SANDESTIN, Fla. – An eye chart greeted the more than 500 business and community leaders in the region at the 23rd annual Gulf Power Economic Symposium with the theme, “2020 See Beyond.”

It’s a clear vision that is being shared over the two-day symposium, which is one of the longest-standing conferences in the region that focuses on Northwest Florida’s economic future.

“It goes beyond just making something different,” said Gulf Power Company President Marlene Santos. “We must see beyond the perceived roadblocks and barriers that can make dreams and aspirations seem impossible. We have to move beyond to take advantage of the open doors of opportunities where barriers are broken and transformation is born.”

Santos opened the event by sharing how Gulf Power is transforming the way it does business. Among the changes include adding solar energy centers, converting its power plants to cleaner energy and improving reliability.

“We’re making smart investments on behalf of our customers that are delivering cleaner energy, more reliable service and an enhanced customer experience, with the ultimate goal of lowering costs for our customers,” Santos said.

Opening speaker, Mike Walsh, CEO of Tomorrow, a global consulting firm whose new book is “The Algorithmic Leader,” advises company leaders on how to thrive in the current era of disruptive technological change.

Walsh calls himself a futurist, but says the future is now. Data algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) are the key drivers.

“We are at the dawn of a new age,” he said. “Data algorithms are not just some gimmick that finds your friends on Facebook. It will determine the shape of our lives.”

He shared several examples of how China is already changing toward the future because of the coronavirus outbreak that started in that country. He said China has developed new forms of delivery without human contact as a large portion of business offices remained closed; school classes are livestreaming instruction to children who are staying at home; and the country is shifting to digital commerce and currency.

“It’s changing the interactions with our world,” Walsh said. “I think we’re going to live in a world of seamlessly orchestrated personal experience made possible through new AI platforms capable of continuous learning and adaption. That will change our experiences in everything.”

He said jobs will be constantly changing over the next five years and that people will have jobs in the near future that don’t even exist today. The key, he said, is to think 10 times more, rather than 10% more.

“We’ve got to think about the forces being marshaled today in pushing things forward,” he said. “Are you doing enough to prepare your coworkers and employees to change? What is your 10 times idea?”

Amy Holloway, founder and CEO of Avalanche Consulting, talked about next generation economic development.

“Successful communities all have one thing in common — they value and encourage partnerships,” she said. “There’s power in partnerships and that’s the next generation of economic development. They’re willing to bring people to the table and solve problems together.”

Holloway then moderated a panel on economic development in action that included panelists Bill Hafner, chief integration officer for ST Engineering; Dr. Rick Harper, economic adviser of Triumph Gulf Coast; and Scott Luth, president and CEO of FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance. They discussed the creative partnerships that were leveraged to bring ST Engineering, an aircraft maintenance company, to Pensacola.

“We had 30 to 40 different partners participate in the project,” Luth said. “We had to identify where the strengths of each one were and how do we work together to make it work.”

Other scheduled speakers Thursday included a panel on “Being Community Placemakers” that featured moderator Kate McEnroe, owner of Kate McEnroe Consulting, and panelists Jay Odom, founder of Jay Odom Group, and Andrew Rothfeder, president of Studer Properties; and a panel on Seeing Beyond Traditional Talent Strategies that featured moderator Dr. Irvin Clark, associate dean of Faculty Development and Administrative Affairs at Florida State University Panama City, and panelists Dr. Kimberly Krupa, executive director of Achieve Escambia, Glen McDonald, vice president of Strategic Projects & Economic Development at Gulf Coast State College, Kelly Reeser, managing director of TechFarms, and Nathan Sparks, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County.

The Symposium continues on Friday. Among the speakers will be Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez providing the State of Florida Economic Development and John Henderson, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy discussing the future of Tyndall Air Force Base and other issues facing the bases in Northwest Florida.

For more information on the symposium, visit

Event Photos