‘Twas interesting, at the final Spark Con session, where everybody got a chance to say what went well and what didn’t, to hear Ty Beddingfield say he was still looking for a succinct explanation of what Spark Con was. Beddingfield, after all, was the DesignBox member in charge of marketing the thing.

Also interesting to hear Sharon Wood, a Cary communications consultant who attended, say that “the essence of Spark Con” remains undetermined. It could turn out to be a way for creative people to meet, interact and then leave with their own juices flowing, she said. Or it could become “action-oriented,” producing a creativity agenda that people keep working on between Sparks. “Whether it’s the one or the other will evolve over time,” Wood said, “and either is OK. But let’s take time to celebrate how many people came together this first time.”

Notice that Spark Con isn’t over. After the inaugural events of Sept. 14-17, the organizers of this conference (and every attendee I met as well) were sky-high at their success–warts and all, it was an undoubted success–and they’re already thinking about how much better it can be next year.

In fact, some people suggested that it be not just annual but ongoing. Jill Marie, co-owner of the Third Place coffee shop in Raleigh, is talking about having follow-up “spark” meetings there.

Here’s a not-so-succinct explanation of what Spark Con was, taken from an excited e-mail that Peter Aufrichtig wrote on his way home to New York. Aufrichtig is a patent attorney who works with DesignBox folks (the collective of inventive types who started Spark Con), so perhaps this should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, I heard a conversation exactly like the one he relates:

For me, the crystallized essence of the Spark Con was the conversation overheard between two fashionably dressed ladies [who were watching FashionSpark, a fashion show in Raleigh’s Moore Square]. The first lady said, with a quizzical look and a sense of bewilderment, ‘Is all this stuff from Raleigh?’ The second … replied, “Yup.” In my view, that was the key in so many ways. There is so much to fashion, film, technology, art, creativity and other great stuff in Raleigh, but it seems to be a closely held secret. Spark Con started the job of letting Raleigh in on its secret … but it just needs venues and opportunities like Spark Con to shine and congregate.

More succinct than that was Marshall Brain’s frame. The “How Stuff Works” guy, Brain showed a few slides about how Raleigh works, or doesn’t, then summarized with a slide that said simply: “Raleigh is Uncool.”

Raleigh is uncool, and we think it would be a better place if it were cool, Brain said. So how do we make it cooler? If Aufrichtig is right, maybe it’s cooler than we think. Or maybe we just need a self-image makeover.

Anyway, what is Spark Con? Here are some questions and answers to fill you in.

So how many people attended Spark Con?

There were 215 workshop registrants. The biggest single event, FashionSpark, drew maybe 800-1,000 spectators. Just a guess, but all the events probably drew a total of 2,000-3,000.

What were the workshops about?

Yeah, a lot of people said they didn’t quite get it about the workshops, mainly because the organizers wanted to keep their methods a surprise beforehand. They were a series of exercises designed to get diverse groups thinking aloud, and together, about what makes a place “inclusive”? Or good for artists? Or for scientists? They were all high-concept at first, in other words. But by the end of each workshop, each group of 6-8, with a facilitator’s help, had invented a “magazine” about the place they’d imagined, with a half-dozen cover stories about its best features.

So did Spark Con spark any ideas we can actually use?

Well, the organizers are treating those magazine covers and the stories they hold–about 160 of them, if I did the math right (4 workshops x 6-8 tables x 6 stories)–like the Dead Sea Scrolls. They must now be deciphered for meanings. But there were lots of ideas for communicating information better and for connecting different communities. I liked the one about taking ImageSlam on the road–a mobile projection screen to show artists’ slides, like the Spark Con event in Moore Square, except now it comes to a neighborhood near you. Or how about some EAKs–Electronic Arts Kiosks–to guide you to places and shows around the Triangle. And then there were the “Neighborhood Exchange” and “Tilt-a-Mayor” stories (Raleigh’s mayor to Cary, Cary’s to Durham, Durham’s to–you get the idea).

What got everybody talking?

Two words: Ping Fu. People were flabbergasted that this amazing woman–who started Geomagic, Inc. magazine’s entrepreneurial company of the year–is right here in the Triangle and who’d ever heard of her? She escaped Mao’s China, at the height of his (anti-)Cultural Revolution with $80 and three words of English. Today, she’s talking about how imaging software can empower local producers to customize their products–everything from hearing aids to shoes that fit. All that stuff you buy that says “Made in China”? Ping says you’ll never see any of it for sale in China. It’s all shipped here, at great expense. “Localization, not globalization” was her mantra–use technology to save on labor, and you can produce good stuff here, not crap over there.

It’s an endlessly interesting idea, but what was really startling was the realization of how many fascinating, creative people are here that we don’t know about, and who’ve never met one another. That was the whole point–it’s time we talked.

What else worked?

The fashion show. Fabulous diversity in people and styles. The staging was great, the clothes were, uh, interesting, and the models were absolutely into it, including your elected state representative Deborah Ross of Raleigh, stylin’ with a Holly Aiken handbag. And the ImageSlam, with break-dancers and poets.

What about that actual slam from the music critic?

Yes, our own Grayson Currin was down on the MusicSpark fare, which was the talk of Spark Con before Ping Fu stepped up with the keynote. Whatever you thought of World Party, the music events–which were limited to the Lincoln Theatre this year–were pretty spare compared to what they could be if Michael Kurtz and Carrie Colliton of Music Monitor Network have their way. “People always jump to conclusions, like, ‘Oh, you’re trying to exclude me,’ instead of, ‘No, this is the first step,’” Kurtz told a group that met during Spark Con to talk about making next year’s music much bigger, much better, and much more the driving force that makes Spark Con cool.

By the way, is Spark Con a Raleigh thing? Or a Triangle thing?

Aly Khalifa, the DesignBox chief, says they always talked about the Triangle, but got a lot of push-back from participants, most of whom live or work in Raleigh. And, try as they might to connect Raleigh to Durham and Chapel Hill, nobody can figure out how to do music events in three places on the same night without a transit system. As one of the music producers Kurtz brought in from Atlanta said, “This is a hard place to get around.”


It kept coming up. You want connections? It’s kind of prerequisite.

So what was Spark Con again?

“Conversations with participants,” Aufrichtig wrote, “found folks almost unable to express the strong sense of belonging, finding their spiritual and creative counterparts. And of making a difference in building a better and more creative Raleigh and Triangle.”