Written by Roger Showley, January 18th, San Diego Union Tribune

With less than three years to go, the centennial of Balboa Park’s 1915 world’s fair is literally STEAMing ahead.

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math and it’s one of the big ideas party planners are toying with for the year-long blowout in 2015.

It’s an echo of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-16, when innovation was king, both in products displayed and in the setting –flower-filled gardens surrounding Spanish Colonial revival palaces.

Paige Simpson, interim director of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership of 26 park institutions, said one idea is to set up “innovation incubators” where technology companies and institutions team up with arts groups.

“For example, medical students are trained in an art museum to deepen their observational skills,” she said. A grant request is off to the National Science Foundation to set up similar incubators in Chicago and Wooster, Mass., with the findings presented here.

Another idea is a “Living House” exhibit, where pieces of a model home are swapped out as new technology and systems are invented.

“365 Days of Music” would offer daily musical events, both professional and amateur, and even make it possible to leave a “virtual song” at a park spot that gets shared online with friends and relatives.

There’s talk of a 21st century Children’s Zoo to replace the old 1950s space at the San Diego Zoo, special sports tournaments at Morley Field and a “Burning Man”-type art fair on the southeast side of the park.

All these ideas and many more will get a further workover at “sPARKS,” a Thursday-Friday brainstorming session open to the public at the House of Hospitality.

The first day will feature a “brain dump” of ideas that have been percolating inside the park and elsewhere.

Participants who have signed up for the entire exercise will then massage a selection of the ideas Friday and present their findings at the end of the day. The Thursday preview and Friday windup are open to the general public.

“We’re very excited to be doing this event — there’s a great deal of interest,” Simpson said.

Meanwhile, Ben Clay, cochairman of the 2015 Balboa Park Centennial Celebration organizing committee, said he is meeting with nonpark institutions, organizations and leaders to collect even more ideas.

“We’ll sit down with them (at the cultural partnership) and compare the notes we got,” Clay said.

The goal is come up with a solid calendar of events for the entire centennial year and then begin raising funds and signing up sponsors and presenters. But blockbuster exhibitions in the museums aren’t the focus, Simpson said.

“People are really starting to look at this in different ways instead of just a traditional ‘here, we’ve got this big, expensive blockbuster.’ What will that cost – and then it’s gone tomorrow,” she said.

Instead, centennial planners hope 2015 results in a major institutional transformation of Balboa Park that makes it something like a theme park: Everything works in tandem; there’s widespread collaboration among the museums, the zoo and other institutions; and visitors get a richer, more immersive experience.

“We’re changing the way we look at ourselves as a whole instead of just a collection of individual institutions,” Simpson said.

But the practical as well as the dreams is never far from 2015 planners’ minds.

Clay said he learned from last month’s December Nights’ festival that getting into Balboa Park can be a logistical nightmare when hundreds of thousands are headed that way.

“We have to get our transportation guys together sooner than later,” Clay said.

He also thinks the 2015 events need to be spaced throughout the entire year, so that they aren’t all bunched up during the summer tourist season.

“We’re trying to build the shoulders of some of the seasons so we can drive the economic development side of this thing,” he said.