Early September the Copenhagen Techfestival will take place for the third time. It brings over 20.000 people together for over 200 events during three days, to together explore, discuss and create the future of technology.

Having had to decline invitations for the first two events, I’m joining the Techfestival 150 during this year’s event. Thank you to the organisers for their tenacity in asking me for the third year in a row. This time I was better prepared, having blocked my calendar as soon as the dates were announced.

The Copenhagen Techfestival 150 is a thinktank of 150 people that convenes during the festival. It created the The Copenhagen Letter in 2017, the Copenhagen Catalog in 2018, and this year the aim is to formulate the Copenhagen Pledge, a set of guidelines for anyone working in or with tech to commit to.

It’s been a good while since I was in Copenhagen last, I had wanted to join the previous Techfestivals already, so I look forward to getting back to CPH and fully submerge myself in the Techfestival (described to me as ‘Reboot at scale’).

The Austrian Open Knowledge Chapter is dissolving itself (link in German), a decision already made at a general assembly in December 2018. Judging by the website activities had petered out in recent years, the blog falling silent at the end of 2017.

Austria over the years has been an active country concerning open government data and open knowledge in general. Specifically I see the Austrian open data community as a globally relevant good practice example, one that I still regularly refer to. Already in 2010, when I spoke at an open data meet-up in Graz, and in subsequent years presenting at OGD Austria conferences and various other events, what stood out to me was the broad scope the Austrian open data community had. Academia, activists, the federal chancellery, state governments, city governments, start-ups, technologists and traditional re-users were all around the same table. Informal get-togethers and resulting relations formed a basis on which more formal structures and cooperative initiatives could grow. I think such a solid community fundament is the key reason Austria was able to achieve a lot on open data in the absence of any legal framework to actively stimulate it, moreover with a constitution that enshrines civil service secrecy.

For a few years I was quite well informed about the Austrian efforts, through regular visits, and regular calls between German speaking community leaders from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and me as the odd one out. Over time my connection grew more distant however.

With Open Knowledge Austria ceasing to exist, a chapter ends. I suspect the community substrate on which it could exist will endure, even if events, individual members lives and contexts are always in flux around us. It is laudable that OK Austria is actively deciding to dissolve. Organisations all too easily stumble into the pitfall that continued existence becomes the organisation’s primary goal. By dissolving, as Stefan Kasberger, OK Austria’s chair, wrote, one releases its hold on specific topics and niches in an ecosystem, and it becomes possible for new things to emerge over time.

Linz, OGD Austria
At the 2012 OGD Austria conference in Linz, a wall at the venue carried the text, near the floor obviously, “Above starts down below”. It seemed a good description of how the Austrian open data efforts were based on solid bottom-up community building to me at the time.

Peter in his circle of friendsPeter in his circle of friends at the start of Crafting {:} a Life (image by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA license

When the first Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, went to space on the D1 mission he had a clear goal. Earlier astronauts upon returning to earth had all responded to the question how it was to see the entire earth from above, our blue ball in the black void, with things like “Great”, “Very moving”, “So very beautiful”. Ockels was determined to find a better description for the experience, by preparing for it, by more consciously observing and reflecting while up there. Yet when he came back he realised all he could say was “So very beautiful” as well. There was no way for him to put the layering, depth and richness of the experience in words that would actually fully convey it.

Experiencing an unconference can be like that. It certainly took me about a week to come back down to earth (and overcome the jet-lag) after spending a handful of days on Prince Edward Island in a somewhat parallel universe, Peter‘s Crafting {:} a Life unconference with around 50 of his friends and connections.

Here too, the description “it was great” “it was beautiful” is true but also empty words. I heard several of the other participants comment it was “life changing” for them, and “the start of something momentous on PEI”. I very well understand that sentiment, but was it really? Can it really be that, life changing?

I have heard the same feedback, ‘life changing’, about our events as well. Particularly the 2014 edition. And I know the ripples of those events have changed the lives of participants in smaller and bigger ways. Business partnerships formed, research undertaken, lasting friendships formed. I recognise the emotions of the natural high a heady mix of deep conversations, minds firing, freedom to explore, all around topics of your own interest can create. I felt very much in flow during an hours long conversation at Crafting {:} a Life for instance.

Reboot had that impact on me in 2005, reinforced by the subsequent editions. Those multiple editions created a journey for me. Bringing students there in 2009, because I was one of the event’s sponsors, was certainly life changing for them. It spoilt them for other types of events, and triggered organising their own events.
In a certain way Crafting {:} a Life brought the Reboot spirit to PEI, was a sort of expression of Reboot as it included half a dozen connections that originated there in 2005. Similarly I feel our own unconferences are attempts at spreading the Reboot spirit forward.

What makes it so? What makes one say ‘life changing’ about an event? Space to freely think, building on each other’s thoughts, accepting the trade-off that if your pet topics get discussed others will do other things you may not be interested in. Meeting patience while you formulate your (half-baked) thoughts. That is something that especially has been important in the experience of teenagers that took part in our events, and I think for Oliver too. That everyone is participating in the same way, that age or background doesn’t somehow disqualify contributions, and being treated as having an equal stake in being there.

How do you get to such a place? I find it’s mixing the informal/human with the depth and content normally associated with formalisation.

What made Peter’s event work for instance was the circle at the start.
The room itself was white and clinical to start in, and people were huddled in the corner seeking the warmth of the coffee served there. The seating arrangement however meant everyone had to walk the circle on the inside to find their seat. Then once seated, after welcoming words, there was music by one of the participants who offered it, first a reflective and then an upbeat song. This in aggregate made the room the group’s room, made it a human room. The post-its on the wall after the intro round led by Elmine increased that sense of it being our room, and the big schedule on the wall we made together completed it. Now it was our own central space for the event.

Splitting the event over two days and marking both days differently (meeting/talking, and doing) worked well too. It meant people weren’t coming back for the same thing as yesterday, but had something new to look forward to with the same measure of anticipating the unknown as the first day. While already having established a shared context, and new connections the day before.

The result was, to paraphrase Ockels, “great”. Clark, one of our fellow participants, found a few more and better words:

Crafting {:} a Life was a breath of fresh air. The unconference dispensed with pretension, titles or faux expertise. Everyone had for the most part a chance to share their story, contribute, and talk. While some asked what I did for a living, it was only after all other avenues of discussion were explored. For the most part one-to-one conversations were much like what I had with Robert Paterson, (“What is Clark’s story” he asked) open ended, personal, and with the ability to discover new things about the other. The activities emphasized small groups and there was no “oh my God my PPT is out of order what will we talk about” that I myself have fallen victim to. There was music, laughter, food and tears. It was genuine, …

I think that goes to the heart of it. It was genuine, the format didn’t deny we are human but embraced it as a key element. And in the space we created there was way more room than usually at events to be heard, to listen. And most of all: space to share the enormous gift of two days worth of your focused attention.

I feel it is that that makes these events stand out. Most other events don’t do that for its participants: Space for focused attention, while embracing your humanity. Reboot did that, it even had a kindergarten on site and people brought their kids e.g. But that approach is very scarce. It needn’t be. It also needn’t be an unconference to create it. A conversation, dinner party, or other occasion might just as well. (I found that video btw on a blog in the rss feeds of one of the participants, which seems apt).

On our way home Elmine suggested doing a second edition of our e-book ‘How to unconference your birthday’ (PDF). I think that is a very good idea, as Peter and us now have experience from both being an organiser and a participant, and we have now several additional events worth of experiences to draw upon. We created the first edition as a gift and memento to all participants of our 2010 edition, the 2nd such event we did and the first we did in our home. A decade on a second edition seems fitting.

20190608_084935Walking to the market

I’ve just woken up after a great Day 2 of Peter’s Crafting {:} a Life unconference. Nominally the day was more about doing, where the first day was more about meeting and talking. We started with a walk from Peter Catherine and Oliver’s home to the Charlottetown Farmers Market. There I enjoyed a second breakfast of tasty crab cake, a lovely salmon bagel and good espresso. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we chatted both during the walk and outside the Farmers Market.

20190608_093459Peter, Oliver and Ethan holding court

One of the participants has access to a bus so he drove us back to the ‘campus’ where we all gathered again to build the program for the day together. A fantastic line-up of things ranging from ‘blood memories’ , the history of Peter’s home and surrounding houses (including daguerrotypes), drinking your first ever cup of coffee (and the life changing story behind it), to drawing fantasy maps.
I suggested doing a session on blogging, building on Day 1’s conversations about what happened to blogging, and the future of blogging. It ended up on the schedule for the afternoon.

20190608_110318Olle starting the fantasy cartography session

The rest of the morning I spent with a small group of people at the harbour location of Receiver Coffee, where two of us had their first ever cup of coffee (“I never deliberately put a bitter thing in my mouth with the intention to enjoy it”). Around the coffee we had a fascinating conversation of the seismic consequences of leaving a prescriptive strict organised religious community. The methods, tactics and tools I use in working with groups a lot, in order to create a space for collective change to happen, to build connections and community, essentially can be and are being used to introduce and maintain power differences, isolate groups etc. It’s as if a tool you see as fit for beautiful craftsmanship is deployed to stab someone.

20190608_113054 Garden conversationa first coffee, and back yard conversation

After lunch I sat down with a handful of people in Peter’s back yard for a session on IndieWeb tools and how they can breathe life back into blogging by taking control over your own content and the tools to connect you to others. For lack of laptops and because of bright sunlight, we talked more than we did things. And because of a bit of confusion around the schedule a larger group joined us an hour later under the assumption that was the correct starting time. But those ‘glitches’ worked out fine, as whoever is here are the right people, and whatever we talk about is the right topic. At first we talked about the IndieWeb tools and underlying standards and intentions, and examples of how that works out in practice (or doesn’t). From there we looped through an enormous variety of topics, from filling moments with listening to podcasts, to lifehacks, to getting transcripts of YouTube videos to parenting, reading to elderly people to improve quality of life, to instagram posers, grooming and language, and much much more. The free flow of the conversation with people drifting in and out, went on for some 4 hours effortlessly. People were taking notes but not disengaging on their phones. For me this session was worth the entire trip on its own, I was in flow. There’s much I still need to tease out for myself, to go back into the conversation and pick on a few strands to explore further, but right now it’s enough for me to admire the shape of the ephemeral construct we put together in that back yard. I came out sun burned not having noticed it in the conversational flow.

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Pre-dinner waiting time was filled with terrific oysters. It had been a long time since I had them, and the last time was of the ‘here’s a bit of salty watery snot’ variety. These were fresh, we’re on an island after all, delicate of taste and very meaty. A local chef then served a nice bbq burger meal, after singing an Irish dedication song to us. More music followed.

20190608_184013pre-dinner rush to finish the first draft

Elmine had been working on writing a story during the day, which she plotted together with Rob Paterson, and she read out the first finished draft in front of not just the 50 people who participated in the unconference, but also their partners, families and others who had joined us for dinner. It must be daunting to stand up and read aloud something you created just now, and of which the ink isn’t even dry yet. Leaving half the audience brushing away a tear, it was great. I also felt it completed the circle of our own participation. Elmine led us through the first exercise on Day 1 where we told each other stories, and now she rounded it off with reading us all a story inspired by the family who brought us together in and around their home. When Peter thanked Elmine and they embraced, that was the moment I felt myself release the space I opened up on Day 1 when I helped the group set the schedule. Where the soap bubble we blew collapsed again, no longer able to hold the surface tension. I felt a wave of emotions wash through me, which I recognise from our own events as well. The realisation of the beauty of the collective experience you created, the connections made, the vulnerability allowed, the fun had, the playfulness. We wound down from that rush chatting over drinks in the moon lit back yard.

Thank you Peter for bringing us all to PEI for a few days of, as you wrote earlier, the simple act of spending time together talking about life for a while. Crafting a life is in part about crafting shared experiences. This most definitely was one.

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Today was day 1 of the Crafting {:} a Life unconference that our friend Peter is organising on Prince Edward Island. It was a fun and wonderful day.
It was a novel experience, doing an unconference party like this as a participant. Elmine and I have always been on the other side, the persons convening a group of our friends and connections in our home for the event. Then you know all of those there, although most participants won’t know each other. Today it was like the latter for me, half a dozen familiars, and 40 or more people you never met. Peter said when he picked us up at the airport “you are the only two people in the world who know in what position I am right now.” The flip side of that is I’ve learned what all of you who participated in our events knew all along, how it is to participate.

20190607_084854Before the start, the circle of chairs waiting for us

Both Elmine and I did take some role in today’s events. In the run-up we chatted with Peter to provide feedback and share some of our previous experiences. And today, we helped set the scene. After Peter’s welcoming words and intro, some songs by Michael, and a welcome from Oliver, Elmine took the group through an introductory exercise. It was a version of the ‘anecdote circle lite‘ we did ourselves last summer. Groups of 5 or 6 would talk about “something you crafted or created that you’re most proud of, gave you most pleasure or was the most fun to do.” It is a good way to get to know some of the other participants while doing away with the usual ‘I’m John, and I’m the X at Y company”, of which nothing ever gets remembered when 40 people do that one after another. Now I’ve learned about veterinarian training on PEI, who created the most recent official PEI atlas (and whose name because of that will be remembered centuries from now because those official atlases are kept and cared about), and the pleasure you feel making something with your hands when your regular work is coding. While one was telling their story the others would write down what stood out for them. All those notes served as a source of reference and inspiration for the rest of the day.

Crafting {;} a Life Crafting {;} a Life

Next Peter and I guided the group through building the program. I opened the space and invited people to propose topics or sessions, and when enough others showed interest it would go on the schedule. After the first sessions and lunch, and later in the afternoon we returned to the schedule so people could add things, and use their earlier experiences in the day to suggest new additions to the schedule. With the instruction to be curious, follow your energy and your feet to where you feel engaged, and have fun the participants were off.

20190607_173005the schedule as it emerged during the day

I attended sessions on constructive approaches to local climate adaptation efforts, the role of arts in social movements, a conversation on what happened to blogging, burn-out avoidance strategies, the future we see / want to see for blogging, and how to start and not to start a creative hub and maker space. I would have loved to also join a session on ‘phone nerding’ and the ‘death café’ but you can only be in one spot at any given time. I feel that the fact that this is all taking place on an island with a tight-knit community, gives a special flavor to the event. The sea is a natural boundary to the community and who counts as part of it, and there’s a strong sense of all being into it together. That also showed yesterday evening when Elmine and I found ourselves discussing the impact of AirBnb and other pressures on the local housing market, with some people at a bar, one of whom turned out to be the city counsellor responsible for that subject.

20190607_161502envisioning the future of blogging in Peter and Catherine’s back yard

We ended with pizza and some drinks. Tomorrow we will return for day 2, which will be focused on doing, where today was more about meeting and talking. Some ideas for what to do already emerged during this day. I will likely do something around the indieweb with the others interested in having a personal site away from the silos. But first sleep, and breakfast on the Charlottetown Farmers Market tomorrow.

Yesterday I realised once again the importance of watching how others work with their tools. During the demo’s of what people worked on during IndieWebCamp Utrecht I was watching remotely as Frank demoed his OPML importer for Microsub servers. At some point he started sending messages to his Microsub server’s API, and launched Postman for it. It was the first takeaway from his demo. I decided to look Postman up, install it, and resolved to blog about the importance about sharing your set-up and showing people your workflows.

Then Peter independently, from a different cause, beat me to it with “You do it like that?”.

So consider this reinforcement of that message!