Sheboygan Beacon – When Sheboygan County – like the rest of the country – was shut down in response to the spread of Covid-19, it could have disrupted the growing momentum of the FreshTech Innovation District.
The task force charged with putting the innovation district’s programming into action was poised to start hosting in-person events in mid-April but if there’s one thing innovators love, it’s a chance to solve a new challenge.
The challenge? How to create an innovation community without requiring people, businesses and organizations to meet and interact in person.

Director of Innovation and Engagement Nick O’Brien quickly pivoted to a new approach in response to the challenge. And where many of us might see frustration and lost opportunity, O’Brien sees possibilities.
“This is where things could be looked at as setback,” he said. “We still want to get where we’re going, we just need to get there a different way. What I’m happy to see right now is the two elements of humanity that we as humans have always leaned on to get us through times of crisis: community and innovation.”

Instead of holding in-person gatherings of people from the community who are leading the way to a new innovative future, O’Brien turned to technology.

The new plan utilizes a digital approach to create engagement toward local innovation and to build a community of people, businesses and organizations associated with that activity.

This online platform – which will later be joined by in-person activities when that’s deemed safe again – is where creative problem solvers, inventors and entrepreneurs can put their virtual heads together to work on turning business and societal challenges into opportunities for innovation.

“Right now, those people – their minds are working,” O’Brien said. “They’re seeing a pile of new problems resulting from the pandemic and they’re looking for people with whom to explore those problems and collaborate to find solutions. They need a platform, a place to go for that to happen.”

This initiative is called “The Surge” – as O’Brien puts it, “the powerful movement or force of innovation” that will drive the Sheboygan County’s future. Eventually it will become a website but for now remains a small and growing platform for the people most intimately involved with FreshTech programming.

Since mid-March, The Surge has hosted weekly opportunities for local innovators to connect virtually, to get to know one another, explore challenges and ideas together and ultimately create the beginnings of the tight-knit innovation community that will drive the positive impact of the FreshTech Innovation District.

In the coming weeks, The Surge will expand its offerings to deliver content and programming to the public through virtual events, a podcast, a companion email newsletter and more.
And while the pandemic has stymied momentum in many economic areas, it’s important to stoke the flames of innovation that are flickering right now.

“When things are uncertain and unstable, that’s when innovative ideas tend to blossom because we’re in need of new norms,” O’Brien said. “The idea that seemed wild and crazy before might not seem as wild and crazy anymore. When the future is uncertain, that’s when people who are visionaries step up and say, ‘I see a future.’”

Put another way, we already had problems we were constantly working on solving. Now, a lot of those previous solutions don’t work anymore, and we have all new problems to solve besides. It’s in an environment like this when people who think outside the box really shine.

And there’s possibly nowhere more ready for that kind of thinking than Sheboygan County, said SCEDC Chairman Gary Dulmes.

“Sheboygan County has been known for its innovators and forward-thinkers for more than 100 years,” Dulmes said. “Times of crisis bring out the best in us, and I’m confident this situation will be no different. I’m excited to see where the new direction of the innovation district takes us.”

O’Brien said he suspects that the communities, companies, organizations or businesses that find motivation – “that sweet spot in the intersection of community and innovation” – will bounce back the fastest.
“This environment opens up a lot of opportunities for perception change, when people are collectively re-evaluating their principles,” he said.

And the way Sheboygan County has already responded to the development of the innovation district points to great things in the future, despite the sea change in how we approach it.

“While there were dozens of reasons prior to Covid-19 for Sheboygan County to have an intersection of community and innovation, at no other time has it been more imperative for that to happen,” O’Brien said. “Literally, it all boils down to how we respond to this as a community.”

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