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The What If…? Conference inspires curiosity in Columbia

What if a startup was created to ask burning questions, boost others’ creativity and invite you to participate?

The What If…? Conference will bring its brand of learning through questioning to Columbia for the first time. Set in the heart of downtown, the conference will take place March 21-22 at the Blue Note.

Created by Matt Murrie and Andrew McHugh, he What If…? challenges individuals to not accept information, but pose a variety of questions—from the simple to the complex, the evident to the esoteric, the trivial to the monumental.

When asked about the concept, McHugh told Silicon Prairie News it is to “take a question, find out what it means to answer that question and really engage the question itself in depth, ideas on involvement and taking the question further.”

The cofounders laid the groundwork for the venture at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Murrie, an English professor and Westminster alumnus, and McHugh, who recently graduated with degrees in philosophy and information science, decided to channel their mutual love for learning into something bigger.

Kicking off in 2012, the first conference had about 200 attendees, with similar second-year numbers. However, Murrie and McHugh anticipate a turnout closer to 300-400 curious minds this time around.

During the event, innovators, educators, entrepreneurs, philosophers, students and others who dare to ask will deliver 20 eight-minute talks. With maximum retention in mind, presentations are designed to be packages of thought-provoking material that will stick with the participants.

This year’s questions will cover a range of topics, from “What If NYC Resources Were Brought To Rural America?” by Bella Minds founder Jennifer Shaw  to “What if Every College Student Took A Course In Entrepreneurship?” by Mizzou Ph.D student Sara Cochran.

Participants from all backgrounds are encouraged to present. Unlike the past two conferences, which were mostly comprised of Westminster students, faculty and staff, McHugh expects for this year’s conference to be more varied.

Audrey Bellis, vice president of marketing for micro-blogging platform Meddle.it, is flying in from Los Angeles to deliver her talk on “What if we changed the way content is shared?”

Inspired after discovering Murrie on Twitter, Bellis has integrated the What If…? concept into her work.

“I changed the way I think,” Bellis said via video chat. “I no longer wonder, ‘What if I can’t,’ but ‘What if I can?’”

Presenting on the potential for readers to contribute to the online media they consume, Bellis is thrilled to be involved in this year’s event.

“If I know what the energy is like just incorporating What If into my life, I’m anticipating crazy energy,” she said.

As co-founder of BetaBlox and a SparkLab KC and TechStars mentor, presenter Alex Altomare enjoys dealing with the hard questions.

“I love tackling big problems,” Altomare said. “Anything that gives you a headache to think about, that’s what gets me up in the morning.”

Rather than presenting on entrepreneurship or business incubators, he will be discussing nanorobotics during his talk, “What if the next major evolutionary event happens this century?”

Referencing research he conducted with the help of NASA and DARPA and published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Altomare will speak about the possibilities for man and machine to merge.

“The next step in evolution is not that artificial intelligence is going to surpass human intelligence, but that hybrid technology is going to be incorporated into life and that we will have machines that are part machine, part life,” he said.

As someone who enjoys asking questions and solving problems, he expects the conference will “throw a wrench into the linear progression of thoughts” for participants.

In addition to the presentations, the conference will include breakout sessions and workshops where participants, or “off-stage presenters,” can interact. This year’s workshop, sponsored by Quirky, will help them work together to develop a product or service.

“If a CEO of a business leaves with not just a business card, but an actual relationship with a second-grade teacher, that’s exciting,” Murrie said. “Or if an app developer leaves with a connection to a student in high school, who knows? It’s up to them where those connections lead.”

To wrap things up, NicDanger, a Columbia-based rapper; Moon Junior, an indie rock band from Rolla, Mo.; and Not A Planet, an indie rock band from Kansas City, will perform in a closing concert.

Tickets are available on the What If…? website. Admission includes the presentations, breakout sessions, workshop, three meals and the concert.

General admission tickets are $149, group tickets are $95 and student tickets are $55. The promo code “WhatIfWeekend” can be applied for an $80 discount on general admission.


Credits: Image from What If…? on Facebook.

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