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inciteXchange: Ten Months Pregnant and Staring Into a Stranger's Eyes

Ask just about anyone who was sitting among the audience in Temple University's Alter Hall Auditorium last Friday to describe the day's most unexpected moment, and you'll probably get the same story: It was mid-afternoon, and a local educator by the name of Jasmine "Minista Jazz" Cook waddled slowly to center-stage. She held onto her incredibly pregnant belly with both hands, and then lowered herself -- ever so slowly -- onto a wooden chair. She had been pregnant for 10 months, she told us, and was having contractions every 10 minutes. The crowd gasped. She asked for the house lights to be dimmed. Then she told everyone in the room to pick a partner -- preferably a stranger -- and to stare into that partner's eyes for the next ten minutes, without speaking.

By the time Cook's speech came to a close, and she explained the purpose behind her exercise, a palpable energy had overtaken the room. She left the stage to a roaring round of applause.  

"It's my belief," she explained, "that passion is the very fabric of life. And that human connection is the thread that holds that fabric together."  Keep that in mind when you create your products and your services, she told the audience. Remember that everything you're creating is for people.         

Cook's presentation, as it turned out, was just one of the many eye-opening experiences that took place during the daylong event -- a sort of idea-sharing conference for technology and design innovators who do, in fact, build life-changing products and services for people. Known as inciteXchange, and organized by the Center for Design and Innovation at Temple's Fox School of Business, this was only the annual event's second year. And yet throughout the day's eight hours, an incredibly varied group of 14 professionals -- all of them working at the furthest fringes of innovative technology, architecture, design and more -- shared dozens of ideas about the specific work their industries are doing to create solutions for the many pressing urban problems we face today.  

Consider, for instance, the quick presentation given by Drew Becher, the President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society: Wearing a tie the color of green grass, Becher shared the stories of beautification projects he'd instituted around the country, often on impossibly small shoestring budgets. There was Chicago, for instance, where his willingness to suggest unconventional ideas to Mayor Daley won him an influential job, and helped to change the public's perception of Chicago as a dirty city. He did similar work as a student at the University of Cincinnati, employing cheap solutions to obvious ecological problems. One of his current goals involves building the same level of national significance for Philadelphia's Flower Show as that enjoyed by New York's Fashion Week, or Miami's Art Basel event.  

One of the event's other few speakers who works well outside the tech and design fields was Gary Steuer, Philadelphia's Chief Cultural Officer. "We're in something of a Dickensian 'best of times, worst of times' period right now in Philadelphia," he offered, before sharing with the audience a very telling list of arts-related facts and statistics. Put together, all of them pointed toward his belief that "arts, culture and creative enterprise are part of the solution" to the urban and economic problems we're facing in Philly today. "I travel all over the country for my job," he added, "and increasingly, there's a buzz about Philadelphia. And we need to make sure we keep that going."

Thank goodness, then, for boundary-pushing locals like Mark Headd, a self-described "developer evangelist" who works with Voxeo Labs, and who spoke about his belief in the power of phones -- which he calls "the perfect technology" -- to entirely transform the lives of those who live in cities. Or for that matter, designers like Jonathan Jarvis, a Design Director at Google's Creative Lab in New York, who spoke about his work with video and design, which he uses to make complex ideas easier to understand.  

And yet perhaps even more exciting than the vision of the urban future shared by the 14 speakers at inciteXchange is the fact that many of the technologies they discussed are already being built. On Feb. 16, for instance, during the Temple Design Week that precedes the inciteXchange event each year, a civic business incubator known as the Urban Apps & Maps Studio was launched. Going forward, software applications developed at the studio will specifically address various urban problems that Philadelphia is currently facing. In fact, a decent number of those applications were first presented as little more than ideas during last year's inaugural inciteXchange event.

"I really think there are a growing number of people -- cutting-edge practitioners and academic researchers and so on -- who are really transcending traditional boundaries," said Fox School of Business Professor Youngjin Yoo, who co-organized Temple's Design Week, as well as the inciteXchange event. "I think they're driven by the core ideas of what they're trying to accomplish. And over time, they realize they really need to move beyond what an architect is supposed to do, or what a business school professor is supposed to do."  

DAN ELDRIDGE is a cultural reporter and travel journalist based in Philadelphia. Visit him on Twitter: @PittsburghGuide and @YoungPioneers. Send feedback here.
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