference 2018: It’s Time

One of the things I cherish most about the annual Cusp Conference in Chicago is the seemingly random nature of it—up to twenty-five speakers from disparate industries, on stage, sharing the fuel behind their work. Motivational to learn what it is that truly drives people to actf on their life’s commitment—and the resulting patterns across different disciplines. It’s a glimpse into their long-term focus and its by-products of determination, passion and joy. In 2018, time and flow were the standout patterns of the Cusp talks.

“…In time, it could have been so much more
The time is precious I know
In time, it could have been so much more
The time has nothing to show…”
—Culture Club’s song “Time (Clock of the Heart)” (1981)
Time and its perception were consistently addressed at Cusp 2018. Winter Olympics 1994 silver medalist, John Coyle, recalled the memory-fidelity of lasting summers. Master electrician, Janet Liriano, delivered a meditation on the four seasons. Time was a major ingredient in bioengineer Chris Maurer’s self-generating architecture and food entrepreneur Tyler Huggins’ eco-edibles where both of these inventions capitalize on the natural wonder of mycelium, the fungal vegetation whose accelerated growth and structure are being open-sourced for good. Physician, Ben Ku, and digital creative director, Breonna Rodriguez, ranted about the toxicity festering in their respective fields over time. Ku’s resolution was design, particularly taking advantage of the design method of prototyping in collaborating outside the medical bubble to iterate different and improved solutions for popular scenarios in healthcare, such as effectively comforting soon-to-be mothers before childbirth. Breonna Rodriguez addressed the sanctuary of family by embracing the formative years of her much younger sister as a meaningful force in dramatically adjusting her engagement of work/life balance.

The most transformative benefit of time was given by Chelina Odbert, the co-founder and executive director of the Kounkuey Design Initiative, “a non-profit design practice that partners with under-resourced communities to advance equity and activate the unrealized potential in neighborhoods and cities.” When she highlighted the before-and-after states of their community-design work in Kibera, a division of Nairobi, Kenya, there was an immediate reaction of awestruck from the audience.

The interdisciplinary efforts of Chelina and her collaborators, especially inputs from community experts, is an eminently grounded rally of the global ideal best-stated by anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Like in previous Cusp gatherings, the presenters are doing their damndest to make use of their time in meeting their respective calling: chronoception (John Cycle), textile circuits (Janet Liriano), bioterial architecture (Chris Mauer), sustainable food (Tyler Huggins), healthcare via human-centered design (Bon Ku) and conscious living (Breonna Rodriguez). Their time on the Cusp stage was a privileged peek into their daily mission statement. Making time to steadily fulfill the ambitious arc of their craft. Appointing themselves to a portal of effort they discovered and decided to go through, forging their own creative license by picking themselves.

“I am rooted, but I flow.”
—Virginia Woolf, Novelist, Essayist, Critic
Paired to the fascination with time, “flow” happened to be another apparent theme among the Cusp 2018 presenters. A few of them highlighted this phenomenon—but it was author, Meta Wagner, who revealed finally its architect: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) wrote the landmark book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (1991).

The “flow experience” is essentially achieved when purpose and joy are united. Illustrator/animator, Chris Sickels, acknowledged his primary source of flow: life. “Life experience feeds my illustration”—as he said while kickstarting the tour of his meticulous storyboarding-turned-world-making process that channels, to me, the animated work of Jiří Trnka (1912–1969). Writer Tara-Nicholle Nelson’s source of flow was inherent in her presentation’s opening affirmation: “I believe in the power of words.” Gamer and game designer Ashlynn Sparrow’s flow-origin was a role-playing game, released in 1997, that became one of the greatest games of all time—as she gleefully stated, “‘Final Fantasy VII’ changed my life.” Her revealing moment was reminiscent of the epiphany that inspired the pioneering game designer, Tetsuya Mizuguchi: 1988, Tokyo, in an arcade, he discovered “Tetris” (1984) and confessed, “I put many coins into that machine. It was such elegant perfection.”

Flow can be synonymous with simply the sensation of pleasure, even peace. A scalable experience, from the solitary act of writing (Tara-Nicholle Nelson) to the collaborative act of developing a game (Ashlynn Sparrow). Flow is also an equal-opportunity event when one blossoms and re-blossoms. The poet, Sharon Olds, declared frankly: “I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

In and on the cusp

With Sharon’s sentiment in mind, each Cusp presenter is acknowledging the element of luck in doing what they do. Each one feeling profound pride in what they’re contributing to their professional communities with the empowering perk of pollinating disciplines elsewhere. Each person defining and harnessing their flow. Again, this is the reason I cherish the Cusp Conference—it centralizes an eclectic group of people, sharing their projects, which ultimately compose their life’s work. The Cusp Conference advocates the human varietals of time and flow—amazing with each instance, to receive a snippet of the work that people drive and, in turn, drives them. Getting a glimpse of the progress of their decision—the flow of intent they dedicated themselves to answer and accomplish.

Changing things—and minds

Following the last presentation, when Dave Mason, one of the co-founders of the Cusp Conference, announced that 2018 is the last year for Cusp, it was unexpected. Looking back, it’s not surprising. “Cusp” is shorthand for transition. Since 2008, the Chicago-based strategic design firm, Multiple, has hosted the Cusp Conference for an 11 consecutive years. Up to 25 presenters annually; 11 one-of-a-kind opportunities to feel unanimously unexpected. A total chance to take in the sheer diversity of inspiration demonstrated across the humanities, sciences and business.

Over the years, noted role models have spoken at Cusp: TED founder, Richard Saul Wurman, who coined the term, “information architecture,” robotocist, Ayanna Howard, architect, Michelle Kaufmann, Frog Design’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, designer, Yves Béhar, and more.

A couple of top-of-mind Cusp presenters whom I gladly recall were Bill Haley, coach of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team, founded by his father, and who won the United States Championship at the the Little League World Series 2014, plus Dr. Gary Slutkin who treats violence as a disease and continues to apply his attention, energies and expertise in reducing violence.

Innovative singer-songwriter, Björk (whom I could easily envision performing and presenting at a Cusp Conference) said, “If optimism ever was like an emergency, it’s now.” The annual Cusp Conference gave a highly varied and liberating serving of optimism through its eclectic composition of speakers—each one realizing an optimistic angle. An angle of professional practice that is both home and storm to each speaker. In total, converging into a prism of possibility and hope. Glowing evidence that there are people actually working hard to change things in order to make the world a better place, from their immediate surroundings to an overarching context.

Organizing an annual event, packed with presenters, spanning two days, is an intense effort. Lots of moving details. Whatever the future of the Cusp Conference is, its past tense–consisting of humans realizing good things at whatever level in whatever discipline—echoes in the present.

Time. Flow. Here’s to tending both in 2019 and hereafter.

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Past Cusp Conference talks can be (re)experienced at Multiple’s video archive.

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Big thanks: to Multiple, Inc., the volunteers and producers, such as AV Chicago, who made Cusp Conference happen in 2018; to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, for being the sole venue.

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Explore my additional coverage of the Cusp Conference in my written series on Events centered on creativity.

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