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Event Recap - E Town Festival 2013

On September 12 and 13, 2013 I attended the inaugural E Town Conference at the Shaw Conference Centre. The speaker lineup was incredible: Colonel Chris Hadfield of ISS fame; Bruce Croxon from The Dragon’s Den; filmmaker Tiffany Shlain; the legendary Guy Kawasaki; John Herdman, coach of the Canadian Women’s soccer squad; David Usher of Moist renown (who I did not hear, because my brain was full by this time). Musical entertainment was provided by The Barenaked Ladies (Thursday evening) and Martin Kerr. It was a cool event with a great, positive vibe.

Friday’s agenda included smaller breakout sessions with various industry leaders, including two excellent panel discussions led by Todd Babiak. The conference mostly held true to its value proposition: E-Town is an intensive two-day Edmonton festival of ideas for entrepreneurial-minded people who get excited by innovation, change and disrupting common thought. Inspiration and connection were the main reasons people attended, according to my far-from-scientific research. There was plenty of inspiration from the keynote speakers, and that inspiration was channeled into networking in Friday’s breakout and exploration sessions. The Shaw centre was buzzing with ideas and crazy conversations, people scheming in corners, making business deals on cellphones, talking about ROI and “flagship properties”. It felt alive and vital, although laughably Type-A at times.

Many of the attendees were business owners and industry leaders, and there were plenty of Joes like me who wanted to hear about cool people doing cool things. The age range was broad – 10 to 70 by my reckoning. The gender blend was almost even, 60/40 or 55/45 male to female. Ethnically, the event was overwhelmingly white – both in attendees and speakers. Friday’s midday sponsor panel consisted entirely of white men aged 50+ (a turnoff, and acknowledged by the organizers). The original five keynote speaker slots included two women – filmmaker Tiffany Shlain and Bitly scientist Hilary Mason, who cancelled and was replaced by John Herdman. This left Tiffany Shlain as the sole female keynote speaker, and she was the most socially and artistically-minded.

Chris Hadfield in Edmonton September 12, 2013

The keynote speakers brought powerful and inspiring stories. Bruce Croxon talked about ethics and values, and even allowed an ambitious audience member to deliver a 30-second pitch (which he shot down, to his credit). Tiffany Shlain demonstrated the power of “cloud filmmaking” – the magic of simply asking the world to participate in something bigger than themselves. Guy Kawasaki delivered his 10 steps to innovation, all infused with humour, wit, and humility, including the fact that he has been a “bozo” in the past. John Herdman spoken with infectious passion about starting with a broken team and building them into a medal-winning squad – a journey that was so much more difficult than we imagined.

Colonel Hadfield’s Thursday keynote was worth the price of admission alone. He spoke with grace, intelligence, humour, pride, and sensitivity about his role in Canada’s space program (and the larger endeavour of space travel in general). He spoke with regret about the environmental havoc that we have wrought on parts of our planet. He insisted that “the Earth will be fine”, but that humans have certainly done damage. Arguably, the highlight of the conference was Hadfield giving advice to an attendee’s son who could not be there. The mother recorded Hadfield’s advice. His words are applicable to all of us, at any stage of our lives.

What I took away from the conference was this seemingly simple idea: Do or build something really cool and necessary, then tell people about it. There’s a lot of subtlety in that idea and many steps to achieving whatever definition of “success” you aspire to. But that’s the basis of all worthwhile endeavour.

In all, I give the thumbs up to the folks at Economic Development Edmonton for staging an inspiring couple of days. I walked away pumped and excited to be working on cool things. Thanks guys and gals! I’m looking forward to next year’s lineup.

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