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THINK Exhibit 1

The crowds of New Yorkers and tourists who frequent the area around New York’s Lincoln Center may be wondering what’s going on near the corner of Broadway and Columbus Avenue. A driveway ramp lined with a 123-foot electronic data visualization wall leads down to an underground parking garage that has been converted into the THINK exhibit. (Believe me; it’s a lot cooler than it sounds.)

The exhibit was created by IBM in connection with its centennial celebrations. The data wall depicts visualizations of several of New York City’s challenges including water leakage, air pollution, traffic and credit card fraud, along with the potential for harvesting solar energy from rooftops. The media experience in the enclosed space at the bottom of the ramp includes a video, experienced on 40 interactive media columns, laying out the potential for making progress. These large vertical interactive touch screens then allow visitors to learn more about topics including smarter transportation systems, improved food production and the promise of personalized medicine. The quality of the displays is amazing–engaging not only your brain but your emotions. For me, the experience was nothing less than mind blowing.

The goal is to inspire people who visit with the message that the world can be made better if people know what’s really going on, understand the potential to improve things, and make smart decisions about how to do it. The exhibit is organized around an idea spelled out by Jeffrey O’Brien, one of my co-authors of IBM’s centennial book, Making the World Work Better, which posits that large-scale progress and innovation tends to follow a common development path: seeing, mapping, understanding, believing and acting. In a city known for its many museums and exhibits, this one stands out because its not just an enriching and educational experience; it’s also a call to action.

The hope is that people who visit, which includes the public and 700 attendees of IBM’s two-day gathering of global leaders, THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership, will be motivated to pitch in and help improve everything from the quality of life in their city or town to the sustainability of the natural environment. Lee Green, the IBM vice president who was in charge of making the exhibit happen, says, “We want to show people how progress comes about when you take a systematic approach to solving problems.” Ralph Appelbaum, the famed exhibit designer who was one of the masterminds of the THINK exhibit, said early on in the planning process that he hoped the people who visited the space would become “ambassadors to the future.”

A tip of the hat to the four firms that created the exhibit: SYPartners for the concept design, content development and creative direction, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Inc. for planning and design, Mirada for the direction, design and production of film, interactives and data visualization, and George P. Johnson for the general management of the exhibit production and fabrication. Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque, executive creative director at SYPartners, says, “The design of the experience was deliberately immersive to make the idea of progress palpable and visceral.”

The exhibit brings to the public some of the key themes of THINK Forum, and, indeed, IBM’s centennial celebration. Progress doesn’t happen on its own. It requires bold leadership, taking the long view and developing a strong and cultivating a values-based culture. Organizations need to harness science, innovation and the power of collaboration t”o make the world work better.

The THINK exhibit is open to the public September 23-October 23. You can view the data wall at any time. The main exhibit is a 35-minute timed session that requires a free ticket, which can be pick up at the box office at the bottom of the ramp.

For those who can’t get to the exhibit, here’s a video that captures the flavor of the experience.

YouTube Preview ImageAs a communicator, the exhibit offered me lessons in the power of  persuasion. The call to action is subtle. The visitor isn’t badgered or implored. The only direct appeal to take action is a message on the wall near the bottom of the ramp: “How would you make the world work better? Tweet to #THINK #IBM100.”  But the cumulative effect of seeing the data wall and the video, and interacting with the  screens is that you’re inspired to do something. And it’s your idea.

For instance, one of the stories told on the data wall starts off by showing a map of Manhattan, viewed horizontally, that uses color coding to display the potential for producing solar energy on each rooftop and explains how much energy could be gained if New Yorkers became solar farmers in a big way. The story concludes by telescoping down to the spot where you’re standing, on the ramp beside Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, and displaying the amount of energy that could be produced on the hall’s roof–which turns out to be enough to provide electricity for hundreds of NYC families. I felt like climbing up on the roof right then and there and helping to install solar panels.

I visited the exhibit with a group that included Susan Piedmont-Palladino, a curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. In a conversation a few days later, she helped me understand why the exhibit is so effective. “It’s a full-body experience,” she said. “The vertical screens were like a window or a door. The array of them had almost a magical feeling. You feel like you could go through the door and find something new.”

Piedmont-Palladino also felt the tug of the call to action. “It confirmed for me the need to keep doing the kind of stuff we’re doing here at the museum,” she said. “It’s about stewardship and improvement of the environment we live in. That’s the task. That’s what we all should be doing.”

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