Students, educators, entrepreneurs and others came together for two days in downtown Columbia as the city became a first-time host of the annual What If…? Conference. The conference, aimed at inspiring active curiosity, innovation and collaboration, kicked off with a workshop on Friday night and featured a full-day conference, highlighted by a series of short presentations followed by breakout discussions, on Saturday.
On Friday, around 40 people gathered for the What if…? Workshop, working in groups to identify problems and product designs to help tackle them.
“It’s about figuring out how to tackle problems in a way that will have a lasting impact,” said Thomas Riddle, a workshop attendee.
Riddle, a school principal and adjunct university professor who travelled from Greenville, S.C. to attend the conference, said he the opportunity to build a network and enhance critical thinking skills motivated him to make the trip. Various other attendees shared similar personal and professional motives. Felicia Rateliff, a marketing manager for Philips & Company and a newcomer to Columbia, said she came because she liked being able to collaborate and exchange ideas with others.
“What better way for me to exercise my own mind?” she said.
On Saturday afternoon, a crowd of about 100 people came together at the Blue Note, a downtown Columbia concert and event venue, to hear a series of eight-minute talks from people with various areas of expertise. Topics varied widely from one presenter to the next, ranging from nanotechnology to architecture and design to stereotypes and gender roles.
The delivery of the presentations was often as creative as the talks themselves were. One presenter, Justin Cave, chose to act out his presentation with help from a friend. Another, Kattesh Katti, demonstrated a chemical reaction to illustrate the resourcefulness of green nanotechnology.
Josh Van Zak, a presenter at the conference, said he appreciated the diversity of the talks.
“It’s nice not being bound by a theme,” Van Zak said.
Sam Albrecht, another presenter, said the variety of topics translated into new opportunities.
“You can’t predict what you will take away until you actually get here and hear all these ideas,” she said. “I’ve met people here who I would have never met otherwise.”
McHugh said that the demographic of conference changed considerably this year, with more businesspeople and entrepreneurs in attendance compared to previous years. For the past two years, the conference was held at Westminster College in Fulton, and the main attendees were students and faculty.
“We did not realize just how much our audience would be changing,” McHugh said, noting that the shift may explain why turnout was lower than the previous year. Last year, the conference was at near capacity with around 200 people registered, he said, but this year around 140 people registered.
Whether the conference will remain in Columbia remains unknown, McHugh said, noting that innovation conferences often get more traction on the coasts.
“I think (the conference) is more needed here,” he said, “but harder to sell here as well.”