TBC President Discusses BIRS’ Role in Ambitious Agenda

Posted on Wed, Jan 22 2014 16:27:00

The Banff Centre, a haven for the creative arts within a world-renowned nature reserve – the Banff National Park – lies in an incredible valley between some of the most majestic mountains in the world. This place, which has for thousands of years been a gathering place for indigenous peoples and a place of healing and transformation, has a special quality that lends perfectly to the purpose of The Banff Centre (TBC) and in turn, The Banff International Research Station (BIRS), which is situated on its stunning campus.

The Banff Centre was founded in 1933 to bring people with great transformative ideas together to collaborate across disciplines and play a part in shaping the world. “We are now the largest arts and cultural incubator in the world” says TBC president, Jeff Melanson. Each year, TBC hosts 4000 artists to develop new works, nearly 2000 mathematicians (through BIRS), 2000 business leaders (through their leadership development programs) and over 20000 other guests who visit the site for conferences and other personal and societal transformation.

“We are a special site, both as gathering point and because of the unique physical attributes of Banff; we facilitate profound conversations, deep dive exploration of key issues and big social change” says Melanson. To have BIRS located at this site offers a unique opportunity to join scientists and mathematicians with the creative types and artists at The Banff Centre and initiate conversations that might otherwise be impossible. “It has created a robust collision. On an ongoing basis we’ll find artists going to BIRS events and BIRS scholars coming to performances and interacting with artists.”

As the partnership between these two institutions strengthens, they take advantage of the opportunities to co-present public lecture series and utilize the broadcast capacity of TBC to take some of the big ideas of BIRS and its scholars and create a discourse that is relevant around the world. In November, for example, Florin Diacu gave a talk – on Megadisasters and the science behind predicting catastrophes, be they earthquakes, economic crashes or astronomical phenomena – to a captivated audience of 100 mathematicians, scientists and general public.

Melanson, who has been president of TBC since 2012, has recently introduced and begun implementation of an ambitious agenda that aims to expand the centre’s scope far beyond the secluded Banff location. While the plan, which includes three radio stations, a TV channel, web casting, scaling up the Banff Press, a publishing venture and more website offerings, may seem like a huge endeavour, Melanson believes that it is a well-grounded plan and will provide an opportunity to not only gather the best and brightest minds, “but to ensure that we have a very profound multi-platform dissemination strategy that gets those ideas out there on the world stage. BIRS can play a tremendous role in that by sharing mathematical content, as well as collaborating with artists, creatives, the business and scientific community.”

Another aspect of the new vision is in leadership development and creating the Peter Loughheed Leadership Institute, which will include new training program summits, policy research capacity and indigenous leadership, a global center for civil service, new approaches to business design, social innovation and creative industries in k-12 education. Here, “What BIRS really allows us to do is marry a lot of the social policy or soft science that we would specialize in with a much more quantitative approach to research” says Melanson.

A third phase of the TBC vision is campus development and renewal. In addition to revamping most of the existing campus, the centre will be building large scale presenting facilities in downtown Banff. “We see BIRS playing a fairly major role as we move a lot of our public conversation of the incubatory thoughtful sight on the hill and move more into the public realm making conversations (when appropriate) publicly accessible.”

What is critical to The Banff Centre, and to its partnership with BIRS, says Melanson, “is the notion of creating and curating public conversation… to really use some of these best and brightest minds and present them in a way that is really accessible and profound. Our progressive vision will ensure that Banff becomes this place for profound inflection, social change and transformation. BIRS will play a meaningful role in ensuring that we are very well fleshed out in terms of disciplines and practices.”