Not Your Typical Conference: NorTech Looks to Make Connections and Innovate at the UnConference 

NorTech, a Cleveland technology-based economic development organization, is hosting what it's calling the 2014 Innovation UnConference this Wednesday, bringing in a few hundred participants for a conference with no boring speeches, no set agenda and no predetermined topics. It's just a whole bunch of the area's best business and entrepreneurial minds and people looking to make connections. We caught up with NorTech president and CEO Rebecca O. Bagley who filled in some details on the UnConference and economic development in Northeast Ohio.

Doug Brown: What is the concept behind this?

Rebecca O. Bagley: We wanted something that could really be a platform for innovation -- to practice what we preach -- and so we felt that this format is flexible, participant-driven, very different than traditional conferences. For us, it's focused on transformational trends, cutting-edge technology, and innovative business approaches. It feeds off of NorTech's work, and really embodies off that innovative sense.

DB: So when did the idea come about?

RB: It was about nine months ago, actually. We had traditionally hosted business-to-business conferences in energy and had different types of conferences in flexible electronics, and so we were segregating the two audiences and we realized by coming together, there could be so much synergy. And the other piece was I was actually on a panel at somebody else's conference, and I thought, "This is just boring." I'm ON the panel and I'm bored. I'm looking out into the audience and I'm thinking, "There is as much talent and expertise on the topic we're talking about as panelists in that audience as there is on the panel." I came back and challenged the organization to look for a different model that really more embraced what we are trying to do, which is accelerate the pace of innovation in Northeast Ohio, so let's live that in every part of what we're doing. My team came back with the UnConference concept.

DB: I see there's a list of nearly 30 "mentors" that will be there. Is there anybody you'd like highlight from that list for our readers?

RB: It might sound like I'm dodging your question a little bit, but I think the most interesting part about that list is the mix of people. You have everybody from Jeff Hoffman, who co-founded Priceline and has moved to Northeast Ohio to help entrepreneurs, to somebody like a Matt Hlavin who is, I think, third-generation running Thogus and has really taken them in a different direction and has grown exponentially what was a very traditional manufacturing company. So it's this big mix of different types of mentors, and gives participants a mix of people to choose from as they're looking for who they want as mentor or to make connections.

DB: What has to happen to make the UnConference a success?

RB: The major piece for what we're looking for is making connections. And so we'll probably only be able to track that anecdotally with surveys, and the energy you feel at conference, but the goal is to make connections at the event that are relevant to participants' day-to-day work. I think that is really how we'll measure success, and we'll try to capture that through surveys and anything else. And there's good content to facilitate discussions. The cool thing is, from nine to 10 in the morning a national facilitator, who's done these kinds of things all over the world, is coming in to do the agenda setting. People will walk up to the mic and pitch a session, and the sessions are all discussion groups with no Powerpoint. People will say, "I want to lead a discussion on x," and the agenda is literally created in front of your eyes. We also have something called "the law of two feet" so if the discussion that you're in doesn't add a ton of value to what you're working on, or it was different that what you expected, then you just go to another discussion group. That's the idea and it's very dynamic.

DB: In a broader sense, I'm sure you've seen that Slate article saying Cleveland could be the next Silicon Valley. Is the author exaggerating or onto something?

RB: I suppose I'd say we're not trying to be the next Silicon Valley. What we should try to be is the next iteration of what Cleveland and Northeast Ohio can be, and I think it looks very, very different than that. But I think it's the idea of a dynamic environment where collaboration is more important that competition, where you have a diversity of people involved in the work that you're doing, appreciate youth like Silicon Valley does. It's a version of us that still makes things, integrating the IT and the manufacturing culture together and being able to meld those things together. So I'd say we're not trying to be the next Silicon Valley, but we are trying to have a similar innovative feel.

DB: What are the challenges Cleveland has to get to that?

RB: I feel we're at a tipping point and there's a lot of momentum driving us in the right direction. I do think there are inherent assets, but like everything, your greatest asset could also be your greatest challenge depending on how you manage it. For instance, risk aversion has been a big challenge. You have a manufacturing culture that is largely supply-chain, and that has a risk aversion factor to it. We need to break down that barrier, become more risky. I think competition has been a major thrust with how our companies interact with each other -- I think there's a sliding scale between competition and collaboration and we have to slide it a little more toward collaboration. Competition is always going to have its place. And then, like I said, diversity. I think there's not enough diversity no matter how you talk about -- background, race, female or male, youth. We just need to embrace viewpoints; I'd say the historical is earn your place versus let's figure out how we can all work on these challenges together.


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