Ex-Fortune trio aims to spark new dialogue
Three former Fortune staffers say their new Techonomy conference and Web site aim to transcend traditional tech circles. Some big names have signed on.
Leaving a big publication to launch one's own conference and Web site isn't exactly newfangled.
But three former Fortune staffers hope that what distinguishes their event will be the scale of the problems that it attempts to address.
David Kirkpatrick, Brent Schlender, and Peter Petre are teaming up to launch Techonomy, a conference and Web site devoted to the role that technology can and must play in transforming all aspects of business and society--not just those that the Internet has already transformed.
"The idea is that technology is really the only way we are going to solve the world's problems," Kirkpatrick said in a telephone interview on Monday. "Society's problems are so grave that we have to really work to solve them more willfully and consciously using technology in all of its guises."
At the same time, businesses in almost every industry are also faced with the choice of adapting to take advantage of technology or being rendered extinct. It's certainly something the trio saw during their years of work at a magazine giant.
"You can apply this same argument to any company in any business," Kirkpatrick said. "No business enterprise has the luxury of disregarding the way that technology is inevitably going to change the business of what it does."
The Techonomy conference is slated for August 4 to 6 at the Ritz-Carlton resort near Lake Tahoe, Calif. The group has already attracted some big-name sponsors and speakers. Slated to talk are Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and former Sony CEO Nobuyuki Idei. Sponsors include Intel, Chevron, and Hewlett-Packard.
Sun Microsystems co-founder and Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Bill Joy is among those advising Techonomy's founders.
"I think there's an opportunity for a new kind of discussion around how the kind of ideas that have driven Silicon Valley get applied to the broader economy," Joy said in an interview.
One of the problems, Kirkpatrick acknowledges, is that the people who most need the message--those who aren't already convinced of the role of technology--are the same ones who are least likely to attend the event, while the first to sign up are likely to be those who already share their mindset.
Kirkpatrick said he first started talking about the idea of a new conference last January, but didn't actually put his money down to book the Ritz until October. Landing Gates as a speaker definitely helped get the ball rolling, he said.
The group's ambitions don't stop with the conference and its companion Web site. Kirkpatrick one day hopes "technomy" and "techonomic" will one day be used to describe the people, companies, and even countries that really get the impact of technology.
"That's our dream," he said, "to try to have impact on the dialogue."
With that, the magazine veteran stopped himself, acknowledging the road is long between a start-up and a place in Webster's dictionary. For now, he'll be happy if the inaugural conference is a success.
Kirkpatrick said he has been hanging on to the Techonomy Web site domain for more than a decade, acquiring it after it had been abandoned by a Wall Street trading business set-up during the dot-com boom.
"When it went under I took over the URL," he said.
The name, he said, has had a rather large impact on how the event took shape. "It really does suggest what we are interested in--the role of technology in all aspects of modern life," Kirkpatrick said.
Green technology, and more broadly how to use technology to address environmental issues like climate change and overpopulation, will be one focus of the event.
"We obviously have a need for green jobs and green innovation," Joy said. "There are a lot more tech entrepreneurs in the Internet and computers than there are in the green space. I think the technical ideas to start a lot of great businesses are there."
Kirkpatrick, who also helped launch Fortune's Brainstorm conference, said he hopes to reclaim some of the energy that event had in its early days when it was held in Aspen, Colo., and drew the likes of Bill Clinton and King Abdullah. Fortune still runs confabs under the Brainstorm brand, but Kirkpatrick said that they aren't the same conference he helped to launch.
"The things that are now called Brainstorms are spin-offs that are totally different," he said.
The technology conference circuit, once dominated by large events like Comdex, is now centered around a slew of smaller gatherings, including next month's D: All Things Digital and events put on by the publishers of TechCrunch, GigaOm, and PaidContent.
For many upstart Web sites, the event business has proven to be a major profit engine, even if most of their attention comes from Web publishing efforts. Knowing this, Kirkpatrick said his group is starting with the conference, with plans to move into more publishing this fall. Kirkpatrick said he his team is committed to journalism, including long-form text and video.