In 2010, I cofounded a conference that used active curiosity to inspire and provoke attendees into action. I ran the production side of the company, ensuring design and quality. A multifaceted company, we created conferences, workshops, independent conferences, a makerspace, and a book. I left the company in June 2014 to pursue graduate school.
There is an increasing sense of apathy in classrooms and seeming lack of passion around the world.
An active curiosity engine that converges divergent people. Our primary product was an annual conference + workshop and an upcoming book. We also created a platform for independent conferences, we facilitated workshops, and almost made a makerspace.
From the beginning, Matt Murrie and I split the company 50–50. We were each cofounders and were each Chief Curiosity Curators. As our roles developed, Matt’s half was focused on external dealings: partnerships, contacts, networking. My half was focused on production: creative lead; designer; event organizer; web developer; video producer; and manager of interns, speakers, and attendee relations. I ensured we put on high-quality events. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my role was best summed up as user-experience designer to the max.
What If…? began with a conversation between Matt Murrie and myself. We talked about apathy in the classroom and a lack of curiosity in the world. I was then a college student and he an English professor, both of us at Westminster College. In a year from our initial conversation, we had cofounded a company.
From that conversation grew the idea of What If…?: an interdisciplinary gathering, where speakers take eight minutes to explore a question. The presenters and audiences (off-stage presenters) would be filled with students, professors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, retirees, auto mechanics, engineers, artists, poets, and community members — all asking questions, exploring possibilities, and getting the motivation to go out and create something new. We co-authored the future.
In June of 2014, I left the company to pursue new avenues of impact. I explain my decision in an extensive and heart-felt blog post.
The core of What If…? is like water. Each project we take on is like a new container to mold that core. The water is always the same, but the shape changes to fit the needs of the project. Each project had the following qualities.
TRULY INTERDISCIPLINARY Many of the liberal arts colleges, claiming to be interdisciplinary, lacked true collaboration between departments. We actively recruited diverse speakers and participants.
ACTIVE CURIOSITY Inspiring curiosity isn’t enough. We inspired active curiosity: get curious then go out and do something about your curiosity. We encouraged participants to change their communities, construct their ideas, and sketch out the future.
DEMOCRATIZING QUESTION-ASKING In teacher-student environments, students are often shy of asking questions. “It isn’t their place. The teacher is the expert. What could students meaningfully ask?” At our events or in our book, we flatten this hierarchy to allow anyone to ask a question. By recognizing and respecting the abilities of both experts and novices, the two can have a more balanced and engaging conversation.
EVERYTHING CAN BE QUESTIONED We allow anyone to ask a question about anything. All social institutions and technologies are built by people who asked their own questions. Even the pursuit of scientific facts yields human-understandings of scientific truths. We encouraged participants to question it all — as long as they were diligent in their question asking methodology. No one is interested in vapid questions, but our audiences love insightful explorations of intriguing questions.
For our first two years, we held conferences at our institution. When Matt and I left Westminster, we held our third conference at a local rock hall, the Blue Note in Columbia, MO. No matter our venue, we aimed to re-configure the space such that our built environment became part of the question-asking experience (e.g. questions/answers on the walls, art installations, reappropriating spaces in a college, just the act of having a conference in a rock hall).
Our process was built on our principles. We started conferences with a short workshop. The second day: a series of eight minute talks, a small-group breakout discussion, repeat. We constantly refined our process from audience feedback and our own observations. For example, we found that our initial lack of structure for the breakout discussions led to highly variable conversation-quality. We created a structured breakout model, tested it at a few small events, then used it in our annual conference.
We were also honored to be sponsored by Quirky, littleBits, Schlafly Beer, and others.
A few years in the making, my first book The Book of What If…?: Questions and Activities for Curious Minds comes out in 2016 (co-written with Matt Murrie). The book is comprised of question-based entries, all starting with “What If…?”. Each entry explores the question a bit, helping the reader (8–12 year olds) understand a few implications and base facts. Most entries have an activity for kids to delve deeper into the question. Some entires have peer-interviews with other kids; expert interviews with the likes of David Eagleman, Amber Case, and Aubrey de Grey; and profiles on historic individuals.
TECHNICAL BITS Published by Aladdin / Beyond Words, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I’m represented by my agent, Jessica Regal.
Facilitated Workshops On occasion, Matt and I facilitated workshops for groups of kids. These were slightly customized versions of our conference flow. Each workshop pushed participants through a question-asking process and they always culminated in some form of sharing, usually a short stand up.
Independent Conferences We helped others facilitate their own conferences, allowing communities to ask their own questions and be a distributed testbed for our annual conference. We worked with independent organizers to understand our materials and processes. During my time, I helped others facilitate their own conferences in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and a few at high-schools in Columbia, MO.
MakerSpace Keith Politte provoked Matt and I into exploring the idea of a makerspace: a place for makers, creatives, hackers, and hobbyists. If the conference is for non-tangible ideas, a makerspace helps communities explore physical questions. My research showed most makerspace members were middle-age, white guys — not the diverse crowd What If…? attracts. Our team, later including cofounder Lisa Bunch, explored properties and prepared financial models for a business loan. Our work culminated at a Startup Weekend where we finalized our business model and began work on an Indiegogo campaign. At the event, we collaborated with Olivia Keth, Lauren Rundquist, and Nelson Muller. Ultimately, the project failed shortly after the Startup Weekend when one of our founders left the project. The conference was our first priority, and as such, we couldn’t continue to sustain the MakerSpace work.