CityWorks (X)po 'social entrepreneur' gathering wants to strengthen community
October 24, 2011
Most people may not be familiar with the term "social entrepreneur," but it's one that appears destined for wider recognition soon. From Thursday through Saturday, in fact, Roanoke will be swarming with them -- or at least with people who want to be part of a movement that, based on the hundreds of websites devoted to it, is gaining attention across the country and the world.
CityWorks (X)po is the brainchild of Roanoke developer/activist Ed Walker -- and, he would insist, at least a dozen other people, including artist Beth Deel and locavore advocate Brent Cochran -- who want to promote social change through entrepreneurial principles.
He's promoting the event as "a festival conference celebrating big ideas for small cities."
Walker, best known perhaps for his recent successes in turning unused and often dilapidated inner-city buildings into affordable apartments, is especially interested in expanding the use of those entrepreneurial principles in small cities and towns, such as Roanoke.
Which is the goal of (X)po: getting exponentially large social benefits in small places.
"I don't think of myself as a developer," Walker said last week. "I see real estate as an efficient way to change a place.
"I could have spent the last 10 years handing out leaflets, joining community groups trying to get a slumlord to do a better job. Or I could buy the house and fix it up."
Commerce and capitalism, he says, are underused but profoundly effective ways to make a difference.
CityWorks -- Walker's social entrepreneurialism arm -- has been involved in everything including promoting performance art, buying a community radio station and opening up formerly empty storefront space downtown for concerts, movies and theater.
With (X)po, his venture is bringing in academics, artists, businesspeople, government leaders, sustainability advocates and others to stimulate conversations about social entrepreneurialism with participants from up and down the East Coast, as well as other parts of the country.
Some 350 people had signed up to attend as of Friday, Walker said, and participants are coming from around the world.
When he couldn't find a conference geared to the needs of small cities anywhere else, Walker said he decided to organize one himself. He talked to academics but found that few were interested in the phenomenon, specifically how small places without large universities can fire up -- and maybe more importantly, connect -- people from all parts of the community to work for common goals.
So, he went to the United States census data himself and found that small cities without large universities were legion.
In the past six months, organizers have communicated with city managers, economic development leaders, chambers of commerce and mayors, he said.
"Then we ID'd places that surveys said were the 25 best cities to live in and the 25 worst cities," he said. "We were interested in the perspective of places where things were really bad. When you're in crisis, you can put ingenuity in play and things are so bad there's no pushback from traditionalists who resist any change."
Participants who registered before July 22 paid $350 for a three-day pass. The price is now up to $500 and will be $550 at the door.
Walker said those tickets will help pay for the speakers, performers and some meals, as will sponsors, who are still being lined up. "Whatever that doesn't cover, CityWorks will cover," he said. "That's French for 'me.'"
The keynote speaker for Thursday's session is Bob Lambert, a Roanoke native and graduate of Patrick Henry High School and Virginia Tech who has spent the past three decades in California, most of it as a senior executive with The Walt Disney Co.
When he left Disney last year and became a venture capitalist, Lambert was senior vice president for worldwide technology strategy and development for the company. His job was to be looking for new technological breakthroughs, and he was a key figure in the Pixar collaboration with Disney.
Lambert has been a frequent visitor to his hometown and maintained old friendships here.
"Four or five years ago, I noticed the city was changing in an interesting way. Developers were revitalizing downtown. There was the Taubman. I started watching the city a lot more closely and started coming back even more often," he said.
Not long ago, he said, a Roanoke friend called him in Los Angeles. "You ought to come in this weekend," she said, "and see how much is going on." There was a concert at CityWorks' Kirk Avenue Music Hall, a show at Jefferson Center, a wine tasting, a run on the greenway and other events.
"The thing I love about this city is the human scale of it," Lambert said.
As for (X)po, "There's more to it than just the rising appeal of small cities," which he predicts will be able to attract young people who want to live in places where they find a good quality of life and can work through their computers and smartphones.
"It's about how small businesses will evolve and exist."
He cites Ogden, Utah; Albany, N.Y.; and Asheville, N.C., as some of the places that are attracting the best and brightest. "They are mini Silicon Valleys."
View your shopping cart.