Smile Politely

Innovators Improv: no laughing matter

InnovatorsSince it began last fall, Innovators Improv has been going strong. In the group’s own words, the mission of Innovators Improv is “Joining innovative thinkers at the intersection of the arts, sciences, business, and engineering to create unique and transformative ideas.”

Innovators Improv attempts to do this by putting on events open to the public that center around a single theme.  Previous themes have included Communication, Design, and Sustainability.  Speakers with some connection to the theme are invited from the community, and members of the audience are encouraged to take the stage and speak up as well. 

So far, all of the events have been on weekday nights at either Krannert Center or Boltini Lounge.  Since it began, Innovators Improv has held five events and plans to continue. A future event is scheduled for 5-7:00 pm on April 5th, 2010.  The theme will be Visualization Technologies; the location of the event is still to be determined. 

I spoke recently with John Clarke, who is the Assistant Dean of the University of Illinois’s College of Business and is one of the organizers of the group, at his office in Wohlers Hall.  He explained to me why he thinks Champaign-Urbana is a good environment for the group’s stated purpose of encouraging “innovation and creativity” for “synergistic networks” to bring community members closer. 

“I think it’s our geography and our location.  We’re far enough away from larger urban centers, but not too far.  We’re far enough away to where we have our own thing going on, but not so far away that we’re disconnected.  We’re not in the middle of the Sahara desert.  We’re close to Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, but we have our own identity.  I think that the university brings some of that character.”

The last Innovators Improv event, was held on February 18th in the lobby of Krannert and centered on the theme of Sustainability.  There were ten invited speakers on the agenda, including university faculty, green-oriented businesspeople, university student group representatives, and the founder of a local group that promotes the use of electric vehicles.  Between the official speakers, individual audience members got on stage to speak briefly on the general topics of sustainability and the environment.

Clarke said of Innovators Improv: “It’s about trying to bring together different elements of our community.  And since we started, Mike Ross did this piece about Micro-urbanism, and that really dovetailed right into what we’re doing with the Improv.”

According to Clarke, the idea behind the different event themes is to reach different populations in C-U: “We’re trying to connect with different communities.  I’d like to see it cross-pollinate, where the design guy is talking to the sustainability guy, and the communications guy is talking to whoever.  Part of our goal is to really create new nodes in the network.”

Innovators Improv began through a university committee which included  Larry Schook, Director of Biomedical Sciences, and Mike Ross, Director of Krannert, and Clarke himself.  In Clarke’s words, the committee was formed “of people who were looking at entrepreneurship on campus.  And each member was supposed to think of some project they could do, that they could implement to help foster entrepreneurship in our community, in the campus, or in the broader community.”

Eventually, the committee came up with the idea of community events, and the first onecentered around the theme of Communicationwas held last September 24th. 

Despite its origins at the university, Clarke said, “Innovators Improv is meant for Champaign County in general.”  Sponsors include Precision Graphics, a business not affiliated with the university. 

Clarke said of Innovators Improv, “It was born out of a university committee, but five years from now, no one from the university could be involved, and that would be okay.”

He said of C-U in general, “It’s a geographic community, and not bound by the university.  Because a lot of the talented people, a lot of the innovators in our community, aren’t necessarily at the university.  We have a lot of great innovation on the inside, but on the outside too…. Many people stay in the community.  They start video game companies, they start graphic design shops, they start cake shops… whatever it is they start.  They may have come here because of the universityor maybe not. Many people stay.”

Clarke believes that it’s time for residents to start feeling comfortable about being townies: “I am on a personal mission to stamp out people making excuses for why they’re here.  It’s very much a ‘cup half-empty type of thing,’ which I’m not a big fan of.”

At events, Clarke works the crowd, trying to coax audience members to come on stage to say their piece. 

“The only rule I tell people is that you can’t intentionally offend someone.  If you offend someone with your opinion, that’s fine, but you can’t get up there with some axe to grind…. I’ve been surprised about how many people have something to say and are willing to take the stage.  We’ve had some people get up and say some really inspirational things.  There’s been no heckling, but there has been debate.”

All the speakers at the Sustainability event, which I witnessed, were very positive.  Of the several audience members who took the stage, one man spoke of the importance not only of environmentalism, but of community events like blood drives. Additionally, one university student got up to speak about some ideas on sustainability that had been raised in one of her business classes. 

Clarke stated that Innovators Improv is about creating “value,” defining the word broadly, not excluding the monetary sense: “Value could be in the sense of new intellectual property being made.  Value could be in the sense of a new social initiative created by a community business… so maybe you go to the Improv and you become affiliated with a new charity.”

According to Clarke, Innovators Improv has a small budget “in the hundreds of dollars,” which is used in part for advertising fliers and for the group’s website.  He said that much of the work that has gone into putting on events has been volunteer and that the team has plenty of “sweat equity” invested in the project.

He and the other team members put out word through their own personal networks to look for invited speakers for events.  So far, he said, “We’ve only been asking, we haven’t had people ask to speak yet…. It’s a bit different from your traditional improv, because we’re trying to get people to share a thought or idea as opposed to entertaining.”

On the whole, Clarke said, he, Ross, Schook, and the other team members are pleased with where Innovators Improv is going, althoughwith no master planthey’re not quite sure where that is: “We’re still in experimental mode.”

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