York will play host in July to a festival of ideas that aims to put the art back into innovation and technology. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

Marcus Romer is in love with ideas. He fizzes with them: his own and ones he has picked up on his travels. Like the time he was at a conference in California, and a man walked on stage with a human kidney that had been grown from human stem cells. But not exactly grown, says Marcus.

“It was 3-D printing, built up by layers. They had 3-D printed a transplantable human kidney using stem cells as ink, and they brought it out on stage.” He’s unable to keep a note of childlike awe out of his voice. “That’s the end of dialysis, right there.”

What excites him even more than ideas themselves, however, is what happens when you bang unexpected ideas together.

It’s a bit like chemistry, he says, or cooking using new ingredients. You never quite know what’s going to come out. “Ideas reproduce. They mate,” he says. “Put one idea with another idea and they produce a third, the offspring.”

Such as the first man way back at the dawn of time to think of making a flint axe. Perhaps you had one man with a stick, and another with a chunk of flint, and one of them had the idea of putting them together to make an axe.

“You could say that was the biggest innovation that’s ever happened, the axe. Once you’ve got an axe, you can chop trees down, do lots of clearing,” says Marcus. And create the way for the first farms.

A much more recent example of a great new idea springing out of two totally different ones, he says, was when the McLaren F1 pit stop team got together with Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.

A group of surgeons, so the story goes, were relaxing after a long spell in theatre by watching a Grand Prix. One of the biggest dangers for patients undergoing life-saving surgery is transferring them from the operating theatre to intensive care after surgery.

The surgeons were impressed by the smooth, fast, efficient functioning of the McLaren pit stop team – it was just the approach they needed when transferring patients, they realised.

The pit teams were able to work with doctors to make the whole process more efficient and cut out mistakes. It made an appreciable difference to complication rates, Marcus says. “And yet who would have thought of putting a Formula 1 pit stop team into a children’s hospital?”

Marcus is a firm believer in mixing ideas up like that – however unlikely they may seem as bedfellows.

It’s probably partly to do with his own background, he admits. Brought up in Blackburn, he always hated it when teachers tried to pigeonhole him as an arts or a science student. “I love them both!”

He initially followed a science route, going to university in Leeds to study dental surgery, and then working for three years as a dentist.

But he found himself hankering for the creative freedom of the arts world, chucked in dentistry, and became an actor. He is now, as many in York will know, the artistic director of the Pilot Theatre, and also the chairman of Creative York.

He has always held on to that passionate dislike of the boundaries we put up between different forms of knowledge. At a live event to be held in York in early July, he hopes to explode a few more of those boundaries.

The event is to be known as TEDx York. TED essentially stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. And TEDx York – essentially a development of the Shift Happens events organised by Marcus and Pilot Theatre at the Theatre Royal for the past three years – will be a festival of ideas, streamed live online to York and the whole of the world.

The TED concept is borrowed from a series of regular, not-for-profit conferences held every year in both California and Edinburgh.

Marcus has attended two of California conferences – it was where he saw that 3-D printed kidney being brought on stage, but also where he got to listen to the likes of Bill Clinton and The Simpsons’ Matt Groening spinning wonderful ideas to go away and think about.

He has now been licensed to run a TED event in York. It will be held live at the Sir Ron Cooke Hub on the University of York’s new Heslington East campus from 11am to 6pm on July 7.

Throughout the day, creative people working at the frontiers of information technology – musicians, game and software designers, theatre directors interested in the potential of new technology, and many more – will deliver a series of short presentations, spinning out new, outrageous or off-the-wall ideas.

Highlights will include:

• Kit Monkman, of York-based KMA, familiar to local people as the company behind some of the most innovative light displays in the annual Illuminating York Festival. “He’s just come back from Los Angeles, where he developed a new lighting and projection facility for Prince (the rock star, not William) for a 21-date tour,” Marcus says. “There’s a heat-seeking camera that follows Prince around on stage. That’s a crazy thing, that’s good.”

• Matt Freckelton of York-based Yatterbox – a website that enables you to follow everything your local MP has been doing or saying online on various social media networks. It’s a great tool for finding out what your MP has been up to, or has inadvertently let slip, says Marcus. “This could be the next Facebook. These guys are the young Mark Zuckerbergs, and they are coming out of York.”

• A live, interactive event taking place in York and New York, featuring a hip-hop street artist (New York) and a MC (in York). “How amazing is that?”

All these and lots more, from York and around the world, will be watched by a live audience of just 200 people – all there is room for sadly, Marcus says. All the tickets have already been snapped up – but never fear, the event will be streamed live online, and available afterwards as a CD. It will be an event for all to watch and enjoy, he stresses.

He believes that York, with its flair for creative, innovative science and technology, and its strong arts and entertainment sector, is the perfect place for such a festival of ideas.

But what does he hope will come out of it?

That’s the beauty of it – he doesn’t really know, he admits. “But maybe we’ll get new partnerships, new ideas, new co-operations.”

He also hopes to demonstrate, to ministers seemingly obsessed with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), that the creative arts have a part to play in innovative thinking.

“We’re putting the A for Arts back into the equation to deliver a new STEAM Age of innovation and creativity,” he says.

It goes back to that idea about breaking down the barriers between the arts and the sciences. “We can’t see things in isolation,” he says. “We have to innovate to survive.”

• To find out more about TEDxYork visit tedxyork.com

TEDxYork sounds great for the Twitter generation, into new and better ways of using the internet and digital technology to communicate with each other. But won’t it be a bit of a turn-off for the Coronation Street generation?

Not at all, Marcus insists.

The 50-year-old doesn’t believe there is any reason why the older generation should feel left behind by the digital, information revolution.

Every generation has had to cope with change, he says, not just this one. “Imagine what it must have been like when the first air flights started, or the telephone was invented, or TV. We have all of us at some point had to get used to new stuff – videos, mobile phones.”

Already, the information revolution is transforming all our lives, young and old alike. Most of us use mobile phones or the internet to stay in touch with people we love, or send or download photos. “I taught my mother-in-law, who is 78, to talk to her family across the world on Skype.”

It doesn’t matter that we don’t know how these things work – he doesn’t know how his washing machine works, he says – so long as we know how to use them. His mother-in-law knows that when the green button is on, she can click on it and talk to her relatives.

But the thing about the information revolution is that we are just scratching the surface of the amazing things we could do with it. “We’re in the cave-painting stage.” The potential to affect all our lives of the new technologies could be enormous – so it’s in all our interests to realise that.

People trained in the creativity of the arts have a huge part to play, alongside scientists and technologists, in developing that potential, he believes – hence TEDx York.