Planning for a better digital future in WNC

WNC’s digital future will be discussed by 120 professionals during a two-day conference, Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1. Dubbed Unite WNC, conference participants will gather to brainstorm, discuss and plan the current and future information-technology landscape here in Western North Carolina. While each day will feature its own speaker, the core of the event will consist of roundtable discussions with all participants encouraged to get involved, regardless of their area of expertise. The two-day technology summit will be held at the US Cellular Center, in downtown Asheville.

Conference details can be found at

Tracy-150x150-circleMountain Xpress spoke with one of the conference organizers. Tracy Schmidt works as a program manager at By Light Professional IT Services. She also manages the IT staff in Asheville and across the country who support the Consolidated Patient Account Centers with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Her career has included workforce development public policy in Washington, D.C.; organizational development and communication; and application project management. An Asheville resident since 2004, Schmidt is interested in helping grow a strong IT workforce in WNC through business and education partnerships.

Mountain Xpress: What is the aim of Unite WNC?

Tracy Schmidt: The summit will be a participatory event. People will engage in structured one-on-one conversations, small and large group dialogues, and whole system planning. We will begin with an environmental scan, including identifying weak signals on the horizon. We will then discover and map our strengths, opportunities and the sweet spot between what’s here and what’s possible. We will create shared visions of WNC as a flourishing tech center, and design a road map and prototypes to make it happen. What we’ll be looking at in the afternoon on Friday is what the trends are societally, economically and technologically, and how do these predict where we could be in 10 or 20 years. The goal is to take action before we even leave the summit and be ready to take further action in the days and months following the event.

Are you intending to get a view from practically everybody who is attending?

Yes. We have two facilitators. The rest of the people who are [listed] on the website are part of the planning committee. We’ve been planning this since October.

Friday afternoon, we’ll start brainstorming about where do we see WNC in the future, what will the tech sector look like, what would our elevator speech be if we were explaining 10 years from now all the great things going on in WNC technologically.

Saturday, we’ll start to narrow that down and come toward a vision and an action [plan]: Where do we want to go and what is important in getting us there. Then we’ll be doing an open-space conference where, say, one person says it’s really important to figure out how to measure our success and somebody else says…it’s really important to look at education and business partnerships to figure out how to do the workforce training…. A third person may have a list of 10 things that they feel are important. The participants would [then have to] choose what to focus on…and where they feel they could help move that part of the plan forward.

Are you going to record the reactions to be able to tabulate them, or is it more casual than that?

A lot of flip-charting and reporting in tables. In other words one table will have a flip chart, they’ll write down their ideas and then there’ll be a facilitator at the head of the room tabulating the final results.

Do you have matrices from the past as to how far we’ve come?

This is the first time that we’re looking systemically from the whole community perspective.

How is Asheville’s Meet the Geeks organization, which is effectively a group of technologists, involved in the conference?

Well, Meet the Geeks is the nonprofit that is supporting this conference and getting it off the ground

One of the functions of Meet the Geeks is being a facilitator between the tech community and the business community because basically every industry has a tech component to it. So, we’re having conversations and connections because you might have a company that is just technology and all they’re doing is developing software… and then you have a ton of other industries — healthcare and manufacturing, for example — that have IT sections.

So, this is the initial get-together. Will you meet in, say, two years and see how things have improved, and then meet again in four years’ time?

Yes, I hope that it is an annual thing. The goal is to have some action items that come out of the meeting, and by Saturday afternoon … people will have assignments, so in the 3-6 month period [when] a participant is checking back in, we’ll see how we’re making progress. Then we’ll have a similar summit in a year’s time. The hope is to keep the momentum going. We have people registered from the far western counties all the way to Hickory, so this isn’t just Asheville. It is all of Western North Carolina. We have all the different universities participating too, and IT folks from different sectors, everything from help-desk [staff] to CEOs and CIOs, so it will be a whole gamut of perspectives. There’s that next generation Gigabit Project happening, which Bill Sederburg is doing here, and so all those people [from different broadband networks] are coming to the conference. The Stem Center are attending, they are the NC Science and Math organization that are opening a new campus in Morganton next year. Internet connectivity is really important because it is essential to have fast bandwidth in order to be productive in that environment.

We are hoping that the outcomes are common ground rules for cooperating and collaborating and what policy recommendations need to happen in order to support and sustain [the momentum].

And I would assume that part of the focus would be giving some input into the Gigabit project too.

Those are the three key things in my mind — the vision, and some type of articulation of that; the policy recommendations; and the education and training.

For the record, who are the two speakers and what do they do?

The first speaker is Paul B Hartzog, who is a futurist. He used to be a university professor at Michigan, but he lives here now. He will be talking about peer-to-peer networks and complex adaptive systems, which is a second wave of post-modernism.

And on Saturday, it is Susan Clarke Muntean, a professor at UNCA, who will be telling stories about what communities have done to support entrepreneurship and IT, especially with women and minority enterprises. I think the diversity issue is a big question because we do have a lot of rural counties here and a child who’s going to school in a rural community may not see the connection about what kind of jobs they could have when they grow up if they [go] into Science and Math. If they decide to stay in their hometown, what kind of jobs would be there for them and how can we help to grow the local talent so they can stay there?

We need to be mindful about reaching out and making sure all socio-economic groups in [each community] are involved in STEM and see their place in technology too. We have a senior educator coming and he knows a lot about what’s worked within the educational sphere and how to reach out to all different types of student populations. Susan Clarke Muntean is a management professor and she’ll be talking about what has worked in other areas to involve technology and entrepreneurship.

Event Information

What Are the Summit Goals?

  • Create a shared Vision of the WNC tech sector in 2025
  • Identify well-defined areas of emphasis for collective action and impact.
  • Identify and prototype policy recommendations.
  • Identify and prototype education and training goals.
  • Create branding and social media strategies and stories.
  • Develop and prototype infrastructure goals.
  • Create a Hub/Network in WNC to support and maintain momentum and track success and prototype a communications strategy.

Who is attending?
Representatives from the following organizations will be participating in designing WNC’s digital future.

{SAW} Software Mill
A-B Tech
Airship Apps
AVL Technologies
BalsamWest FiberNET
Bloomip, Inc.
By Light Professional IT Services
CA Technologies
City of Asheville IT Services
Crunchy Bananas, LLC
Drupal Camp
EverydayHealth Pro
Gaia Herbs
Green Opportunities
Kujawa Consulting Inc
Madison County Department of Development Services
Mars Hill University
Mission Health
Montreat College
Mountain Area Workforce Development Board
MRC Advisors LLC
My Newsletter Builder
Natural Capital Project
Next GENeration Network
Nico Languages
Online Reporting Systems
OpenDataSoft, LLC
PC Pitstop
Philips Healthcare
Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI)
Ray Access
Red Hat
Risc Networks
Rocus Networks
ScriptCycle, LLC
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
SVN BlackStream
TEK Systems
The Collider
The Doug DeCarlo Group
Thomson Reuters
Tri-County Community College
Trusted Sharing
United Health Group
University of North Carolina Asheville
Venture Asheville
Waystone Systems, LLC
Web Tech Czar
Wells Fargo
Western Carolina University
Wide Open Technologies
Wiseware, LLC




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