In a conference call this morning with an Eastern European client we discussed the need for more and better connections and relations, and moving towards increasing trust over time between those participating in these connections. This reminded me of the little primer I wrote a number of years back, on creating or strengthening communities more purposefully. By paying attention to a range of specific aspects that we would normally not consider as part of your management toolkit. Things like rhythm, spaces, and levels of engagement, or balancing safety and excitement, variety of perspectives, and being welcoming.

It is based on the great work of Etienne Wenger concerning communities of practice, which has been a key ingredient in my consulting practices in the past 15 years or so, ever since his 2002 book Cultivating Communities of Practice.

The primer, embedded below, describes the aspects I pay attention to when hoping to strengthen community, some stemming from Wenger, some from my direct experience, and provides examples of what type of action results from it. You can also download the PDF, if you like. Do let me know if it is of use for you.

I can also recommend the book by Etienne:
Schermafbeelding 2016-02-24 om 12.27.41>
Cultivating Communities of Practice

Peter Bihr and Max Krüger have written a 43 page handbook on how to organize your own independent conference: The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook.

You can download it for free as PDF, or an e-reader friendly version for a small fee.

It’s great Peter and Max wrote down their experiences. This May when I visited their ThingsCon conference, and later that week Re:Publica, both in Berlin, I realised how long it had been that I went to a conference where I was a mere participant (which I was at these 2 events), and not somehow involved in organizing it or speaking at it. I also realized how long it has been since I visited a ‘proper’ conference.

Independent events have been the mainstay of my curriculum of professional learning. Visiting Reboot conferences in Copenhagen, SHiFT in Lisbon, the BlogTalk conferences in Vienna, a range of community initiated open data conferences across Europe (over 50 in 2011 and 2012 alone), more BarCamps than I can list, Cognitive Cities and ThingsCon by a.o. the aforementioned Peter Bihr, State of the Net in Trieste, all had one thing in common: there was no real difference between my speaking and my participating and there was no difference between the organizers and the community present.

Usually this happens,in Peter’s words, “for a simple reason: each time we were looking for an event — a focal point where we could meet like-minded people or those with shared interests — we could not find one“. Because quite often the right setting simply isn’t there, or the organizers actually don’t have your learning or interaction as a goal. Because you’re interested in emergent themes around which there isn’t enough going on yet for established conference organizers to see an opportunity. The last ‘proper’ conferences I went to on my own accord were in 2004 and 2005, when I and others proferred it is “cheaper to host your own event than visit one“. Conference and event organizing turned into just one of those things you do in your community, and for me now really requires of the organizers to have a role and be part of that community. I haven’t looked back, and all the events I visit voluntarily are indie events.

During my opening remarks at Make Stuff That Matters, birthday unconference 2014 in our home, by Paolo Valdemarin

Over the years, with others I have organized a lot of indie events as well. Examples are many workshops, the first open data barcamps in the Netherlands (which over time became the Open State Foundation), Data Drinks (now bringing together some 250 people in Copenhagen), international conferences for some 350 people in Rotterdam and Warsaw (because doing it in a city or country where you don’t reside and have no contacts gives it that little extra edge 😉 ), the global FabLab Conference in 2009 (where as additional obstacle course we opted to spread the event over 4 Dutch cities with buses transporting participants and on-board workshops), the BlogWalk series of 2004-2008 in 11 cities on 3 continents, and of course the three Birthday Unconferences Elmine and I organized right in our own home (2008, 2010, 2014).

Elmine and I were so energized from doing those birthday unconferences we created an e-book (download PDF) on how to do it. Mostly to find an outlet for that energy we felt, and as a gift to all who had been there. Even then we saw it was a welcome document although focussing on a very specific type of indie event.

How to Unconference Your Birthday e-book, properly printed and bound

And now Peter and Max have written down their experiences in the Indie Conference Organizer Handbook. This is a great gift to all of us out there visiting, participating and trying our hand at our own events. Let’s make good use of it!

Pedro's Play Session
Last year, when I turned 40, Elmine and I organized an unconference to celebrate (of course we also had a bbq party!), and we invited people from our various circles. The topic was ‘Working on Stuff that Matters‘, ‘WSTM’. Some 40 people participated in the unconference, some 20 workshops were held, and it was an event that is still giving us energy almost 18 months later.

We always wanted to create something tangible as an outcome of the event, to create an ‘Epic Sh*t Multiplier’ as we called it on the day. We created an e-book, explaining ‘how to unconference your birthday’. The text was written during the summer of 2010. A professional designer (BUROPONY in Rotterdam, hire them, they’re great!) created the book itself in May/June this year. In the past days we sent out cards to all participants of the unconference to allow them to download the book. We’ll publish the e-book itself on-line later. Right now it’s a gift for those who attended [UPDATE Pdf available for download]. A small token of our appreciation for the big gift they gave us by attending the unconference, and the energy and inspiration that is still generating for us. Thank you.

Below are some pictures giving you a sneak preview.

During the design process
Sneak Preview of Ton40-WSTM book Sneak Preview of Ton40-WSTM book Sneak Preview of Ton40-WSTM book

First edition
e-Book printing e-Book printing e-Book printing

Sending out cards to participants
E-book shipping

(Cross posted from Elmine and my newly opened Bookblog.)

Knowing Knowledge
I have been following George Siemens through his blog in the past years. Last fall his book Knowing Knowledge was published and I was asked by a Dutch association for e-learning, to review the book, shortly before it went to the presses. This review has been published in Dutch as well as English, so you can have a read overthere. In the book he explains what he calls Connectivism as a learning strategy.
Suffice to say here that what Siemens identifies as the list of skills one needs to deal with the massive abundance of information and knowledge fits completely with my own thinking on dealing with information overload and the shifting nature of knowledge work. A worthwile book. And while you’re at it, have a look a these videoclips as well.
Summing up Connectivism: Knowledge now means to be connected, learning now is connecting and building networks.
The book can also be downloaded for free. The illustrations are available through Flickr. But I find that owning it helps, as the format invites consulting it often, browsing and jumping back and forth. Not so easily done on screen. Discussion is invited on the Knowing Knowledge website.
Also there is currently an on-line conference underway with daily interesting presentations. Sheets and recordings are available as well, as well as discussion.

Usually I do not care much for books set in 19th century England. Somehow the period seems very dark to me, morally oppressive, slow and boring, and covered in the soot of burning coal and eternal fog. The literature of that time seems to ooze the same gloom. When I am in England however it seems that period is viewed there also in a different light. Viewed much more also as a golden age, when applied sciences propelled a steam powered British Empire to a position of global super power. Next to moral superiority and arrogance that must have also been a source of optimism, of belief in progress. That optimism is what is reflected in the Crystal Palace, I guess.

Over the holidays I read two books of fiction set in that period and enjoyed them both enormously. One was a gift by Elmine, a gift she made with some doubts as she knows my general dislike for the period. The other was a gift by my young niece and nephew for Christmas. I read both with a lot of pleasure. Both stories seem to tell of an age where much was in motion, and new insights were coupled and combined with old superstitions, or fought back by the overzealous. It reminds me both of the Monstertheory I blogged a good while back, as well as discussions that now rage through our newspapers and educational system as to the effects of having digital native younger generations.

The first book is ‘Arthur and George‘, by Julian Barnes, combining the life story of Arthur Conan Doyle with that of George Edalji. I knew Julian Barnes from two other titles in our book case, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Something to Declare, which I fittingly bought and read while travelling through France.

The second book is The Darwin Conspiracy, which combines the story of Darwin‘s voyage on the Beagle, the journal of one of his daughters, and the Werdegang of an American researcher. For me the theory of evolution is essential to my thinking about complexity, culture, change and even free will. It is fun to read a work of fiction around the origin of a theory the consequences of which reach far further than the realm of natural selection in biological life forms. Consequences which are widely misunderstood or even unseen, most of us not looking any further than a gross misinterpretation of the term ‘survival of the fittest’. You might guess I’ve been influenced by Daniel Dennett on this as well, having devoured his exploration of the true ‘danger‘ of Darwin’s idea.

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Looks like I am adding two books to my reading-diet today:
Dan Gillmor‘s We Media, which is available through O’Reilly, but in keeping with its message is also released for download on a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 License. Great!

And second a book by Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream, to be released later this month. During the past 18 months or so I have repeatedly heard, and said so myself, that the strength of Europe lies in leveraging its diversity. Meanwhile most discussions on industry, innovation and education seem to take the stance that we’re not good enough at emulating what the US is doing (as if that would make us world class, it would only make us second best at the most: it’s the same flaw as in adopting best practices). But while I knew we were doing the wrong things, I also didn’t know how to go about ‘celebrating diversity’. Hierarchical, and old school industrial thinking get in the way of that.
Rifkin, according to the blurb on the book, seems to postulate that European diversity and culture is much better suited to adapt to a networked society from an industrial one, as compared to the US, and significant steps already have been made. Or in other words how Europe could leapfrog over the US.

From the blurb:
The American Dream is in decline. Americans are increasingly overworked, underpaid, and squeezed for time. But there is an alternative: the European Dream-a more leisurely, healthy, prosperous, and sustainable way of life. Europe’s lifestyle is not only desirable, argues Jeremy Rifkin, but may be crucial to sustaining prosperity in the new era.
Reminds me of a conversation I head with a representative of the South African government last year where we explored the notion that Africa’s structure, largely based on communities, and also tribal thinking, (and the storytelling and master-apprentice relations that are part of it) could well be a chance to leapfrog past the EU and the US in realizing the potential of knowledge management.
A lot of Africans are totally ingrained with notions that we struggle to give a place in our industrial surroundings. (But it will also require independence from oil to really do that for them, as only that will take their debt burden to the West away and give the continent a chance to break the spiral of poverty that now chains them to our hierarchical industrial structures)
But anyway, I am curious about Rifkins ideas about how to leverage our European diversity better.