Guest Column: TEDxRockford: Locals figuring out local answers

By Chris Wachowiak
Kryptonite Bar Owner

Some people already know about TED, and some are new to it in this area. As soon as I heard about a TED event in Rockford (Oct. 27 at the Sullivan Center), I got as excited as a kid does for Christmas, because I’m a business freak.

I follow business like most guys do sports, and going to a TED event in Rockford is equivalent to going to catch a Bears game at the BMO Harris Bank Center. But being this is the first TED event for Rockford, they had to follow the very strict guidelines for hosting an event.

One of the biggest guidelines is the event MUST be limited to a total of 100 people. That 100 attendees included speakers, organizers, volunteers and, of course, guests. The selected guests applied online, and filled out a quick questionnaire to help pick active community members.

Now, TED has multiple licenses for speaking engagements, and the Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC) organized this one, led by Mary Caciaoppi and a small team of local believers in the need for this particular event.

TED allows for multiple topics to be discussed in this format, which allowed for a variety of guest speakers and topics specific for our area and emceed by Matthew Simpson, who did a fantastic job.

The event had five speakers and showcased two official handpicked TED videos. The event definitely had an agenda set for itself geared toward activating our community.

The difference between a TED event and bringing in some outside consultants to tell us how to make Rockford better is TED created an outlet to share local insights and stories — stories based on things currently happening in our area and similar areas in our near geographic region. And although I consider myself an involved community member, I definitely gained some new insight into our area.

Now, what action will be created from this event has yet to be seen. I did not feel as though I was at a “feel-good convention,” where there were some hyper guys on stage to tell me how great our potential was, sprinkled in with some new buzz words. The TED event was mainly community members doing their best to be the change they were wanting to see in their surroundings.

Here is what I took away from each speaker:

Ed Morrison, Purdue University, talked mainly about removing hierarchical structures between cities, communities and businesses, and focusing a model or process for this horizontal collaboration method — almost like a wave movement, starting with a “Plan,” to “Do,” to “Learn,” to “Adjusting” … and then repeating. He also brought up expansion areas like “green-collar manufacturing” and did throw out one buzz word of “strategic doing” to replace the idea of strategic planning, because the thought is we need to “do,” not plan to do.

We heard from Laurie Preece with Alignment Rockford, who shared where this program came from and described that their existence was to create a better collaboration between the school board and the community. And, in turn, and as a goal, making our school system a “virtuous cycle,” one geared toward caring and creating a “What if we loved our schools?” attitude. I learned Alignment Rockford is set out to create a “positive disruption.”

Jodi Carroll, from the recently award-winning Rockford Park District, talked about public art in our area and where it came from.

Steve Fleeman, with Rock Valley College, talked about renewable energy integrators in our area, projects they were working on and some success stories from this local program.

Dan Cataldi talked about EIGERLab, which is about the greatest hidden gem around. I cannot stress enough what an amazing opportunity EIGERLab is for our area and its ability to help create new jobs and lead innovation in our area. EIGERLab has the ability to help inventors, dreamers, business people to build, spec, manufacture, teach, lead, connect … the list goes on! Why the city and community don’t get behind this opportunity more boggles my mind! EIGERLab, if anything, has the greatest potential to impact our economic region overnight. Yes, overnight.

The two TED videos they selected I highly suggest you take the time to watch: Candy Chang, Before I Die I Want To …, and Eddie Obeng, Smart Failure for a Fast-changing World.

And then, they showed two local videos. One was an extremely well-executed video showcasing us not as a community doing global business, but as an area doing intergalactic business. The other was a short video by Pablo Korona titled Our Curiosity.

Our Curiosity, locally produced, has now already been shared by NASA and all over the world and written about in Fast Company magazine. If you haven’t taken the less than 5 minutes to watch this story, you’re really doing a disservice to yourself.

The one thing I noticed is only one city official made this event. Rockford Ald. Frank Beach, R-10, was the only city official in attendance.

My hat’s off to RAEDC for putting together this first event. I just hope there is another one before next year!

Rockford, and our community, need more events and activities like this to remind us there are positive actions and projects currently happening in our area, and no study had to be paid for to some outside consulting group to deliver another useless and overpriced study.

Chris Wachowiak is owner of Kryptonite Bar, 308 W. State St., Rockford. To read this story and others, along with podcasts about local businesses, visit

From the Nov. 7-13, 2012, issue

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