Rural Innovation in Quarantine: The Power of Virtual Events

Rural places are normally places of deep social connection, with strong communities and a powerful sense of caring for our neighbors. The COVID-related quarantine, by forcing people to stay home apart from friends and community members, has tugged at those bonds. But many rural leaders, determined to keep their communities connected and get through this crisis together, have discovered the power of virtual events. 

Virtual Event

Virtual events transcend geographic boundaries, allowing collaborators to meet and discuss ideas from anywhere in the world. They’re a way to keep people connected, to allow for the social exchanges that add an interest and spontaneity to our everyday lives that’s been lost in the routine of lockdown. And importantly for us here at CORI, virtual events give rural innovators an avenue to keep up their momentum, brainstorming and workshopping the ideas that will power our collective future. 

So, we’ve taken to hosting virtual events ourselves to connect our incredible network of rural innovators. Since the crisis hit, we’ve hosted calls with leaders from our Rural Innovation Network (RIN), and gathered those leaders for Friday afternoon virtual workshops. We even hosted a virtual event on…how to host virtual events, thanks to Trevor Barlow and the team at the Black River Innovation Campus (BRIC) who led this call.

And our RIN community partners have faced this new reality with the innovative spirit embodied by so many rural places. In Independence, Oregon, the Technology Association of Oregon, SEDCOR, Indy Commons and the City of Independence together recently hosted a (virtual) AG Innovation Challenge Design Sprint. While the challenge was, like many April events, supposed to take place in person, the team in Independence moved it online, allowing the event to go on—and even allowing more people to participate. As Cara Snow, Chief Community Engagement Officer at the Technology Association, put it, “We realized that our impact and influence could be significantly expanded with a thoughtful, virtual approach. If you are a rural community, this virtual innovation design theory is a way to literally invite the world to solve your problems.”

The event was an incredible success by all measures. Although Snow originally planned for the in-person version to have 35 people in attendance, 70 people from across the country registered for the online event, and when we were on the Zoom meeting, we could feel the innovative energy through the screen. With occasional pets popping up on screen and Snow playing an applause reel between presentations, it was a deeply enjoyable experience. Kudos to team Independence, who created a sense of community around the idea that innovative solutions can improve our food systems—something COVID is showing is urgently needed. 

What made it even better is that the winning Ag Innovation Challenge team came from yet another of our Rural Innovation Network communities. A three person team from the Kricker Innovation Hub in Portsmouth, OH, had been in the process of organizing a local startup weekend. But like everything else, it was put on hold, so Dave Kilroy and the Kricker folks looked online and found the Independence event. According to Kilroy, “I got in touch with Shawn Irvine, Economic Development Director of Independence, OR, through the Rural Innovation Network slack channel. Shawnee State University and the City of Independence, Oregon, are both part of the Rural Innovation Initiative 2020 cohort, and have strong potential to develop their local innovation economies. Shawn said this was an opportunity for them to really branch out and get more reach with this event, and since I work in a rural community as well, I really connected with a lot of the challenges.”

Team Kricker’s pitch? “Seeing the world through grape-colored glasses.” Kilroy and team developed a solution to help field workers better differentiate between ripe and almost ripe pinot noir grapes. The differences in color between a dark pink unripe grape and a purple ripe one are often evasive to the naked eye. So, they proposed creating glasses that “adjust the quantal catch of photopigments within our eyes” to highlight specific colors that the viewer would look for in almost-but-not-quite ripe grapes. This ingenious solution, projected to save about 8-10 percent in labor and training costs for field workers, won the competition. As Kilroy said, “I believe that events like this are great for being immersed in the world of entrepreneurship. I enjoy the fact that they let me test out ideas and work with some great people. Practicing helps me maintain a problem-solving outlook towards life.” 

Virtual events like these are being put on by rural innovators all across the country—and we hope that continues, in quarantine and afterwards. We asked Trevor Barlow of BRIC to share some tips for how to host successful virtual events:

  1. Do your research and speak to someone with experience running virtual events: There are a lot of details that go into the back-end planning and execution of any event, in person or online. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to prepare for your first event. If you are a member of a professional association, see if you can contact them to ask about their experience. Most national associations have been producing online events for a few years and probably have a tip or two that they will happily share.
  2. Pick the right technology platform for your content: Here are some questions to ask yourself when assessing your needs: Will you have presenter or speaker panel formats that require video feeds? Will it be a single presenter or speaker showing a slide deck? Do you envision a smaller group workshop format for collaboration and engagement? Will you be leveraging multimedia or audience engagement tools to enhance visual content and the participant experience?
  3. Set the agenda with your audience: How long will the event last (hours, days, weeks, year long series)? How many people will attend? Make sure they stay engaged and that you give them the opportunity to participate. A few hours of sitting at a screen is definitely a bit more challenging than being in a conference hall or meeting room. Have fun with it and be creative. 
  4. And a bonus tip: Practice, practice, practice. Be sure to do test runs and get to know the ins and outs or your technology before going live. And also, have a backup plan for presenters, speakers and participants in case anyone experiences technology issues during the event. We promise this will save you a lot of headaches!

No matter where you are, so long as you have an idea (and a good broadband connection), you can bring people together to build community and solve problems. We’re so looking forward to seeing the virtual events that you come up with! 

To learn more about CORI, our network communities, and the virtual work we’re seeing across the country, sign up for our newsletter here

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