Ignite Events Build Regional Buzz

This was originally written as a guest post on Gus Sentementes’ BaltTech blog for the Baltimore Sun.

If you had 5 minutes on stage and 20 slides that rotate automatically every 15 seconds, what would you say? That’s the question that 48 presenters will answer at three upcoming Ignite events in Annapolis, D.C., and Baltimore.

Ignite was started in Seattle in 2006 by Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis, and is overseen by the technology book publisher O’Reilly. Since the founding of the program, hundreds of five minute talks have been given across the world.

The first Ignite event in the area, Ignite Baltimore, was organized in October 2008 by local entrepreneurs Mike Subelsky and Patti Chan and was an immediate success. Held at the Windup Space on North Avenue, the event has attracted standing room only crowds, and the upcoming Ignite Baltimore #4 has been moved to The Walters Art Museum in order to accommodate more people. Ignite Baltimore #4 will take place on Oct. 22. Ignite Baltimore was recently named “Best Geek’s Night Out” by Baltimore Magazine.

This week, the first Ignite Annapolis will be held at Loews Annapolis Hotel in their Powerhouse building. Ignite Annapolis is organized by Kris Valerio (Executive Director of Chesapeake Regional Tech Council, and local actress and theater director) and Jennifer Troy (local entrepreneur) and will take place on Thursday, Oct. 1. The event is sold out, but you may be able to get in if you show up early.

And next week, Ignite DC returns with its second event organized by Jared Goralnick (local entrepreneur and organizer) and Steve Lickteig (radio producer). That event will be held at Town Danceboutique, 2009 8th St NW and should feature several hundred people.

While a handful of well-connected area geeks will likely attend all three events, they are inherently local events designed to connect communities together, and really aren’t all that geeky. Topics span everything from art, history, science, philosophy, and of course, some tech and social media. But Ignite is designed to emphasize that tech has become inherently cross-discipline and is no longer the domain of just infotech nerds. So don’t be surprised when topics roam far and wide.

You can get a taste of Ignite by visiting http://ignite.oreilly.com/show/ and viewing some of the videos available there.

Upcoming Area Ignite Events

• October 1, 6:00pm – Ignite Annapolis, http://igniteannapolis.com

• October 8, 6:00pm – Ignite DC, http://ignite-dc.com

• October 22, 6:00pm – Ignite Baltimore, http://ignitebaltimore.com

Note that all three events are already sold out or close to sold out, so if you have not already registered, space will be very limited. However, you may be able to get in if you show up by 5:00. See the RSVP and waitlist policies for each individual event. And if you can’t make these events, get ready for the next round of Ignites, which will be happening early next year. Ignite Baltimore #5 is planned for the first week of March 2010.

Nerds, Dreamers: Unite!

For too long, the educated class has held an unspoken compact: nerds, you worry about computers and gadgets and Battlestar Galactica; dreamers, you worry about art and experimental thought and the environment and plants and music.  And generally speaking, the less these two crowds had to see each other, the happier they tended to be.

This was OK in an era like the 60’s where, for the most part, computing was best reserved for invoices, and fine art had little to do with math. The computer guys were needed to figure out hard implementational problems: how to store all those invoices and be sure the numbers were right, or the math behind making sure a rocket flew straight. Good, tough problems of the era, to be sure, but almost entirely orthogonal to the guys dreaming up the tailfins on the cars and the ads that sold them. Think about the role of geeks in era-pieces like Mad Men and The Right Stuff and you get an idea of how oil-and-water these crowds were.

Fast forward to today, where computers are a creative instrument capable of fine-art quality interaction in multiple media: video, still photography, sound, music, animation, visualization, and even the creation of physical interactions and physical objects.  3D printing, computer controlled robots and art machines, physical art installations of awesome complexity, and autonomous digital art objects are not only possible, but they are accessible to average people who simply want to create. We have truly entered an era where the walls between technical and creative have been razed, however if we fail to realize it and move past them, we may find ourselves constrained by an older notion of what’s possible.

As an example, I’ll take last night’s Ignite Baltimore #1, at which I was proud, honored (and a tad nervous) to be speaker #1. The topics covered were vast and varied, and I’d argue were just the kind of fuel that Baltimore’s creative class needs as input as we set off to solve the challenges of the next 50 years. The topics, in no particular order: public transportation, urban gardening, public spaces, the bible, web apps, agile development, 100 mistakes, cognitive bias, east coast industrial landscapes as art, radio stories, writing vs. speaking, entrepreneurial experience, and much more.

I’d argue that this is the kind of wide ranging liberal arts discussion that most nerds would have opted out of in the past, and that nerds would not be the preferred audience of the dreamers, artists, and poets.  The magic of today, however — the true genius of the moment here in 2008 — is that this cross-fertilization is finally starting to happen. And freely and with passion. Why? Because these walls between creativity, art, science, and math, have finally started to wear down — and not just in some university’s interdisciplinary studies department — but in popular culture and conceptions. The mashup is now considered not just a valid art form, but a standard process for solving today’s toughest problems.

Creative thought has achieved primacy. It is now the idea that matters, because when the idea is properly and fully conceived, the design, presentation, and implementation are necessarily correct as well. What do I mean by this? If there is total integration between the processes of ideation and implementation, there is simply no separation between an idea, the thought models that underly it, and its implementation in digital form: they are one.

It used to be that there was a wall between a digital implementation and an idea; a digital implementation would involve “hacks” — making stuff work in spite of memory or display or other limitations — and the computer-enabling “portion” of a solution would be some subset (usually a rather compromised subset) of an overall idea.

Today, object oriented programming and database technology make it possible to model a solution end to end with few compromises; so, in fact, digital implementers become full partners in the design conversation, greatly eliminating waste, and empowering programmers creatively. Agile development practices (involving iteration rather than top-down design) and story-based development (giving non-programmers a “narrative” to follow about the “story” of their solution) make it so there is very little distinction between design, programming, and ideation. They are now effectively the same disciplines.

And this explains why so many have argued that we are entering a new era of the right brain and of the “rise of the creative class.” The fact is if any of this had been possible sooner, it would have happened sooner. Generally speaking, people don’t like being pigeonholed into some tiny specialty, or to have their thinking constrained. We are human; all of our brains have two halves. But for too long, we have all likely underutilized one side or the other.

So, now we are all free; now, united with better tools and better processes, it is time to turn our attention to the hard, human problems of our age: energy, hunger, the environment (built and natural), and meaning, to name a few. And the topics at last night’s Ignite Baltimore were just the right fuel for getting us started thinking about these hard problems.

Kennedy famously said that “we choose to go to the moon… not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Our generation needs to start to figure out how to apply the massive wealth of talent (and newfound technical+creative skills) to the truly hard problems of our age.

It’s not going to happen overnight, and we all don’t need to go out and start wind power companies.  But, we all must make ourselves open to BOTH sides of our brains. We must realize that it is poetry and art which will provide the insight we need to make technical breakthroughs. We must listen to each other and be open to diverse viewpoints. We must become spiritual beings — it doesn’t matter whether your spirituality comes more from The Force than The Bible or The Koran — but to deny oneself any of the channels of thought that inform our basic human nature is to cut yourself off from the great insights and genius of one’s humanity.

Be open. Listen to people. Look at diverse kinds of art. Listen to diverse kinds of music. If you want to take part in the next great wave of innovation, these are the kinds of fuels you’ll need to do it.  And I hope to see you at the next Ignite Baltimore in February 2009, where we can continue this conversation!

Three Events You Can’t Miss

Ignite Baltimore Logo


The self-organizing tech community event has finally come of age here in Baltimore.  Here’s three events you can’t miss.

My new company, Roundhouse Technologies, is a sponsor of all three, and I’m speaking at Ignite Baltimore and am event co-chair for SocialDevCamp.  Each of these events is an example of the kind of self-organizing community events that I believe will shape the next wave of tech on the east coast and which I believe will give rise to the next great wave of innovation. And this time, that innovation is going to happen in places besides the towns along 101 and Interstate 280.

I’ve not talked a lot about Roundhouse yet publicly, but we’re methodically building things up, and we’ll have more to say soon. Stephen Muirhead and I are heading up the company. Stephen is an experienced executive and entrepreneur, and among other distinctions is the former president of Microprose Software, maker of the Sid Meier Civilization games, (ironically now owned by Atari, with which I had a long association, though under a previous incarnation).

So, anyway, lots of stuff is happening.  Ignite Baltimore should be amazing.  If you have not RSVP’d yet, please do so now to be sure you can get in.  The space is limited.  SocialDevCamp East was heralded as one of the top tech events on the east coast, and we’re expecting another amazing day on November 1.  And if Twin Tech II (held a couple of weeks ago in DC) is any indication of the scale and energy we can expect at Twin Tech III, we’re in for a heck of an event.

Tech is very much alive and well in DC, Baltimore, Philly, and New York.  Watch it unfold in the coming months and years!