Last Friday we ended the Smart Stuff That Matters unconference by smashing an evil robot called Smarty. Elmine, this being her birthday party, officiated by using ‘The Unmaker’, a hammer my colleague Paul brought us. She proceeded to smash the evil robot that made angry buzzing sounds, as a representation of all the ‘wrong’ types of ‘smart’ automatisation. Smarty had been built during the afternoon workshop that Iskander Smit improvised.

As I said at the time, part of ‘smart’ is the social side of things, not just the tech side. And part of those social aspects is the frustration and rage that comes with devices and software not responding or working the way we expect them to. Elmine used the opportunity to take all that out on our evil robot Smarty with gusto.

Some people have blogged about their experiences at our birthday unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters” and bbq in honour of Elmine’s birthday.

Peter wrote about the session his son organised, and about (re)connecting to the other participants in a way that describes the richness of the interaction well: “All the friends I’ve not yet met“, in reference to a sentence uttered at the event.

Frank described his day, and how he came to give a presentation himself in “The unconference is still the best format“. Original is in Dutch, here’s a machine translation to English.

Elja wrote a great post about the ‘oh sh*t’ moment where you think no-one will be interested in your story. The original is in Dutch too, so you may want to use the machine translation.

Iskander mentions how he adapted a workshop he regularly organises to facilitate a group to make a robot with the help of the mobile FabLab, Frysklab parked in the courtyard.

Heinz wrote a great essay describing and reflecting on the event. There’s a lot to unpack in his posting, which he also ties to the history and character of my connection with Heinz.

Elmine, the host and birthday girl herself, is still reeling from all the interaction, and in awe of all the efforts people made to attend. A feeling I completely share.

I wrote a few things myself as well. Do you have any diodes? about the day, and some notes on the process in Anecdote circles lite. And the video of the closing ceremony, made by Jeroen de Boer, of course! All my postings concerning the event are tagged STM18

When more postings appear online I will add them here.

Our event meant bringing together some 45 people. They all know at least one of us two, but mostly don’t know each other. Some type of introduction is therefore useful, but you don’t want to take much time out of the day itself for it, as often intro-rounds are dreary and meaningless exercises that sap energy and of which you don’t remember much immediately after. So we’ve aimed for our events to have a first activity that is also an intro-round, but serves a bigger purpose for the event.

Previously we’ve done 1-on-1 intro conversations that also produced a hand drawn map of connections or of skills and experiences in the group, to be re-used to find the right people for subsequent sessions. We’ve done groups of 5 to 6 to create Personas, as the first step of the design process to make something yourself. This time we settled on an idea of Elmine, to do what can best be described as Anecdote Circles Lite. Anecdote circles are a process to elicit experiences and stories from a group as they reveal implicit knowledge and insights about a certain topic (PDF). You group people together and prompt them with one or more questions that ask about specific occasions that have strong feelings attached to it. Others listen and can write down what stands out for them in the anecdote shared.

The starting point of the unconference theme ‘Smart Stuff That Matters’ was our move to Amersfoort last year. It means getting to know, find your way in, and relate to a new house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. And do that in the light of what you need to fulfill your needs to be at home and feel supported in the new environment. But in a broader light you can use the same questions to take a fresh look at your own environment, and make it ‘smarter’ in being at home and feeling supported. Our opening exercise was shaped to nudge the participants along the same path.

In my opening remarks, after singing a birthday song together for Elmine, I sketched our vision for the event much as in the previous paragraph. Then I asked all participants to find 3 or 4 others that you preferrably do not know, and find a spot in the house or garden (inviting them to explore the house/garden on their own that way too, giving them permission to do so as it were). The question to prompt conversation was “Think back to the last time you moved house, and arrived in a new environment. What was most disappointing to you about your new place/live? What was pleasantly surprising to you about your new place/live?” With those questions and pen & paper everybody was off to their first conversations.

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The thoughts and observations resulting from the intro-round

Judging by Peter’s description of it, it went well. It’s quoted here in full as it describes both the motivation for and the layeredness of the experience quite well. I take Peter’s words as proof the process worked as intended.

The second highlight is an event that preceded Oliver’s talk, the “icebreaker” part of the day that led things off. I have always dreaded the “everybody introduce yourself” part of meetings, especially meetings of diverse people whose lives inevitably seem much more interesting than my own; this, thankfully, was dispensed with, and instead we were prompted to gather with people we didn’t yet know and to talk about our best and worst moves in life.

What proceeded from this simple prompt was a rich discussion of what it’s like to live as an expat, how difficult it is to make friends as an adult, and the power of neighbourhood connections. Oliver and I were in a group with Heinz and Elja and Martyn, and we talked for almost an hour. I have no idea what any of the others in our group do for a living, but I know that Martyn mowed his lawn this week in preparation for a neighbourhood party, that Heinz lives in an apartment block where it’s hard to get to know his neighbours, and that Elja has lived in Hungary, the USA and Turkey, and has the most popular Dutch blog post on making friends.

During the event Elja shared her adagio that the best way to get to know people after moving to a new environment is to do something together (as opposed to just sitting down for coffee and conversation). It’s pleasantly recursive to see a statement like that as the result of a process designed to follow that adagio in the first place.

I will transscribe all the post-its and post (some of) it later.

Some images from previous activities-as-intro-rounds we used in previous editions:

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Persona creation / Using the hand drawn skills cards

Drawing the Sociogram

Drawing a map of connections, dubbed sociogram, between participants

Do You Have Any Diodes? ….. …. Is probably the most unlikely question I got ever asked out of the blue at a birthday party. However the answer turned out to be yes, I did have two diodes. I didn’t think I did, but taking a look in the one box I suspected might have some electronic components in them, proved me wrong.

The diodes were needed to increase the strength of the scary noises an evil robot was emitting. This evil robot was being created just outside our front door where the enormous Frysklab truck, containing a mobile FabLab, was completely filling the courtyard. Representing everything that is wrong and evil about some of the devices that are marketed as necessary for a ‘smart home’, the evil robot then got ritually smashed into pieces by Elmine, wielding a gigantic hammer, named ‘The Unmaker’ that a colleague brought with him. That was the official closing act of our unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters“.

Around all this our 40 or so guests, friends, family members, clients, colleagues, peers, were weaving a rich tapestry of conversations and deepening connections. Something that our friend Peter put into words extremely well. Elmine and I are in awe of the effort and time all who joined us have put into coming to our home and participate in our slightly peculiar way of celebrating birthdays. Birthday parties where evil robots, a hyperloop to send messages from the courtyard to the garden, mythical German bbq-sausages, friendship, philosophy, web technology, new encounters and yes diodes, are all key ingredients to help create a heady mix of fun, inspiration, connection, and lasting memories.

Thank you all so much for making it so.

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Next Friday our event takes place. With some 45 people registered to participate we have a group with diverse backgrounds again that promises lots of inspiring conversations.

It is time to explain our vision for the event, so that we all can better see how we might contribute to the program. This as we will build the program together on the day itself. This posting is to help you think of experience, stories and things you feel will be relevant for the event.

On the topic, on ‘smart’

The topic of ‘Smart Stuff That Matters’ refers to being smart in how you live in your home, are part of the social fabric of your neighbourhood, and contribute to the dynamic of your city, while aware of more global changes and issues. ‘Smart’ is both social (behaviour, routines, interaction) and technological (methods, tools, software, devices) These layers, home, neighbourhood, city, and the world, are not separate but intimately connected and fluid.

Smartness, I think, resides in the way each of us are able embrace the interdependencies between those layers, and weave their connections into a rich tapestry. Smart is using those interdependencies to fulfil individual and collective needs, and build communal benefits from individual pieces, in the full awareness of global issues. The home is embedded in both neighbourhood and city and world in turn, but at the same time the home is also a local expression point of the layers it is embedded in. Building on those interdependencies, ‘surfing’ them by continuously adapting constitutes ‘smart’, I think. In contrast early visions of ‘smart cities’ were almost only technology and security focused. It treated the people living in a city as if they were a pest to control, rather than the key to creating a smart city, and the primary beneficiaries of that smartness.

Smartness, and experiencing smartness, resides in us humans, aided by the devices and structures we create, and is inherently messy as it mixes, twists and turns, adapts and responds. It is only we who can create and sense meaning for ourselves, and the value that has to us. So it’s up to us to define what is ‘smart’ living.

On how ‘smart’ expresses itself

Many of you on the list of participants have found smart ways of dealing with things you care about. Found ways of addressing a need in your home, that creates a connection to your neighbourhood, your city or a global issue at the same time.

I wanted to measure temperature in my garden for instance, and did so as part of a city wide network that also monitors heat islands across the city, while providing at the same time infrastructure that others in the neighbourhood can use too. Peter did the same thing on PEI in Canada. Growing food in your garden can be a way to teach kids, next to providing some raw materials to your kitchen, while aiding in greening your garden allowing for better buffering of rainwater and prevent flash flooding in your city. Helping cleaning up a local park or water way like Gabriela is a good way to meet new people in your town, while reducing trash in the neighbourhood, as a small part of a global effort. Erik has experience in bringing neighbours together for a solar energy cooperative effort. Loulou created a clock that shows the time and the air quality around you, which can demonstrate. Elja lived in different countries and found ways to quickly grow some roots. Frank wants to get out of the closed silos of Facebook and Twitter, wants to own his own data, just like others present, and is finding his own route, from which we likely can learn. How is your house a meeting place, a production unit (of energy, goods, food, water, or data), how do you add to the diversity and strength of your neigbourhood, your city? How did you find out what to you could and wanted to contribute to? How did you find your way to solving your needs smartly?

On the program

To repeat myself: Smartness, and experiencing smartness, resides in us humans. It is only we who can create and sense meaning for ourselves, and the value that has to us.
That is true for the program of the unconference as well. All of us can bring experiences, stories and artefacts to discuss, compare, create and experiment.
At the start of the day we’ll take you through an exercise to both get to know the others better, as well as look deeper at ’smart’ living. This will bring out the ideas, questions and things you’d like to present something on, have a discussion about, or hear more about from others. From that we will build the program, in classic unconference format. There are several rooms (and a garden) available and multiple rounds in which we can all propose something to discuss, present, demo, make or design. We’ll plan the sessions for which there’s energy, and get going.

Three people of the Frysklab team are participating and bring their creativity, art design and programming skills to the mix. The Frysklab bus, with a mobile FabLab is available throughout Friday. This makes it possible to work with sensors and micro-electronics, and other machines when they’re useful.

How to prepare for the day

In the coming two days, before we start, maybe you will already have some ideas of what you’d like to share, discuss or do. Have look through the list of participants, to see where they come from, what they do, and what they share online about themselves. Friday when the door opens, we’ll make it a fun and inspiring day together.

Some of you asked what to bring, and how to chip in. There will be a donation box, for those who want to. We’ll probably ask you to assist with some of the food preparation. It’s Elmine’s birthday party so a hug is welcome too. Above all, bring your curiosity!

Logistics

If you come by car, please direct your navigation system to Darthuizerberg, Amersfoort. That’s a bigger parking lot, while our street is very short on parking space. From there you can walk to our house in a short time. We promised our neighbours not to take over the entire street.
Food will be served taking into account various diets (vegetarian, gluten free e.g.)

Find general info on the day, the program, the people, and how to get to, or stay in Amersfoort here. If you have any questions, do let us know.

We’re just over 3 weeks away from our 31 August event, the Smart Stuff That Matters unconference (#stm18).

With our summer hiatus nearing its end, I built a (still growing) list of currently registered participants. It’s a very nice mix of different backgrounds, ages, origins and interests. Some have been to our very first birthday unconference 10 years ago, others only recently became part of our personal or professional networks. Some live almost next door, some live half a world away. All have interesting stories to share, so if you haven’t registered yet but would like to come, do let me know, and bring your curiosity.

We’re now at some 30 people attending, from half a dozen countries or so. Likely we’ll end up closer to 50 participants for the unconference. Check out the list, and click some links to get a feeling for who’s coming.

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Some of the participants in the 2014 event. Photo: Paolo Valdemarin, CC-BY-NC-SA

I’m at FOSS4G-NL today, the Dutch annual meet-up of the FOSS4G community. This morning I gave the opening keynote titled “A map is the greatest of all epic poems“, and talked about how data is a matter of geopolitics and ethics by design, even if you’re a geo-data pro somewhere in a small municipality working on some hyperlocal data set. The invitation came as a result of my keynote at the global FOSS4G conference in Germany 2 years ago. Slides in Dutch can be downloaded at tzyl.eu/foss4gnl. Will post a transcript in English later.

August 31st Elmine and I host the 4th Birthday Unconference and BBQ-Party in our home in Amersfoort. The unconference is titled “Smart Stuff that Matters”.

So what is Smart, and what Matters?

A year ago we moved to Amersfoort. A different house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. The city where our daughter will grow up.

A new environment means lots of exploration. What makes a house a home? How can you smartly adapt your house to your needs? Who lives in the neighbourhood, how do you settle in it? What makes a city your city? Which existing initiatives appeal to you, and in what ways can you contribute to them?
Whether it’s a new habit, a new device in your home, your contacts and networks, or your approach: what are smart ways to act and contribute to your residence and environment so it supports you and the others in it? In the context of much wider developments and global issues, that is. Both social and technological, at home, in your neighbourhood, your city. It’s important to approach things in ways that create meaning, enable the important things, both for you and others. Smart Stuff That Matters therefore.

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Our house, in the middle of our street

A full day long we’ll explore ‘smart’ in all its facets.
Smart homes (and around the home), smart neighbourhoods, smart cities.
Socially, how do we learn, communicate, organise and share? How do we act, how do we contribute? How do we find the power of collaborative agency.
And also technologically, which technologies help us, which only pretend to do so, and are these technologies sufficiently ours?
We will have the Frysklab Team joining us again with their mobile FabLab, and have plenty of space to experiment with technology that way. Such as sensors, internet of things and programming. Or to build non-digital hacks for around the home.

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Frysklab’s truck parked at our old home in Enschede during the previous unconference

Together we’ll explore what smart means to you and us.
Bring your small and big experiences and skills, but above all bring your curiosity, and let yourself be surprised with what the others bring.
Do you have ideas about what you’d like to show, discuss, present or do?
Have ideas about what you would like to hear from others about? Let us know! We’ll build the program together!

You’ll find all relevant information about the unconference on this site. You’re also welcome to join our Facebook group for the event.

At State of the Net 2018 in Trieste Hossein Derakshan (h0d3r on Twitter) talked about journalism and its future. Some of his statements stuck with me in the past weeks so yesterday I took time to watch the video of his presentation again.

In his talk he discussed the end of news. He says that discussions about the erosion of business models in the news business, quality of news, trust in sources and ethics are all side shows to a deeper shift. A shift that is both cultural and social. News is a two century old format, representative of the globalisation of communications with the birth of the telegraph. All of a sudden events from around the globe were within your perspective, and being informed made you “a man of the world”. News also served as a source of drama in our lives. “Did you hear,…”. These days those aspects of globalisation, time and drama have shifted.
Local, hyperlocal, has become more important again at the cost of global perspectives, which Hossein sees taking place in things like buying local, but also in Facebook to keep up with the lives of those around you. Similarly identity politics reduces the interest in other events to those pertaining to your group. Drama shifted away from news to performances and other media (Trumps tweets, memes, our representation on social media platforms). News and time got disentangled. Notifications and updates come at any time from any source, and deeper digging content is no longer tied to the news cycle. Journalism like the Panama Papers takes a long time to produce, but can also be published at any time without that having an impact on its value or reception.

News and journalism have become decoupled. News has become a much less compelling format, and in the words of Derakshan is dying if not dead already. With the demise of text and reason and the rise of imagery and emtions, the mess that journalism is in, what formats can journalism take to be all it can be?

Derakshan points to James Carey who said Democracy and Journalism are the same thing, as they are both defined as public conversation. Hossein sees two formats in which journalism can continue. One is literature, long-form non-fiction. This can survive away from newspapers and magazines, both online and in the form of e.g. books. Another is cinema. There’s a rise in documentaries as a way to bring more complex stories to audiences, which also allows for conveying of drama. It’s the notion of journalism as literature that stuck with me most at State of the Net.

For a number of years I’ve said that I don’t want to pay for news, but do want to pay for (investigative) journalism, and often people would respond news and journalism are the same thing. Maybe I now finally have the vocabulary to better explain the difference I perceive.

I agree that the notion of public conversation is of prime importance. Not the screaming at each-other on forums, twitter or facebook. But the way that distributed conversations can create learning, development and action, as a democratic act. Distributed conversations, like the salons of old, as a source of momentum, of emergent collective action (2013). Similarly, I position Networked Agency as a path away from despair of being powerless in the face of change, and therefore as an alternative to falling for populist oversimplification. Networked agency in that sense is very much a democratising thing.

Today I contributed to a session of the open data research groups at Delft University. They do this a few times per year to discuss ongoing research and explore emerging questions that can lead to new research. I’ve taken part a few times in the past, and this time they asked me to provide an overview of what I see as current developments.

Some of the things I touched upon are similar to the remarks I made in Serbia during Open Data Week in Belgrade. The new PSI Directive proposal also was on the menu. I ended with the questions I think deserve attention. They are either about how to make sure that abstract norms get translated to the very practical, and to the local level inside government, or how to ensure that critical elements get connected and visibly stay that way (such as links between regular policy goals / teams and information management)

The slides are embedded below.

[slideshare id=102667069&doc=tudopenquestions-180619173722]

Iryna Susha and Bastiaan van Loenen in the second part of our afternoon took us through their research into the data protection steps that are in play in data collaboratives. This I found very worthwile, as data governance issues of collaborative groups (e.g. public and private entities around energy transition) are regularly surfacing in my work. Both where it threatens data sovereignty for instance, or where collaboratively pooled data can hardly be shared because it has become impossible to navigate the contractual obligations connected to the data that was pooled.

At State of the Net yesterday I used the concept of macroscopes. I talked about how many people don’t really feel where their place is in the face of global changes, like climate change, ageing, the pressures on rules and institutions, the apparent precarity of global financial systems. That many feel whatever their actions, they will not have influence on those changes. That many feel so much of the change around them is being done to them, merely happens to them, like the weather.
Macroscopes provide a perspective that may address such feelings of being powerless, and helps us in the search for meaning.

Macroscopes, being the opposite of microscopes, allow us to see how our personal situation fits in a wider global whole. The term comes from John Thackara in the context of social end ecological design. He says a macroscope “allows us to see what the aggregation of many small interactions looks like when added together”. It makes the processes and systems that surrounds us visible and knowable.

I first encountered the term macroscope at the 2009 Reboot conference in Copenhagen where Matt Webb in his opening keynote invoked Thackara.
Matt Webb also rephrased what a macroscope is, and said “a macroscope shows you where you are, and where within something much bigger, simultaneously. To understand something much bigger than you in a human way, at human scale, in your heart.” His way of phrasing it stayed with me in the past years. I like it very much because it adds human emotion to the concept of macroscopes. It provides us with a place we feel we have, a sense of meaning. As meaning is deeply emotional.

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
Seeing the small …

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
and the bigger picture simultaneously. (Chuck Close self portrait 1995, at Drents Museum)

Later in his on stage conversation at State of the Net, Dave Winer remarked that for Donald Trump’s base MAGA is such a source of meaning, and I think he’s right. Even though it’s mostly an expression of hope that I typified in my talk as salvationism. (Someone will come along and make everything better, a populist, an authoritarian, a deity, or speakers pontificating on stage.) I’ve encountered macroscopes that worked for people in organisations. But sometimes they can appear very contrived viewed from the outside. The man who cleans the urinals at an airport and says he’s ensuring 40 million people per year have a pleasant and safe trip, clearly is using a macroscope effectively. It’s one I can empathise with as aiming for great hospitality, but it also feels a bit contrived as many other things at an airport, such as the cattle prodding at security and the leg room on your plane so clearly don’t chime with it. In the Netherlands I encountered two examples of working macroscopes. Everyone I encountered at the Court of Audit reflexively compares every idea and proposal to the way their institution’s role is described in the constitution. Not out of caution, but out of feeling a real sense of purpose as working on behalf of the people to check how government spends its money. The other one was the motto of the government engineering department responsible for water works and coastal defences, “Keeping our feet dry”. With so much of our country below sea level, and the catastrophic floods of 1953 seared in our collective memory, it’s a highly evocative macroscope that draws an immediate emotional response. They since watered it down, and now it’s back to something bloodless and bland, likely resulting from a dreary mission statement workshop.

In my talk I positioned networked agency as a macroscope. Globe spanning digital networks and our human networks in my mind are very similar in the way they behave, and hugely overlapping. So much so they can be treated as one, we should think in terms of human digital networks. There is meaning, the deeply felt kind of meaning, to be found in doing something together with a group. There’s also a tremendous sense of power to be felt from the ability to solve something for yourself as a group. Seeing your group as part, as a distinctive node or local manifestation, of the earth-wide human digital network allows you to act in your own way as part of global changes, and see the interdependencies. That also let’s you see how to build upon the opportunities that emerge from the global network, while being able to disconnect or shield yourself from negative things propagating over the network. Hence my call to build tools (technologies and methods) that are useful on their own within a group, as a singular instance, but more useful when federated with other instances across the global network. Tools shaped like that mean no-one but the group using it itself can switch their tools off, and the group can afford to disconnect from the wider whole on occasion.

Today I am enjoying the 2018 edition of the State of the Net conference, in Italy. Organised by Beniamino Pagliaro, Paolo Valdemarin and Sergio Maistrello.

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Beniamino Pagliaro opening the conference this morning

This morning I provided a key note on Networked Agency, where I talked about rediscovering our ability to act. As networked groups, in real and meaningful contexts as the unit of agency. For that to be possible our tools, both technologies and methods, need to work for groups, be much easier to access. They also need to work both as a local instance as well as federated across contexts. From it striking power (classic agency) flows, agility to use and leverage the useful things coming at us over the networks, and resilience to mitigate the negative consequences that come at us over those same networks.

The slides are below.

[UPDATE]
The videos of State of the Net are online, including the video of my talk.


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(Disclosure) Paolo is a long time friend and I had the privilege of contributing to previous editions in 2012 (Trieste) and 2015 (Milano). I’m also a member of the conference’s steering committee.