Category Archives: Complexity

More Fun Than Annual Class Trip: Making at School, Some First Observations

In the past weeks I’ve been part of a team working with a class of 10/11 year olds, as an experiment around increasing agency with 21st century digital skills, under the title Impact through Connection. In this I’m partnering with the NHL (university of applied sciences), and the regional Frisian library BSF, with some funding coming from the Dutch Royal Library as part of their Vision Mediasavviness 2016-2018 program. The experiment centered around helping the group to identify communal issues, situations they would like to change, and then to develop ideas and realize them. So that the group ‘gets’ that with various making and other machines and instruments, they have the agency, have the power, to change their surroundings for themselves as a group.

Since January we’ve been meeting with the school’s team, and then weekly 6 times with the class of 22 children. It was loads of fun, not just for the kids involved. The highest compliment we received was that one of them said “this is more fun than the annual school trip”. Another remarked feeling sorry that all other classes had to work, while they were making stuff. We pointed out that they too were working very hard, but differently, and that having fun does not mean you’re not working.

Yesterday we’ve had the final session, ending with presentations of the things they built (such as phone covers for phone-types that aren’t otherwise available, a way to look under water, a class room MP3 player for audiobooks, games, computer controlled door locks, a candy machine, a robot to counteract bullying, websites documenting the process, and a money system for the school).

Afterwards I returned home and jotted down a list of observations to reflect on. We plan to do a similar experiment with a group of adults from the same neighborhood as the school serves, as well as will aim to replicate it for other school classes.

First, for context, the order of the sessions we did.
Session 1: group discussion about the children’s environment, things they would like to change, ideas for making things they had. Resulted in a ‘wall of ideas’, ordered from ‘looks less hard to do’, to ‘looks harder to do’.
Session 2: getting to know maker machines (3d printers, laser cutters, electronics, etc.), by bringing the machines to the class room, and parking the Frysklab Mobile FabLab out front.
Session 3: getting to know programming (using Micro:bits, all the children got one to keep)
Session 4: Diving deeper in to the idea now they have a notion of what is possible with the machines and material available, using a canvas to think about what the idea solves, whom it is for, what part of the idea to zoom in on, and who in their own social network could help them realize it.
Session 5: building prototypes (again with Frysklab parked outside)
Session 6: building prototypes and presenting results

In non-specific order here are some of the raw observations I made in the past weeks, that we can further elaborate and chew on, to create the next iteration of this experiment.

On the process (time, time time!):

  • The school team school was extremely supportive, and the teacher showed enormous flexibility. She rearranged her normal class schedule extensively to ensure we had more time than we thought possible.
  • The process we designed worked, but we could have spent more time and attention to several parts of it.
  • The process worked in the sense that we got everyone to make things, and have them dive deep beyond the initial magic and wow of 3d-printing and laser cutters
  • We asked them to map out the groups they belonged to, and both their own and their classmate’s skills. We spent too little time to do that properly and to use it fruitfully in the process afterwards
  • We didn’t succeed in our original plan to bring the group to defining one or a few projects that were less person and more group focussed (except for the kid that designed a currency system for the school), and then select parts of that on which individuals or small groups could work. It seems we would need to spend more effort in the run-up to the cycle of sessions to do that properly
  • Working with a pool of people with specific domain knowledge that we could bring in when needed worked very well and strengthened the results
  • I used a canvas to help the group get to better defined projects, and while it worked, the steps in filling the canvas could have been better defined. Now some raced ahead, without key information for the next bits, while I worked with others to take the first few steps
  • The overall process hasn’t become clear to the group as a distinct shape, I think. Although that would enable them to design their own projects on their own (more on that later)
  • Having the children present their work to the group at the end was fun, useful and a good way to bring everything together again

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Two filled out canvases

On our team and the teacher

  • When we look at Making, we see how it is different from what was before, how all of a sudden ‘anyone’ can do things that took specialised machines and factories earlier, and how that changes the dynamics of it all. The children don’t see it that way, because they don’t have that history. Although that history is the source of our own fascination it is not the fascination you can confer to the children, as it is by definition a meaningless comparison to them.
  • Our large pool of people to help out was necessary to be able to provide adequate guidance. Even if adding 5-7 adults to a classroom feels like a lot.
  • More clearly articulating to the group which roles team members help might be helpful (e.g. I don’t know my way around the Frysklab truck, but still got asked a lot by the kids about it. I solved it by saying, I don’t know either, let’s go find out together)
  • The teacher could likely have a more defined role during the sessions (other than trying to keep a semblance of order), maybe also in building the bridges to other parts of the curriculum in the run-up?
  • We had several preparatory meetings with the teacher and others inthe school
  • There’s a lot I can’t do (too little experience with the machines to have internalized all routines, my own thinking is often too little visual and too much textual) It’s partly a pro as well (as it makes it easy for me to led the child lead the thinking proces, as I don’t have answers either)

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At work in the FabLab truck, and 3d printers chugging away

The path the children took

  • Large differences within the group, also in self-image, means very different speeds within the process (‘I don’t think there’s something I am really really good at’)
  • Finding out that the path from your fantasy to making it tangible reality contains disappointments (what is possible, what is realistic within time given, how does a result compare to what you imagined at first), and finding or not finding ways to surmount that disappointment
  • Not everyone was able to visualize from their ideas towards the parts that make up the whole, or different aspects and steps
  • Enormous richness in ideas, but sometimes very narrowly focussed
  • It is very important to build a bridge from the classroom project to at home (“can I take this home” “but this is something I can’t do at home”). Part of the empowerment lies here. (Also as they proudly told and partly mobilized their parents for their ideas as well)
  • They willingly left us their projects so the Frysklab team could show them on a national conference the day after the last session, after promising to return their projects soon

Visible impact and affect during the sessions

  • Really listening to ideas and trying think them through, remembering what they said about it 3 weeks earlier, is a boost in empowerment for the kids in itself
  • Children don’t have as many experience based associations and ‘hooks’ to listen to our stories, so examples are needed
  • Examples from ‘nearby’, such as the kid with a 3d printed hand prosthetic living in the neighbouring province are therefore very valuable. We need to collect many more of them.
  • Such appealing examples may also aid in bringing across the process and thinking model itself better
  • Giving everyone a Micro:bit during the process therefore turned Jeroen into a hero of everyone in the room (loud cheers!)
  • Taking things home is a source of pride
  • Other classes were jealous of this group
  • The group quickly build attachment to the team (where is Ton? Cheers when a team member arrives a bit late)
  • Concepts like ‘prototyping’ are hard, and zooming in on something small and maintaining attention is too

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Some of the created projects

The making itself

  • Robots! At first almost everyone wanted to build robots (to clean their room e.g.)
  • Things for yourself, versus things for the group. As said, before the making we likely need to build a ‘ramp’ towards more communal oriented projects
  • The realization for the chidren that things take time, can be complicated. That it isn’t magic but actual work
  • The dawning notion that programming means cutting everything into tiny ‘stupid’ steps (‘like explaining it to my 3 yr old sibling’)
  • Software is equated to computers and phones. That things that don’t look like computers can be programmed, and that hard- and software are getting merged more and more (cars, IoT, robots) takes time to land
  • Likewise ‘making’ is connected to hardware, objects and software mostly. Creating ‘systems’ or ‘processes’ is a novel concept (except for the currency making project). Challenging systems is like a fish changing the water it swims in.
  • Similarly for most, their actual environment (the street, the neighborhood, city etc, are also like ‘water’ and mostly perceived as immutable. Measuring things in your environment and acting on it was notably absent in the ideas
  • The attention span needed to zoom in on a small part at a deep enough level to be able to apply it is pretty hard to maintain
  • Building websites to document projects is an essential part the children came up with themselves. Needs to become a standard component of the process.

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Presenting results

Other circumstantial elements

  • Searching online for examples and useful material (like code snippets) can be a stronger part of the process (as answer to the frequent question “but how can I do that?”). Means paying attention to searching skills.
  • The mentioned websites can contribute to that by collecting links to resources etc.
  • Data collections didn’t play a role (likely as there were no ‘sensing’ projects), but could be a resource in other iterations
  • E-mail is not available to all children (not allowed to, don’t want to give out their parents e-mail), but often needed to register for online coding and making tools, or to create a website. Providing throw-away e-mails, like I personally do with 33Mail, is something to add to our toolkit.

Gathering the group for the final group picture

(more pics here in this Dutch language posting by the Frisian library and Frysklab team)

New Experiment: Working on Agency in a School Class

In the coming weeks I will be working with a Dutch school class (group 7, so 10/11 yr olds), in collaboration with the Provincial Library Friesland and their FryskLab team (a mobile FabLab).

Last summer I wrote a series of postings on how I see a path to significantly increase agency for various group in various contexts, if we succeed in lowering the adoption threshold for existing technologies and techniques. Then any group can recombine those technologies and techniques to create a desired impact in their own contexts and environment.

With a little bit of funding from the Dutch Royal Library, the Provincial Library Friesland and me will work with a school class of the Dr. Algraschool and later with people in a neighborhood to put that model to the test.

In collaboration with the NHL, a university for applied sciences, we will use the results of the experiment to propose a follow-up project as part of the NHL’s lectorate on ‘agile craftsmanship’.

The first session is Wednesday, where we will start with the class to discuss the type of things they would like to change or improve around themselves, and what capabilities they feel they themselves and classmates have. In a follow-up session we will combine those ideas and their talents with the facilities of FryskLab, and then work with the children to build their own prototypes, solutions and projects.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long time since I worked with primary school kids. Back in 2007 I worked with 12 primary schools to integrate digital literacies in their regular lessons, where we explored what children were already doing online, and how schools could help guide that, and build on it in their lessons. And it will definitely be a pleasure to work with the FryskLab crew (who were such a great addition to our 2014 Make Stuff That Matters birthday unconference)

Frysklab in da house!
The FryskLab mobile FabLab, parked in front of our home, 2014

On Agency: Summary and My Manifesto

Now that I’ve formulated my overall perspective on Agency (part 1 on distributedness, part 2 on defining networked agency, part 3 on technology needs), this is a summary of the key points and their consequences. Half of these are general insights, condensed from what I’ve been exposed to and absorbed in the past 10-15 years or so. These points are why it matters. The novel combinations I think I contribute (marked in bold) provide the ‘how’ to that ‘why’ by delivering the agency towards increasing our agency. These points form my manifesto to act upon.

The key points in summary are:

  1. The agency deficit and potential.
    There are many issues where many people recognize they need or should find different solutions, because existing structures are failing, but do not see a viable path towards action for themselves. This is the current agency deficit. At the same time many existing tools and instruments are underused because of barriers to entry or the form in which they are currently available. This is the agency potential.
  2. The potential of distributedness.
    Distributed digital networks are similarly structured to human networks. Hierarchies and hubs superimposed on a distributed network are rigid edge cases that don’t fully use the flexibility distributed networks can provide. Human networks can more successfully use technology when the same type of flexibility and fluidity is present in the technology used. This is the path to agency.
  3. The relevant unit of agency is a person plus related group in context
    The unit of agency to consider is not the individual on her own, nor a general ‘target’ group, but the combination of a person and the subset of meaningful relationships for a real and given context. Agency is networked. That way both the individual’s capabilities and perspectives as well as those of the relationships involved can be leveraged. This means that to discuss agency it needs to be done for specific contexts, and with knowledge of the relationships involved. No generic answers are possible, although examples are.
  4. Networked agency is the sum of striking power, resilience and agility
    Because your context does not exist in a vacuum but in a global network of other contexts and connections, agency is not merely about what you can do in your context (striking power), but also how you can mitigate (resilience) or leverage (agility) the consequences of things propagating to you from outside of it
  5. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ technology need to be always used in combination
    Methods and processes that take human networks as a given in how we act, organize and learn (community building, networking, complexity management etc), in combination with distributed hard technology / science is the relevant scope of technology to consider. Not just ‘real’ tech. This combination is how you create the needed bridge and conduit between the digital and us humans, out of the combinations agency emerges.
  6. Technologies need to be ‘smaller‘ than us, barriers lowered
    We need to seek out, recombine, or create expressions of that technology that allows the context specific user group involved to deploy, alter, and trust or control it, without barriers to entry based on money, expert knowledge, or time consumption. This often means making the technology truly distributed, such that local expressions of it are independently possible in an interdependent global network. There is a range of promising technologies on this path that however need an extra push.
  7. Reasoning from a desired specific impact, not from technology features
    It is necessary to reason from the desired impact. Issues that cannot be solved by a single individual, nor on a general level by a group or mass, but only with the active involvement of the group of people it concerns are the ones to focus on. Issues are context specific, so is impact.
  8. Making it specific creates a design aid
    Putting a (list of) specific contexts (person plus meaningful relations) at one end, and a (list of possibly) desired impact on a specific issue at the other, with the lists of potential hard and soft technologies in between, such as in the image below, can be used as thinking aid and design aid.
    It allows you to explore possibilities based on selecting varying combinations of certain technologies, or specific combinations of technologies already available in the involved context, to see how to provide agency to contexts/groups towards desired impacts. This provides agency towards creating agency.

Agency by Ton Zylstra

Arsonists Walk Among Us

Playing politically on base emotions has consequences. Choice of words has consequences. It does not make the fear mongers and populists directly or criminally responsible, but it does come with moral responsibilities. If you consistently fan emotional flames you do bear moral responsibility for the resulting sparks and ‘singular unconnected’ fires. What British radio host James O’Brien says in the fragment embedded above about the UK, is as much true in Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Austria etc. I share his deep frustration.

The arsonists walk among us pretending to bring common sense and empathy, because “one should be allowed to say this after all, and high-time too”. They don’t go by the names of Schmitz or Eisenring, but it doesn’t take Max Frisch to point them out. The arsonists walk among us pretending it is some mythical Other that will take “what is Ours” and who will burn our house and institutions down. The arsonists walk among us, luring us with reactionary nostalgia for a country and a time that has never existed. It will be those arsonists however that end up setting things alight, not any ‘Other’.

The question is how much of a Herr Biedermann I will be, you will be, we will be, before we learn to send the arsonists packing.

Do we even know anymore how to do that?

The Burning of the houses of Parliament, October 16, 1834 by Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Oct 16 1834, by J M W Turner. Image by Pete Jelliffe, CC-BY-SA

Digital Disruption Key-Note

Yesterday and today I am at the ARAS Community Event Europe in Frankfurt, Germany. The conference brings together people around PLM (product lifecycle management). I was asked to provide the opening keynote. Digital disruption and the new (or rather often not so new) methods we have available to deal with that were the topic of my talk. Starting with Steve Denning’s recent observation that we’re in the Golden Age of Management now as we are setting the scene for what management looks like in the networked age, I talked about the unintended impact of internet and mobile communications, that make a range of existing management methods obsolete if not dangerous. Simultaneously I went into the different emerging instruments and methods that are emerging in response.

Find the slides below.

Anxiety Accessories

We spent July camping in France, visiting Southern Brittany, the Atlantic coast mostly, as well as Lyon. One thing that caught my eye was the omnipresence of skulls on fashionable accessories.

I am tempted to see it as an attempt to channel the general discomfort and anxiety that seems to permeate our societies in the face of increased complexity, digital disruption and resulting decline of those structures and systems that previously provided a comforting sense of security. Although I bet Bryan at Infocult, who has been tracking all things gothic in technology already for a long time, has a more articulated view on it.

For what it’s worth, I started calling them Anxiety Accessories: novelty items and fashion items adorned with skulls. A few examples from France in the past month:

Colorful skull adorned shopping bags, at artisanal market on Ile-de-Ré, offered to the many vacationing tourists on the island (in the context of many sailing yachts in the harbor):


Skull shirt in the local H&M in Lyon, in the racks with easy and cheap summer dresses

Skulls as design element. Sign of anxiety?

Skull watch by Swiss brand Swatch in a jewelry store in Angouleme (Hanging next to last year’s Olympic edition, the games to ‘inspire a generation‘. Also on offer high carate golden skull hangers of course)

Skull as design element. Sign of anxiety?

Skulls used in street art, one example from La Rochelle


Asks the Journalist: “Is that bad?”

In a Facebook group for freelance journalists where people ask for contacts or for pointers to people to interview, a journalist asks

for a story in a national newspaper I am looking for people who stopped using Air B&B (sic) because of the big negative sides (tourists damaging your stuff, logistics around transferring keys, people not paying)

And gets a spade of responses along the lines “why are you taking a negative approach by default?” and then listing any number of positive experiences.

In the ensuing discussion it becomes clear that the journalist in question has no actual knowledge of how AirBnB works. Such as that every booking is paid up front in full to AirBnB, so people not paying is not possible. Such as that each host is insured for damage through AirBnB itself. Such as that “the reliable sources” he heard negative experiences from should be verifiable at the site itself, since both host and guest have profiles showing their reputation. In short, the journalist didn’t think to spend 5 minutes checking out the AirBnB website, FAQ and his sources stories, but started down the lazy route of collecting a handful of anecdotes from Facebook first.

Also there seemed no realization that even finding a good number of negative stories does not automatically constitute a story unless it concerns a significant portion of overall experiences (because when you do a lot of transactions the chances of something happening quickly increases to 1. Statistics, probability, and all that…) or shows a pattern like AirBnB not living up to its commitments when something does happen. It seemed having negative stories was the news being sought.

Asked the journalist “So I don’t have my facts straight. Is that bad?”

journalists at play
Journalists at Play by Lisa Padilla (CC-BY)

Don’t Be an Ant, Use Open Data

Below is the video of my recent TEDxZwolle talk on why using Open Data is important. (Slides and transcript here)

Open Data is a source of enormous potential both socially and economically.
There is also a much more compelling reason why we need Open Data.

First our global networked society needs openly shared things, such as data. Openness and sharing is what makes networks function. The important bit about Open Data, is the openness.

Second, our networked society also means increased complexity because of all the new connections and myriads of feedback loops. Open Data is useful here to spot patterns, to contextualize your everyday life, to find the stories that are invisible to the singular perspective. Open Data, as it’s available to all, enhances your singular perspective to better grasp the complexity of your world.

Without Open Data we are like ants, without a clue of how our behavior contributes to the complexity of the anthill. With Open Data we can understand the anthill and our role in it better.

Don’t be an ant. Understand the anthill. Use Open Data. Understand your world.

On Openness and its Limits

Openness is a consequence of adopting a network metaphor for our societies. It is limited by what facilitates healthy functioning groups and individuals. That’s the balance to strike.

Cognitive Edge Business Network Europe
Vibrant connected network, aka society

Open Everything
There seems to be a conference on Open [Your Fav Topic Here] just about every day somewhere. Open Data, Open Access, Open Economy, Open Design, Open Source, Open Manufacturing, Open Innovation, Open Government, Open Science, Open Knowledge, Open Courseware, Open Corporates, Open Hardware, Open Energy: Open Anything and Open Everything.

For those not easily adapting to change, this is good news: Open is clearly a hype, so it can be ignored without peril, and it can be fought by denouncing it as empty hype.
For those embracing Open, this is also good news as it seems openness is a worthy goal in itself, a panacea, on the brink of going mainstream. Monster killers and monster embracers alike are missing something I think.

To me something more profound is happening on the middle ground between those two extremes.

New infrastructure begets new metaphors
Internet and mobile communications are a pervasive new infrastructure. They connect people, not geographic endpoints (as all other infrastructures do), and do so instantaneous and globally. New infrastructures push their principles as dominant metaphors on other areas. Railroads pushed ‘railroad time‘ upon our daily lives and rhythms. Internet is pushing the network metaphor upon us.

That network metaphor impacts our organizations, work, and our social life. The network metaphor is making itself felt offline just as much as online. It increases complexity through its myriad of newly created pathways and feedback loops, and thus increases the need for resilience of any given node.

Networks necessitate Open
The network metaphor necessitates openness: in a network you must share, you must be visible and responsive, otherwise you don’t exist and you will not be engaged with. Dark nodes in a network, those that don’t share or even announce their presence, are treated as damage in a network. Traffic, i.e. interaction with other nodes, gets routed around them. Dark nodes are simply ignored. To be part of the network a node must share, must allow others to connect and see what it’s doing. If you don’t open up to the world, you don’t exist to others. If you don’t open up, you will not be resilient, you will not be able to deal with increased complexity.

Open is not a hype, it is a prerequisite for, as well as a consequence of, a networked society, induced by our new infrastructure.

Open is not limitless however. It is bounded in order to deal with complexity and by our own humanity.

Being closed for good reasons.

Openness has limits in complexity
Dealing with complexity is balancing being very open to the world, with maintaining strict boundaries. Lines in the sand, that you don’t allow to be violated without consequences. Bumping into those boundaries will not feel very open at all to those doing the bumping. I am very welcoming to visitors in our home, but you will be made to leave when you don’t respect it is indeed my home. While the network necessitates openness, the resulting complexity of global connectedness necessitates boundaries at the same time. Without setting boundaries a node is fully transparent, which makes it just as invisible to the network as a dark node. It is the difference between Project X and the open invitation to my birthday unconference.

Openness has limits in human group dynamics
In many interactions being shielded from others is needed to get somewhere. If something makes you feel vulnerable (some learning situations, negotiations, idea generation etc come to mind), you can’t deal with it in a very public setting, but need a space in which there’s more privacy. It is a deliberate short reprieve from the social pressures that would otherwise inhibit you in a negative way. Results of that seclusion, or the fact that you are entering such a more closed off space for a while, could very well be open.

Healthy communities of practice can be characterized by the way they deal with rhythms, spaces, evolution, value, excitement vs. feeling secure, internal and external perspectives, and multiple levels of engagement (from lurking to leading and back).

Openness can foster a wider variety of levels of engagement (as that is an aspect of networks), bring diversity of perspectives (idem), bring excitement, better allow evolution by exposure, and create more value for all involved.

Openness however needs to be limited when there’s a need for more opaque and smaller spaces, and to make group members feel secure enough to engage. It needs to be limited where it diminishes value for all involved e.g. when it dissolves a groups cohesion and identity or that of its members.

Openness is the default, to be limited by our human needs
Openness needs to be the default: we live in a networked world and open sharing is what makes networks function. Openness is limited by our humanity, for the health of individuals, groups and communities. That limitation ideally is temporary and clearly demarcated.

Pedro's Play Session
Open and bounded simultaneously: my 2010 birthday unconference

Key-Note on Education: Learning in the Network Society

At the yearly conference of the Austrian association for trainers in basic education for adults, I gave the opening key-note this year, as the theme was web literacy. The conference, titled Zukunft Basisbildung, was hosted at the Joanneum university for applied sciences in Graz, where Heinz Wittenbrink is teaching web literacy and on-line journalism. We’ve known each other for years, and every now and then he kindly involves me in some of his interesting work.

It’s been a while since I talked in an education oriented setting, and the first time it was about the question what net savviness should be part of the very basic skills of adults for whom reading and writing is already an obstacle. I focussed the talk around how my own learning has evolved over time, towards a fully networked learning style, which tools play a role in that, and how I make sense of that evolution.

My key point, that network awareness should be more central in how we look at social media and web tools in general, as the tools will be different next year and in two years, seemed to go over well. Also that ‘network awareness’ is something that can be maybe more easily become part of ‘basic education’ for adults as it builds on the very core of how we humans interact socially. It just applies those skills in a bit more purposeful manner, steered by a stronger dose of self-reflection.

We need this type of learning more than ever, as we find ourselves in complex situations much more often than before (due to our increased global connectedness and resulting speed and information abundance). There lineair learning styles don’t work (codifying knowledge, learning by absorbing theory, practice in artificial settings, then apply) for lack of predictability in complexity, and therefore we need to rely more on learning by probing and doing. My experience at Rotterdam University and primary schools in my region, as well as the courses I thought at the local university, suggests that a more exploratory learning path, that includes other stakeholders (students, other teachers, professionals, etc.) not just means co-creation of the learning experience but also by default leads to more authentic learning settings: probing the real world.

My talk is available on video, it is in German how-ever. My slides are available and embedded below.