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What's creativity all about?

That's what Spark Con will explore

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Members of DesignBox, the organizers of Spark Con, a conference to be held next week in downtown Raleigh. From left: Chris Eselgroth, Larry Cooper, Isaac Panzarella, Melissa Andron, Becky Shankle, Diane Reeves, Aly Khalifa, Beth Khalifa and Cheryl Gottschall - PHOTO COURTESY OF BECKY SHANKLE
  • Photo courtesy of Becky Shankle
  • Members of DesignBox, the organizers of Spark Con, a conference to be held next week in downtown Raleigh. From left: Chris Eselgroth, Larry Cooper, Isaac Panzarella, Melissa Andron, Becky Shankle, Diane Reeves, Aly Khalifa, Beth Khalifa and Cheryl Gottschall

With Spark Con just a week away, here's a question: What problem is this inaugural conference (about "igniting the creative hub of the South") trying to solve?

The answer, says Becky Shankle, one of the principle organizers, is that Spark Con is not about solving a problem. It's about recognizing opportunities--opportunities to boost our region's creative flow, and presenting each conference-goer with opportunities to help uncover what those new creative chances might be.

"The thing that's hard for people to understand about Spark Con is that we don't know exactly where we're going," says Shankle, a creativity consultant and member of DesignBox in Raleigh. "We do know that we want to have the courage to be adventurous."

Four workshops are planned--on the arts, technology, inclusivity and independent business--with four different pairs of speakers, but in each case the subject is the same: What would make the region a better place for creative people? And what can I do that would add some "spark"?

It all does sound a bit abstract, Shankle agrees. But then creativity is abstract. It doesn't follow a script, and you can't turn it on and off like a switch. On the other hand, though, it's more likely to be switched on in an environment where it's invited, and is welcomed and engaged once it arrives.

That idea applies to companies, to regions and to conferences, she says. They can't just summon creative thinking. But they can "put the flexible framework in place that allows it to happen."

So, in a nutshell, that's what Spark Con's meant to do. There's no preordained outcome, or even any imagined ones. Instead, there's a set of open-ended questions, some exercises to start folks thinking, and a facilitated process that calls on everybody to use their imagination, work together, and come up with the unexpected--and the exceptional.

These conversations will happen amid a weekend-long program of music events, art shows, fashion shows, films and myriad other fun and creative chances to get the thinking gears meshing.

Who's Speaking at Spark Con?

PING FU is the keynote speaker on opening night, Thursday, Sept. 14. She grew up in China, was exiled to the United States, and started Geomagic in Research Triangle Park, where they're masters of the programming language DSSP. The company's so hot, Ping was named Inc. magazine's "Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2004, and now she's opening a sales office in China, in addition to the offices Geomagic has in the UK and Japan.

"Creative thinking is about seeing what is there," Ping says, "not what is not there." (Shades of Shankle's opportunities.) She plans to talk about how creative thinking helped her navigate a lot of tough turns in her personal and business lives, and also about how she missed the Triangle's subtle creativity at first.

"When I first arrived," she told the Spark Con gang, "I thought that this place was boring. What surprised me in my research is that the university students, out-of-state or in-state, all want to stay here if they can find suitable jobs. People who live here are happy. I thought: There is something here that does not meet the eye."

Among the workshop speakers on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 15 and 16:

BILL THELEN. He's co-founder and co-owner of Lump, the iconoclastic art gallery in downtown Raleigh. He'll talk about his favorite subject--"non-commerciality"--and his "business schematic" for Lump, which takes advantage of the city's affordability, but also faces up to the fact that Raleigh "is a tough town to make a living at art."

Thelen's got a lot of problems with Raleigh's leadership, so don't expect any bouquets. The biggest problem? Its failure to recognize that when there's a war on, especially a shitty one, that's when you need art the most.

ARTHUR GORDON. The owner of Irregardless Café, he was once considered "alt-counterculture," but now jokes that he's the Establishment. He has learned one thing in his 32 years in business: "Don't fall in love with the merchandise." In other words, "be creative, but it has to fall to the bottom line."

Gordon's take on Raleigh: "It's missing its front porch." That's the place where, literally and figuratively, "people can have a conversation about life's experiences, and no one has an agenda." Raleigh's gotten to be too much about money and not enough about the things that really matter--talk, art, values. And it's morphed into suburbia, where people watch their reality on television as opposed to living it. "It's a dead end," Gordon says. "I don't know that Raleigh is looking at its future fully."

IRIS RAMÍREZ REESE. She started Fusión, a multicultural marketing and communications firm based in downtown Durham, with a specialty in reaching out to Hispanic/Latino and African-American cultures. She's on the "inclusivity" workshop bill with LINDA DALLAS, the Raleigh artist-illustrator. Dallas is also an exhibit developer at Exploris in Raleigh and has been part of project teams that trekked to Senegal, Tanzania and the Netherlands, among other places.

GREG HATEM. He's Mr. Downtown Raleigh, guiding his Empire Properties empire though 16 rehabs, the latest of which is the Raleigh Times (and Morning Times) establishment on East Hargett Street. And he's just signed on with the city to develop the Lafayette, a boutique hotel-and-condos project on Salisbury Street just south of the new Convention Center. A B.S. in chemical engineering from N.C. State University; a diploma in Chinese studies from Beijing Politics College. Pretty creative.

A creative place

If Becky Shankle gets up and speaks, you'll learn that she spent the first 20 years of her career doing CAD (computer-assisted design) for architectural firms and as a facilities planner for Cisco Systems. Then she left to join DesignBox, where her initial focus was sculpture. Now she's concentrating on helping organizations be more creative by getting their people into the right jobs--the way she wasn't.

Everybody's creative in some way or other, Shankle says. But some folks are ideas people, some are implementers. And some are in between. The problem many companies have is good people doing the wrong jobs--or the right jobs, but they're brought in at the wrong point in the process of creating a product or service.

Better design, in an organization context, means people's specific talents are better engaged and also better linked via the right networks and teams.

Can the same design ideas be used to help a region be more creative?

Shankle thinks so. "I don't think we're kidding ourselves that it's going to be easy," she says. "It's going to be a challenge. And it has to start with the teams that already exist within the region."

That said, however, she's sure that a lot of creative talent is going to waste in our midst, if for no other reason than because creative people are so independent, and existing networks don't capture them.

Top companies value every employee, and every creative idea, she says. Communities must do the same, by valuing every resident, and drawing out their creative talents to the fullest.

After all, Shankle says, in a global economy where "things" are made somewhere else and even "services" are handled offshore, "creativity is all we've got left." But it's also all that we need.

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