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Questions and answers at a table for the world

On Sept. 9, 112 of the world's thinkers will gather in Berlin to discuss 100  pressing questions submitted online and by callers to a toll-free number. The event is meant to  include common people in a discussion about world problems.
The Table of Free Voices, seen here in a photo illustration, will be the site of a groundbreaking meeting of thinkers from around the world in Berlin on Sept. 9.
The Table of Free Voices, seen here in a photo illustration, will be the site of a groundbreaking meeting of thinkers from around the world in Berlin on Sept.

“Will China take over as the world's superpower from the U.S.?” “Can humanity improve itself without profit as a motive?” “Is it possible to continue globalization without losing our cultural identity?”

These questions — among 10,000 from people around the world — will be winnowed down to 100, then submitted to some of the planet's biggest thinkers, a sort of intellectual G-8 that will gather in Berlin on Sept. 9.

The Web site dropping knowledge is sponsoring the thought summit, which will bring together 112 artists, scientists, philosophers and others near Bebelplatz Square, site of Nazi book burnings in 1933.

They include Harry Wu, the dissident held by the Chinese government in 1995 before being expelled from China; Oscar Olivera, a Bolivian anti-globalization activist; the German filmmaker Wim Wenders; and Bill Joy, former Sun Microsystems chief scientist and now a venture capitalist.

Actor Willem Dafoe will pose the questions to the panelists, who will gather around a massive table to discuss topics from national security to personal values, racism to environmental concerns.

The Berlin event will be the first public meeting of what its creators envision as a global town hall meant to allow the common person to participate in a discussion of international issues.

“We're launching what we think will be an infrastructure for a global community of citizens,” said Dr. Ceasar L. McDowell, dropping knowledge's U.S. director of operations, in an interview from Berlin. “There's a need to have something that allows people to share their knowledge with each other on a platform that's not controlled by an interest group or a government, with no one trying to drive an issue.”

‘Lowers the barriers’
Dropping knowledge has set up a toll-free phone number to record callers' questions, which are then transcribed and posted on the group's Web site.

For The Table of Free Voices event, dropping knowledge is bringing together 112 visionaries whose innovative, creative or humanistic impact on the international public can deliver fresh ideas, perspectives, approaches and new solutions. Julia Butterfly-Hill is one of those nominees. On December 10, 1997, Julia climbed high into a thousand-year-old redwood tree and set up a house on a little platform high above the ground. Her aim was to prevent the destruction of the tree by making it impossible to destroy the tree without killing her.

McDowell, director of the Center for Reflective Community Practice at MIT, said the toll-free line “lowers the barriers for participation.”

Questions that are asked most and relevant to the international public will be put before the panelists in Berlin.

So far, McDowell said, questions “have been all over, from science and technology to philosophy, but you get a lot more energy around social issues.”

The event will be filmed and recorded for an online archive that users will be able to search and download from at no cost.

Table's tale
Besides the expected logistical challenges of bringing together 112 people from around the world, the project required construction of the Table of Free Voices, which is being called the biggest table ever with a circumference of 357 feet. Made of sustainable woods from a forest in Poland, the table will include microphones and digital cameras to record audio and video of each of the participants.

McDowell couldn't vouch for the politics of the visionaries set to attend. He said that thinkers of a more conservative viewpoint had been invited, but declined to attend.

“One might look at the table and say it's overly ‘left’ or liberal, but our intention is to create a table where people aren't responding from political ideologies,” McDowell said.

Dropping knowledge, a not-for-profit corporation based in Germany and the United States, is sponsored in the U.S. by the Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based philanthropy committed to social change; the group provided dropping knowledge with $259,000 in grants last year.

Less about answers than questions
Dropping knowledge also is supported by the Wallace Global Fund, a Washington-based organization that funds projects related to the environment, public policy and social justice; the Club of Rome, a think tank that works on global issues; Alllianz, the German banking and insurance conglomerate; and individual benefactors.

To McDowell, this venture — part populist think tank, part global town hall — is less about answers than creating opportunities for asking questions.

“When people start asking questions,” he said, “they also start sharing what they know about the world.”

The toll-free number is 877-352-7566 (877-DK-ASK-NOW).