Confessions of a VERGE Virgin

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Confessions of a VERGE Virgin

VERGE has been dangled in front of me for a couple years, but I didn’t take the plunge until last month, for VERGE SF. Like many things in life, I didn’t get what all the hype was about until I experienced it for myself. I thought it may be just another sustainability conference, which is never a bad thing for a recruiter who looks at sustainability jobs within varying industries.

But I came to find out that VERGE is much more laser-focused than your typical sustainability gathering. You come to VERGE to get deep down in the weeds on cities and the built environment.

I’m excited that I chose to attend, having realized since that the built environment is right where innovation seems to be happening at the most rapid pace. There is a wild race of companies taking their stab at the next big thing and I got to witness that feverish sprint firsthand. As GreenBiz Group Chairman, Executive Editor and conference host Joel Makower puts it, “VERGE is neither a tech conference nor a sustainability conference; it’s something new. For both tech and sustainability professionals, it’s just the right combination of familiar and non-familiar worlds.”

Who’s on First?

Even more surprising was not the what of VERGE, but the who. Professionals converge (pun intended) from the two worlds of tech and sustainability to discuss opportunities to develop ultra-efficient and innovative products, services, and business models for companies, cities and consumers.

You could feel the pulse of the 500+ people in the room, the majority of whom were senior management, with roughly 10 percent being CEOs, 10 percent at the VP level and 22 percent directors. BSR associate and conference radio host Nate Springer recognized this dynamic, “The energy and interaction of the conference was thrilling. It’s one of the few places I’ve seen government, business, and technology truly converge to discuss real solutions for sustainability, clean tech and green buildings.”

Innovation and Implementation Intersect

Chief Sustainability Officers had a solid contingency, including Cynthia Curtis from CA Technologies and Kathrin Winkler from EMC. But these green-team pros weren’t the only ones making an appearance. I sat amidst the likes of VPs and CEOs from real estate holding companies, real estate investment trusts, investment firms, architecture firms and construction companies.

Winkler reflected on this convening of incongruent industries, “Innovation happens at the intersection of different perspectives and disciplines, while implementation requires the integration of strategy, technology, and business. As Chris Luebkeman [Director of Global Foresight & Innovation at Arup] reminded us, to drive change, we must answer all three questions: ‘What?’ ‘So what?’ and ‘Now what?’”

A Constructive Collision Course for Cities

Along with these unlikely bedfellows, we heard from business thought leaders who are actively working to bring cities into the sustainability spotlight. Bill McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle, gesticulated with enthusiasm about his plans to bring houses to China that can be constructed without tools and expanded on why he sees the city as a living organism.

Dell’s Bruno Sarda jumped on that city-as-the-jewel-in-the-crown bandwagon. “I agree that cities are the main theater for sustainability. If cities figure out how to better manage their resources and leverage their assets, than the need for virgin material diminishes, as does need for transporting all this stuff, as does energy requirements of making all of it.”

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, gave a brilliant presentation entitled “The City as a Startup,” speculating on how urban revitalization can accomplish multiple goals to include optimizing economic development, spurring community-centered sustainability initiatives and catalyzing other cities to follow suit. Hsieh linked the intentional creation of environments that cause collisions as a way to hasten innovation, using his company’s headquarters design as an example.

A New Era of Conferencing

The conference’s format acted as a microcosm of the kind of groundbreaking learning environment that cities have the potential to be on a larger scale; attendees were doubly engaged with not only interactive in-person sessions, but an online platform to complement with chat rooms, live streaming and a virtual moderator. Is this the next wave of conferencing?

If so, VERGE is aptly named for being right on the verge of the future.