A BIG Experience: My First BIG Ideas Conference

ARTICLE | Dec 13, 2016

Brandi Allen took a b-line for me as I entered the second day of the Conference first thing on Saturday morning.  At first I wondered if I were in trouble, probably a learned response from my youth, but once I'd come to the realization that I was just being asked to write an article on my reactions to the Big Ideas Conference, I became excited…and relieved of course.

Being a member of the Alliance, I always knew that the organization and its membership thrived on innovation and continually pushing the envelope.  But having never attended the Big Ideas Conference, I was not entirely sure what to expect.

After a cup of coffee, some quick networking and brief opening remarks Friday afternoon, we took an immediate dive into the deep end.  If I hadn't of already read the list of attendees (primarily local government and higher education thought leaders), I would have guessed I was at a futurist’s conference.

The three provocateurs began speaking on artificial intelligence, cognitive and quantum computing, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, UAV's, algorithms, sharing economy and how all of these disruptive technologies are and will continue to play an integral part in our daily lives.  My secret inner-nerd was doing mental summersaults.  There were a myriad of cutting edge, emerging and futuristic innovations that were being thrown around like rice at a wedding, pelting the Bride and Groom from every direction, then being shoved onto a bus for dinner at Muirfield Village Country Club.  This tactic was by design.  Grab a ton of volatile ingredients, stir the pot, turn up the burners and leave the kitchen allowing for all of us ingredients to mix with each other and attempt to process and discuss these concepts over food and libation.  I sat next to one of the provocateurs from earlier and we chatted about some of the predictive analytics that he has been using in his classrooms at Arizona State University.  We had a good balance of academics, local government professionals and private sector folks which made for very dynamic and engaging dinner conversation.  Welcome to day 1 of Big Ideas.

Over the next day and a half, a similar formula was repeated.  Stimulate the audiences’ minds with thought provoking 10 minute presentations, break up into smaller work groups, brainstorm for 20 minutes, then return as a collective for reporting back.  We were forewarned that Big Ideas would “make our heads hurt” and that it is intended to stretch our way of thinking.

When originally asked to write this article, I believe the intent was to highlight an ‘AHA’ moment that I experienced as a part of these various sessions.  Now that I’ve returned to the office on Monday, back to business as usual, I guess my AHA moment is how forward thinking and outside of the box we have the opportunity to be in this profession.  If you were to ask a random person on the street what the first word that came to their mind when being asked about, “Local Government”, I’d wager that the word “Innovative” would not be it.  But in my experience, not only attending these type of conferences, but working through complex issues for the City, I truly believe that effective local leaders have to be creative and forward thinking, especially in today’s world.

In order to keep up with the pace of the evolving environment, local governments need to think and move at the speed of business while adhering to the democratic process, which is an artful balance.  As we continue to face the challenges of the future, it is encouraging to see so many forward thinking thought leaders from around the country that will continue to embrace change and not fall a victim to it by avoiding it.

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