By Tim Leeds
A revolutionary exposition in a revolutionary age brought hundreds of people to Montana State University-Northern and Havre High School last weekend.
Techspo, the technology exposition at Northern Friday and Havre High on Saturday, offered classes, workshops and group discussions about specific technology and products, but the overview was about change in a new age.
Communities need to adopt new ways of thinking and acting in in the "knowledge age," keynote speaker Rick Smyre said Friday. Smyre is director of Communities of the Future, an organization working to help communities participate in the new age.
When he started managing his family's textile corporation in the 1970s, he thought he knew what had to be done, he said.
"I thought I had the truth, that I had the answers," Smyre said. "It took me about two years to realize I didn't have the right questions." Finding the right questions is the key to succeeding in the new knowledge age, Smyre said.
Techspo, sponsored by a variety of business, community and educational organizations in the area, grew out of ideas at Montana State University-Northern's Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers for Technology program and the North American Rural Futures Institute at Northern. The exposition brought people to more than 75 speeches, discussions, workshops and classes, plus conversations at meals and breaks about using technology in the classroom, in business and in everyday life.
The speakers included Smyre; Andrew Cohill, director of Blacksburg Electronic Village; Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky of Sohodojo; and Francesca Paris-Albertson, national director of the PT3 grant program.
Susan Woolery, a student in Northern's College of Education, said after Smyre's talk that keeping current is crucial to teaching. Technology is changing so fast that by the time a teacher presents information, it could be obsolete.
Woolery said she was trying to balance the sessions she attended between education and business. She said both will be crucial to teaching high school students.
Smyre's point about asking the right questions is crucial, Woolery said. Teachers need to learn how to ask questions and get the students to ask questions
"questions to spark them and make them want to learn, to understand," she said.
Kevin Shellenberger, Havre High English teacher, said he didn't agree with all of the material being presented including an educator who said kids shouldn't have homework but he was glad someone was working to present ideas about modern technology and how to use it.
Shellenberger said he was especially glad that Northern and the Havre Public Schools were working closely on the project. He said he's thought for a long time that the partnership between the two educational systems should be stronger.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said between sessions Saturday that Montana has to facilitate change for the knowledge age. The state has to promote technology infrastructure improvements, facilitate business and community advancements, and help everyone enter the new age, he said. Kaercher said he was at Techspo to see what Hill County can do in the effort.
"How can we help. How can we help businesses in the community," he said. "That's what I'm looking for."
Shellenberger said he was surprised that more people didn't attend. Organizers estimated that more than 200 registered, although the final counts of online registration and mail registrations hadn't been tallied Saturday.
Jonathan Richter, Northern's PT3 grant coordinator and founder of NARFI, said the attendance was very high for the first year of an event like Techspo.
"I think it's an extremely good response," he said. "It's been almost a dreamlike quality."
Putting Techspo on every year, or at least next year, is not entirely Richter's decision, but "I'm determined to do it again," he said.
Curtis Smeby, director of the PT3 program, said he expects attendance and vendors and topics to increase.
"It's the first year. It's a building process," he said. "That takes time."
The focus on new ways of looking at things was evident in all of the keynote speeches. Cohill, Salmons and Babitsky gave keynote addresses Saturday.
"We have to talk about new ways of doing things new today, but things that might be the norm in 20 years," Smyre said in an interview.
In his Friday speech, Smyre told of a presentation he gave to a group of 126 economic developers in the 1990s. He told the developers that they needed to include electronic infrastructure and technology as part of their economic development in the new electronic age, but most didn't believe or understand him.
That's normal and natural, Smyre said. The concept was outside of their experience and beliefs. But it has to be part of modern thinking, he said.
Salmons and Babitsky said there is an opportunity in modern business that meshes with the changes in technology. Sohodojo proposes nanocorps, "ruthlessly small corporations" generally consisting of one person. Nanocorps are a reflection of how society is changing and how rapidly the changes occur, Salmons said in an interview.
Babitsky said modern technology allows people to develop new skills in a variety of areas, and to find people with necessary skills and similar goals and likes to network with.
Salmons said that in a world of rapid change, it's crucial for business people to be prepared with a portfolio showing what they can do, have done and would like to do to take advantage of every opportunity.
Cohill said many people ask him whether wiring a community like Blacksburg, a Virginia town of about 38,000 where more than 90 percent of people, businesses and organizations are connected to the Internet, will guarantee success. Blacksburg Electronic Village is an outreach project of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Investing in telecommunications won't guarantee a community succeeds economically, Cohill said. "But if you don't invest I can guarantee you won't. It's not risky to invest, it's risky to not invest."
Cohill said many people want telecommunications to be the "silver bullet" that cures all of their economic woes, but it isn't. It's simply a necessary part of a mesh of different aspects of modern life, including planning.
The key is for a community to decide what it wants to do, where it wants to be in 10 or 20 years, Cohill said, and to make plans to get there. The success of that plan is up to the community, he said.
"There only seems to be one factor," he said. "It's not geography, it's not money. If the community can come together and develop a vision of the future, what it wants to look like in 20 to 30 years, it's almost always successful. (But) a lot of communities don't want to put in that hard work."
Cohill said from what he's seen, the Hi-Line has a good chance for success, if the people of the area will put in the work. He said he's been to hundreds of expositions like Techspo, but it's one of the best organized, with the best content, he's seen.
"People really seem intent on making this work," he said.
Techspo was sponsored by MSU-Northern, Montana Cooperative Development Center, Bear Paw Development Corp., the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, Western Education Inc., Northern's Students in Free Enterprise, and Havre Public Schools.
On the Net:
North American Futures Intstitute: www.narfi.org
PT3 MIRROR center: www.mirrorcenter.org
Communities of the Future: www.communitiesofthefuture.org