Summit gives voice to creative community

After a nine-hour day of presentations, conversations and collaborations at the 2014 Creative Milwaukee @ Work Summit, Maggie Jacobus will steer the creative community ahead to spark action out of dialogue.

The third annual Creative Milwaukee @ Work Summit, held last Friday at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, blended the expertise of a cross sector of creative professionals to assess issues that need solving in order to maximize the effectiveness of 4th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, The Commons and the Digital Billboard Art Project.

The signature event, which explored each issue through the lens of creative problem solving, was as messy as it was productive and gave creatives a seat at the table of top economic and community development concerns.

That seat reinforces the heart of Creative Alliance Milwaukee’s mission to raise the visibility of the creative community and the value of creativity as critical to the city’s future and economic prosperity, Jacobus said.

The conference was the first time Ray Boynes, co-founder and creative director of Festival City, witnessed creative professionals feeding ideas to Milwaukee’s power structure.

“It was different and it was exciting for me,” said Boynes, who also served as a co-chair of the event.

After a stream of presentations highlighting the process of creative problem solving, local case studies of creative problem solving at work, and overviews of the three development issues, the summit broke attendees into interactive workshops zeroed in on each issue.

The conversations that erupted in those spaces are advancing in lab sessions hosted by experience design studio and idea center Translator in order to “sustain the momentum,” said Mark Fairbanks, co-founder of Translator and a lead presenter and organizer of the 2014 summit.

4th and Wisconsin

As Creative Alliance Milwaukee forges ahead with the Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee Development Corp. Limited Liability Co. on ideas for the fate of 4th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, the organization collected the input of summit attendees through a workshop focused on patterns.

Through a revitalization initiative dubbed “4MKE,” Creative Alliance Milwaukee has already identified the problem at the heart of 4th and Wisconsin and needs to find a solution for the plot that will effectively take into account people, place, moving pieces and investment, Jacobus said.

But the problem to be solved extends well beyond the boundaries of 4th and Wisconsin.

The real question is “What is it like to be in Westown right now?” said Chris Socha, project architect at The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc., which has voluntarily analyzed the site and identified patterns of development that need to be implemented.

“(Westown is) an environment that has kind of languished over the years because of its built structure,” said Socha, who presented the firm’s findings.

The reason the area is so dead has everything to do with the way the built fabric has emerged over the years, Socha said.

Moving forward, the site at 4th and Wisconsin must be knit back into the community and connected with sites where activity is flourishing, Socha said, adding that Westown also needs to stimulate new nodes of activity.

Among the patterns that need to be written into the infrastructure of downtown Milwaukee are pedestrian continuity and short blocks.

According to The Kubala Washatko Architects, research reveals that as block size extends past 200 by 200 feet, “the vitality of street life diminishes.”

Milwaukee is plagued by “superblocks” of development that need to be broken up into “smaller, more human-scale parcels,” according to the firm, and alleys and nooks need to be converted into public use spaces.

Armed with the firm’s findings, workshop participants completed a mapping exercise that allowed them to experiment with ways these more effective development patterns could be applied to Milwaukee. Participants also had an opportunity to design a new use for 4th and Wisconsin.

The majority of designs favored a mixed use solution, Socha said, in order to create multiple purposes for people to frequent the space.

Ideas conjured at the workshop will be fleshed out at a Nov. 4 Translator lab and will eventually be presented to WAM DC LLC for more serious consideration.

The Commons

As The Commons establishes a permanent home and prepares for the launch of its pilot program in November, the nonprofit startup accelerator is seeking more effective ways to solicit feedback from its stakeholders, which includes students, institutions, businesses, mentors and donors.

Central to the accelerator’s progress is the question of how to tap stakeholders for feedback “in creative but meaningful ways” beyond standard tools like surveys, according to Michael Hostad, executive director of Innovation in Milwaukee (MiKE) and co-founder of The Commons.

As workshop participants at the summit sought answers to the need for a stronger feedback loop, they used prototyping to more clearly illustrate potential solutions. The creative problem solving tool offers a visual outlet for solutioning as it helps users think in three dimensions and explore concepts that can’t be dissected through discussion, according to Emily Callaghan, director of innovation learning at Johnson Controls, Inc. and head of The Commons’ workshop.

Through prototyping, workshop attendees used markers, sticky notes, wooden blocks, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and plastic cups to construct solutions for more effective feedback channels.

Among the ideas that emerged was a more direct communication flow between The Commons’ startup students and the presidents of the universities engaged in the accelerator. Through this approach to communication, startup students would pitch their ideas right to their university presidents so that presidents could relay their feedback as well as better understand the tangible results coming out of the program.

Hostad said a light bulb went off for him.

“The groups that worked on the challenge thought about the problem in a different way than we had been thinking about it, which is exactly what I was hoping for,” he said.

Moving forward, Hostad is consulting a working group tasked with rolling out The Commons. Conversations will also continue to build at a Nov. 13 Translator lab.

“I think that looking at everything that we do in a creative way helps us to kind of get outside of our comfort zone sometimes and really look at problems from a different viewpoint,” Hostad said.

The Digital Billboard Art Project

To inject more art into the city, Creative Alliance Milwaukee is taking the lead on resurrecting a large-scale art project rolled out over 10 days last fall. The initiative displayed works of art on digital billboards throughout Milwaukee.

Creative Alliance Milwaukee is currently exploring what to do with a collection of billboards provided by Lamar Advertising Company and Clear Channel Outdoor.

“What are we trying to solve specifically with this opportunity?” is the question at the heart of project discussions, Jacobus said.

During the workshop, attendees used storytelling as a tool to analyze the power of art in communicating social issues and community concerns.

The conversations from that workshop continued in a Translator lab held Sunday, when close to 20 people, mostly from the summit, gathered to discuss the direction of the art project.

Creative Alliance Milwaukee is still very much in discovery mode with the project, said Jacobus, who plans to facilitate conversations with a cross sector of Milwaukee’s creative community and the community at large to crystallize the focus of the art initiative.

BizTimes Media served as a sponsor of this year’s Creative Milwaukee @ Work Summit. For more information on the upcoming Translator lab sessions, visit

Erica Breunlin is a staff reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee.

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