A few weeks ago I helped arrange the second edition of the Afkar-e-TazaThinkFest in Lahore. Before the event took off, several people warned me not to have it at the Alhamra, the largest and best avenue for such events in Lahore. Their reasoning was that such a ‘dry’ and ‘academic’ event would not take off and that there would be hardly more than fifty people at each session. They argued that while literary festivals have taken off in Pakistan, because they bring in artistic and social ‘stars’, there was no space for an event which solely focused on academics and their work. In fact, throughout the first day of the two-day event, several people asked me when were the sessions with ‘film stars’ or ‘which singer was coming’, and were rather taken aback and dismayed that I answered both questions in the negative. However, despite these misgivings the festival attracted over sixteen thousand people over two days with several sessions overflowing. This clearly indicates that Lahore, and indeed Pakistan, has the appetite for robust and serious academic discussion.The idea of the ThinkFest came about because people like me had long complained about the lack of public engagement by academia in Pakistan and of a dearth of avenues where international and national academics meet and discuss. The various literature festivals, from Karachi to Lahore and Islamabad, and now even in smaller cities, have given a fillip to literature, but history, politics, and most academic subjects still required an avenue for public engagement and discussion. Therefore, the ThinkFest decided not to dabble in literature — leaving it to others who do it well, but focus on the gaps, so that the intellectual milieu of the country is enriched and made more open, creative, interactive and challenging. The ThinkFest did not declare an official working language — speakers were encouraged to be multi lingual. Breaking down language barriers was a central endeavour of the eventAt the end, while we learnt from our mistakes — and there were several, yet we are very glad for our successes. First, thousands of people thronged to the event: from a packed launch of the book on partition by Dr Pippa Virdee from the UK, to the engaging session with Farahnaz Ispahani, Jibran Nasir and others, to the informative session by Dr Azeem Ibrahim on the Rohingyas, and the one person panel by Fauzia Viqar, who held fort and had a robust discussion singlehandedly despite the fact that her co-panellists did not turn up — there was no panel which was not interested.Also, the attendees were not just the elite of Lahore, but from all walks of life; from girls from a college near Ravi road, to students from Madaris, and people from LUMS, BNU, FC College and other places. The most memorable occasion was the long line of children from a blind children’s school who were all holding hands so as to not to lose each other, but did not want to leave till they met the speakers they wanted to talk to. Seeing such a diverse mix of people, who engaged the speakers thoughtfully, was the real success of the event. Secondly, the ThinkFest did not declare an official working language — speakers were encouraged to be multi lingual. Hence, there were talks which were completely in Punjabi — and they were not just on Punjabi itself, while in others Urdu was the medium, and a vast majority were bilingual in English and Urdu. Breaking down language barriers was a central endeavour of the ThinkFest.Thirdly, the ThinkFest — deliberately, abolished, the ‘Speakers Lounge’, — the space where speakers hide from the public gaze and where only a few chosen ones have access to them. We had flown in speakers from around the world — UK, US, France, India, Qatar, Ireland, Canada and elsewhere, at great expense and we wanted them to have as full an interaction with the public as possible. Therefore, there was no specially designated room for them and they were encouraged to sit outside and mingle with the crowd. The sight of people like Tawakkol Karman, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, speaking to girls from Lahore College for Women, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, interacting with local political workers, was something which brought a real “public” feel to the event. Even the then Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, who came to launch a book on the history of the Lahore High Court, freely mingled with the crowds, and interacted with them. The sight of the Chief Justice talking to a little girl outside Hall 1 is a sight I would never forget. There was no distinction in terms of access between the organisers, the speakers and the attendees — we all sat, ate and participated in the festival together. Fourthly, the ThinkFest pioneered the ‘Speakers Corner’. Modelled after its namesake in Hyde Park in London, this safe space allowed the attendees to come and speak on topics of their choice and attract their own audience. These spontaneous talks ranged from feminism to a discussion on smart cities, and even an interactive session with a visiting Chevening scholarship advisor. The establishment of such a space for respectful, open and yet critical discussion, allowed people to create new avenues for dialogue, discussion and learning.The Afkar-e-TazaThinkFest strove to fulfil the vision of Iqbal in really showcasing and promoting new thoughts and ideas—a real ‘Afkar-e-Taza,’ because Iqbal has rightly noted: ‘New worlds derive their pomp from thoughts quite fresh and new/From stones and bricks a world was neither built nor grew.’ Thank you Lahore, and thank you Pakistan, for being open to create this new world, which was Iqbal’s real dream.The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYKPublished in Daily Times, February 21st 2018.