Category Archives: culture

Dutch Design Week Inspiration

Last week was the annual Dutch Design Week. A good reason to visit Eindhoven in the south, which over the past years has turned into a innovation and creativity hub as well as a city renewal hotspot. I’ve visited regularly in the past years and every time you find new endeavours on the crossroads of high-tech, design, art and science, business, and citizen activism. When we were looking for a new place to live we considered Eindhoven because of this palpable elan (we ultimately decided against it due to travel times to other areas). Instead we visit every now and then, e.g. for Dutch Design Week.

We had a pleasant day browsing through various exhibits and expositions, and enjoyed talking to the designers, engineers and craftsmen who created the things on display. For lunch we had pizza from a mobile wood fired oven, outside on a surprisingly mild day.

One of the designers showing their products is Bas Froon, whom we know since our university days. In the past few years, after a decade and a half of business consulting, he went to art academy, and now exhibited a machine he built to create products from a single material (a fiber enhanced plastic fabric) The material is soft and flexible but can become hard and very strong when heated and under pressure. It is for instance used in the automotive industry to make car bumpers. Bas built a cross between a 3d printer and a clothing iron to be able to selectively heat and harden parts of a piece of this fabric, from a digital design. That way you can make a baby carrying sling for instance from a single piece of fabric including all the clasps and fasteners and the cushions for the infant.

Dutch Design Week 2017
Bas Froon’s machine

I got some ideas about temporary furniture for a possible next unconference at home, from a project by a local packaging company challenging designers to come up with other uses for their cardboard.

Dutch Design Week 2017

Also fun to see plenty of Ultimakers in use.

Dutch Design Week 2017 Dutch Design Week 2017
Brabant Living Lab printing soundscapes, 3d representations of noise levels in the exhibition hall.

Dutch Design Week 2017Dutch Design Week 2017
local government involvement, and LoRa enable trashbins

Spotted on a t-shirt:
Dutch Design Week 2017

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

Which City To Live and Work for a Month in 2017?

In the past years Elmine and I have visited different cities for a longer time, to experience how it is to live there. For a month, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, we would stay in a city, and work from there, seeking out local entrepreneurs, while also enjoying the local food, coffee, and art on offer. Exposing ourselves to a different environment but not in a touristic capacity, provides inspiration, and generates new insights and ideas. We spent extended stays in Vancouver, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Berlin, Cambridge and Lucca, and are now exploring which city to set up camp in in the summer or fall of 2017. As I did in 2013 I asked around for suggestions, this time on Facebook. I got a long list of responses, which makes filtering and ultimately choosing likely a project in itself.

For us, for a city to qualify as a candidate it needs to be in Europe (as we want to drive there by car, given we are bringing our young daughter plus all the gear that entails), needs to have something to offer in terms of culture, and food, and good places to hang out in, but above all needs to have a few communities around new tech, start-ups, or other topics that we are interested in. This because we want to seek out new conversations and connections (such as when I organized the first Danish Data Drinks in Copenhagen in 2012).

Here are the (over 50!) suggestions we received, on a map:

Or see the list.

No Place to Hide and Our Apathy

A number of weeks ago I read Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide in which he describes his and Edward Snowden’s personal experiences around, as well as the scope and depth of government surveillance disclosed by, the major NSA leak that has been rightly on our front pages for a full year now. What struck me after reading it is the curious gap between the personal impact and sense of enormousness of it all that Greenwald describes, and the blandness with which a lot of the factual material struck me personally. Somehow the emotional response to ‘they see everything’ is missing when you have no real clue as to who ‘they’ are, or what ‘everything’ really means, until e.g. your partner gets stopped at an airport because of it. Which in turn means that it will not trigger a lot of action for lack of short enough feedback loops. Yet, the precise point of leaking actual material and not just describing what is going on, is to trigger such a response.

Witchhunt Snowden
Witch hunt Snowden, part of a ‘walk‘ in Berlin I came across last May

The shocking bits of the NSA story to me are 1) the generic nature of capturing any and all data, 2) that it is mostly about economic advantage and only notionally about national security, 3) the callousness with which the overall internet infrastructure is purposefully weakened for all to gain what can only be a temporary information advantage, 4) the systemic lack of oversight in an opaque-by-design legal framework and a complicit tech-industry. They are shocking however on non-emotional abstract levels.

I can emphatize with the growing sense of excitement, anger and dismay that Snowden and Greenwald describe, but the factual material does not have that same emotional impact on me when it is presented to me, not having made that journey. Mostly because the really important part is of a statistical nature: the NSA is tapping into everything all the time, but that is hard to grasp or translate to my personally felt context. Whereas the singular stories on the NSA’s capabilities that do trigger emotions if I project them on my own situation, are predominantly about situations where someone is specifically targeted, which I’d say is the regular description of espionage and not the thing to be concerned about.

I had the same with several Wikileaks stories, and reading accounts from those that were part of it: if you’re in it, discovering it, building the narrative, it is emotionally way more important and exciting than when you only see the finished result, regardless of the injustice exposed. My wife gets bored easily with my university fraternity stories for much the same reason (as they can’t really be boring, can they?). It is also why the German Chancellor is livid about her own phone being tapped, but not about 85 million German citizens being tapped: the small and personal trumps the enormous but general.

This is not to say I haven’t responded in practice: I have changed my on-line toolset and processes, and stopped using various US based data services such as Dropbox and Amazon’s Elastic Cloud where I was a paying customer, in favor of using European based and owned, alternatives. Those are all rational responses though, and are actually saving me money as well as making me generally safer online even disregarding the surveillance question. While the NSA leaks fed my existing unarticulated uneasiness concerning online security, it was spotting specific steps within my own sphere of influence that led me to act this spring, unrelated to the NSA leaks.

How do you make the abstract a personal emotion that triggers responses? Because responses to the NSA-leaks are certainly needed. How do you make systemic absurdity emotionally tangible? Vonnegut, Kafka, and Orwell come to mind but that type of literary processing is far removed from acting or working change in the here and now. Art can be a powerful way to tap into emotional responses though, and there are likely other ways. More on that in a next posting.

Ai Wei Wei, Berlin Edition

As we are in Berlin this week, we had the opportunity to visit the Ai Wei Wei exhibition ‚Evidence’ in the Martin Gropius Bau, just off what used to be Checkpoint C.

We have seen Ai’s work in several places, but never a large collection as this. It helped understand much more of the layers in his work, trying to make sense as well as show the absurdity of the rapid societal changes China has seen in the past few decades, and this being an authoritarian country thus very much blurring the lines between political activism and art.

Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei

The police demolishes your studio, they previously invited you to build to help create an art scene in Shanghai? Turn the bricks and other remnants into a monumental installation and call it ’Souvenir from Shanghai’. Or exhibit the hard drives and usb sticks that were confiscated during a search of your home, with the ‚evidence’ stickers attached to them.

Ai Wei Wei

Want to discuss the shoulder shrugs caused by the destruction of ancient city neighborhoods in favor of new concrete tower blocks? Destroy and spray paint even more ancient vases to cause an uproar and point out the hypocrisy.

Is the government refusing to discuss how corruption that led to bad quality buildings costs thousands of deaths amongst school children during an earthquake? Collect the names yourself, and use 200 tons (!) of concrete reinforcement bars pulled from the rubble as material for your installations, or turn them into marble as a memorial.

Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei

What also very much stood out for me is that the installations we see are merely the endpoint of a long process where the final work’s contours only emerge at the end. They are illogical as a sudden appearance but a logical outcome of the process involved. That process contains investigative journalism, diving into science and history just as much as reflecting on (western) art.

These glimpses of an artist’s process or his studio, the endless trying, the slow slog towards an object, is enormously fascinating to me. We can’t do enough to break the fiction that all the expressions and objects we laud as art are like Athena born ready made from the mind of the artist, but the result of time consuming exploration and hard work.

Thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition both as a window on how this particular artist works, as well as on China, of which we assume much but really know little.

On Privacy and the Commons

We went to hear an interesting talk by Dutch investigative journalist Brenno de Winter on privacy and related issues this weekend. It is part of a series of privacy related talks and workshops held in our town in this and coming weeks.

To me, as I blogged in 2006 after that year’s Reboot Conference privacy is a gift by the commons to the individual, and not so much an intrinsic individual thing. It allows the individual to be part of the commons, to act in the public sphere. It also means to me that privacy is part of what makes the commons work: withouth a certain expectation of privacy no-one can participate in the commons, resulting in the absence of commons.

privacy in public
Privacy in Public, photo by Susan Sermoneta, CC-BY

That doesn’t mean privacy can do without protection. The commons collapses easily, especially when your information is disconnected from your physical presence, as is usually the case in our digital age. Where the commons collapses, because i.e. the social distance increases, or contexts change or fully drop away, there rules and instruments are needed.

In that light Brenno shared a few notions I wanted to capture and put in this context of the commons:

  • The “If you have nothing to hide, why bother?” argument introduces a false dilemma. It puts the onus on the individual who seeks privacy, and not on whether the other entity complies with existing privacy rules and laws (=a responsible member of the commons). It may also well be what is ok now, will carry dire consequences in the future (e.g. homophobia in Uganda) when the character of the commons changes especially radically.
  • In the Netherlands there are no consequences for disregarding privacy rules around data inside a data-using entity (e.g. staff nosing around in data they have nothing to do with, like doctors looking up medical files from famous patients they are not treating themselves). Others can act as if outside the commons without social scrutiny.
  • Whenever there is a data security breach the data holder is generally portrayed as the victim, and not the people who’s personal data it is, or who are described by the data and who’s expectation of privacy in the commons got damaged. (as well as disregarding the fact that in the EU my personal data at company x is my data.)
  • The Dutch privacy watchdog CBP has 86 staff, compared to 1 million companies and government branches they need to watch. The watch dog has no teeth. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Privacy has weak anchors in Dutch law. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Why are there no (routine) impact assesments of measures that erode privacy in the name of security? If erosion of privacy is to be tolerated, the damage it constitutes to the commons needs to be not just balanced but surpassed by the benefits to the commons on other aspects.
  • All of these points are relevant to the question of how to maintain or extend the commons with rules and instruments, so that the gift of privacy can be given. By making sure the ‘infringing’ party is under similar social pressures to behave. By making sure we maintain a realistic balance when privacy needs to be temporarily eroded for the sake of the commons (that is the source of privacy).

    When privacy breaks down also the commons itself breaks down, as privacy is the pathway and the trust base for taking part in the public sphere.

    Making as a Communal Process vs Individual Act

    I want to redefine my working definition of ‘Making’ and ‘Makers’. To me, seeing making as literally making an object by myself, misses the more fundamental shift of what is going on with ‘making’. It’s time to look at ‘Making’ as a communal process, instead of an individual act to create a solitary object.

    My grand-dad made stuff in his shed all the time. For him making was an individual act. He made something. It was also focussed on a singular object, often a simple hack for a task at hand. He made something.

    If you take that as a definition of making, the ‘maker movement‘ is just about having access to cheaper and better machinery, DIY gone digital. Cool machines for milling, laser cutting and 3d printing, that replace or augment a range of hand tools.
    These machines thanks to digitization and open source hardware are on a path of becoming exponentially cheaper as well as better. But cheap tools do not a movement make.

    As with most things digital, the key new thing is the global high speed connectedness that internet and mobile communications give us. It’s not just having the machines, but having them while being part of a global pool of knowledge, and a global network of people.
    That immensely expands the context of making in several dimensions, away from the solitary objects my grand-dad made.

    This global knowledge pool and network adds three dimensions enormously increasing the potential of ‘making’:

  • The first dimension is that of having access to all knowledge about everything you could make with your machines as well as how to make them (including ‘just-hit-print’ designs). This is still centered around the object, but expands your creativity and hacking skills with those of everyone else. This is what is most commonly understood as maker culture.
  • Second it provides insight and knowledge on how making is so much more than just creating an object. Ideation, experimenting and probing various options, creating it, and then utilizing it in the intended context, all become part of Making. For all those aspects our connectedness can provide input. Understanding this dimension is hugely important, both disruptive innovation theory and start-ups testify.
  • Thirdly it widens the range for which we can make something. Bigger awareness of global issues and how they play out in our local community and context, allows us to come up with different things to make, that help address it. [Think hydro/aquaponics projects in derelict US inner cities]
  • When you put all of those together, ‘making’ is the local expression of global knowledge and awareness, that in turn can serve as a trigger for interaction and change locally.

    Viewed this way, making is a communal process. Communal both in its source of knowledge and inspiration, as well as in the context and rationale of where the stuff you made is put to use. Process, as in the full cycle from awareness of issues, ideation, and creation, all the way to application, impact, and sharing the resulting insights again.

    Seeing making as an individual act towards a solitary object obscures the layered richness making in the digital age is an expression of. A maker is not doing DIY, but a maker becomes a bridge or boundary spanner between his own local community and other wider global communities, as well as becomes a community hacker.

    At ThingsCon in Berlin and 3D Camp in Limerick next month, as well as at our own MidSummer Unconference ‘Make Stuff That Matters’ in June, I will take this perspective of ‘Making as communal process’ as starting point.

    Making Things Tangible

    We see and think differently with our hands than with our eyes and heads. Whenever we make something tangible it has the potential to change our perspective.

    This became tangible again for me last December when I participated in Wiro Kuiper’s ‘Lego serious play’ workshop. Handling lego stones, seeing something take shape in your hands, involves a different part of your brain while thinking on questions like “what is it that I do for clients?” as depicted in the pic below. (Add your guess as to what it means in the comments 😉 )

    Lego Serious Play Workshop
    What I do for clients, @ lego serious play workshop

    Since that workshop I have been musing about how ‘making something tangible’ could play a role in more of my work situations. Without much progress.


    Tangible statistics, MAKE.opendata.ch

    Recently we acquired a 3D printer at home. Previously I have encountered 3d printing ear hangers from visualized statistics based on open data (shown above), and I discussed that idea with Elmine. She, for a little side project of her, printed the two items below.

    tangible statsElmine’s 3d printed statistics

    They are both printed statistics: the small one is the number of Germans in the Dutch border region, and the bigger one the number of Dutch in the German border region (data source). Each by itself does not mean much to me. But in combination they are very interesting again: they make differences in amount tangible. You can feel the difference when you take the objects in your hands. Tangible infographics as it were.

    Where could I apply that? And also, how to overcome my reluctance to make things tangible like this early / quickly as part of my own exploration (I tend to keep everything in text or in my head)?

    Hacking Education, Beyond Texts and Books

    Last week Thursday the one day workshop ‘Hack die Bildung‘ (Hacking Education) took place in Berlin. For a general description read the previous posting. This posting describes the theme I introduced as ‘host’ during the speed geeking rounds: beyond text and books. Explaining it all in the previous posting would have taken too much text 🙂
    I pointed to 2 developments I think are impacting the way we (can) deal with lineair ways of information distribution like text documents and books.
    First of all the amount of available information that comes at us (due to increased connectivity and resulting dynamics), which makes pattern recognition over large bodies of info more important than actual reading all that info. Headline scanning on steroids. Already 4 years ago I described how that has changed my daily info-diet routine
    (filtering, tools, input routine). It means that most of my outside-in information reading has moved beyond books and longer texts (I don’t read books as primary source e.g. but follow the authors), and that only inside-out information consumption still contains a largish text focus. This because filtering information, validating it, etc now all completely falls to me as tasks (not to some editor e.g.), and I have to be very picky when it comes to giving attention to a larger body of text. Even though I still regard my self as a through and through text oriented person, and our home is filled with books.
    The second observation I shared was the notion that lineair texts are by definition very ill-suited to convey complex situations and problem descriptions, while the level of complexity in our societies is increasing (again due to increased connectivity and the resulting dynamics of that). I think it is that limitation what makes literature so great and fun, following all the complex storylines and interactions through the detailed description of the life of the protagonists. We intuit life’s complexity more from that than it is actually spelled out, and we enjoy grasping at what we intuit between the lines. At the same time we now realize it makes for a crappy information carrier for complex situations. What is great and fun for literature, is a bug for other texts.
    Also where book printing was first the start of a new era of abundance, it has now become a place of scarcity as our general level of connectedness has increased so much bringing new demands to the speed, availability and interdependence of information flows.

    If books were invented now, excerpt from Dutch VPRO documentary De Toekomst – Game over & over’ with Steven Johnson, january 2006.
    Hence the increasing availability of tools like Tinderbox that help you first to map out complexity, and then turn portions of it into lineair texts for publishing. (Regular mind mapping tools don’t suffice, as they still only allow you to build hierarchical structures from a single starting node.) Hence the interest in visualization techniques, which often yield new insights.
    Hence the popularity of piling strategies (Gmail, everything in one folder) versus filing
    strategies (Outlook folders). Video, audio are both ways to escape the lineair demands of texts as well. Audio has always been a medium of choice for complex pattern conveyance, which we usually call music. Try writing that down in prose. We’ve also been saying ‘a picture is worth more than a thousand words’ for ages. Cliches like that have a reason for existing. The number of tools that have lowered the threshold for us to create and share both video and audio material is large. See Videoboo or audioboo just for one example. This regardless of problems we have in retreiving/refinding/searching material like that, I am now talking about conveying complex messages.
    Games are another segment where we’ve made great progress in escaping the linearity of texts. Whether it is the gaming environments the military use to train troops in adaptive responses to a complex area of deployment, or whether it is for us to learn the consequences of the laws of nature like with Phun. Things like that convey the subtle interactions and chains of causality much more clearly than my physics book ever could (though I must say the teacher compensated that with experiments)

    Blog Action Day ’09: Holding Questions on Climate Change

    This posting is part of ‘Blog Action Day’ on Climate Change.
    We always, I think, ‘cheated’ to grow/progress by adding stuff from ‘outside’ to our societies/economies that we otherwise treated as a closed system: serfdom, conquering, colonization, the new world, slavery, coal and oil, to name a few.
    Now everything is connected, we’re all in the same global complexopolis (I just made that word up), and there’s no ‘outside’ the system anymore to cheat with. (Except for credit-based money creation, which went bust recently as well). So we’re locked into a closed system. All of us, all 6.5 billion and counting.

    P1000759.JPG

    Climate change is just one of the elements in that mix: the result of us cheating the system by digging up coal and oil and adding them to the carbon cycle again. It concerns a number of other greenhouse-causing gases, and it concerns all of our resources, phosphates, metals, carbons, you name it. CO2 is just the current poster child of choice.
    And we’re only half waking up to the fact that we’ve closed each and every loop in the system now. Back to where other species have spent their entire existence, inside their fixed niches in the ecosystem.
    I have no clue how to ‘fix’ it, I assume there is no easy fix nor a quick one. It will need an overhaul of most of our ways of doing things. How I as an individual can contribute to that, I don’t know. I’m more or less in the same spot Peter is in. Rationally I’m on board but the difference engine that is my brain is largely indifferent still, just worried in a diffused kind of way.

    Lighthouse on Hiddensee

    Of course there are things an individual can do, buy local, consume less, avoid flying, use public transport in stead of my car, donate boat paint, go favela chic. But does it really make a difference? Am I better at it than my dead great grandfather? Can you really get to e.g. the 80% CO2 reduction that is required of us Westerners if you stick to a 2 degree average rise in global temperature, while giving other nations a chance of reaching our levels of well being (which is the moral choice to make here)? Which brings us to ‘cap and converge’ (not to be confused with cap and trade), cap CO2, know that all resources are capped as well, and converge to a more or less equal ‘budget’ for all world citizens. Will that be achievable, without yielding to a type of hair shirt green eco-fascism, which my green primary school teacher already warned me about when I was 11 in 1981? I find I lack data, and our societies processes lack the transparency to make an informed judgment.

    Lunch break conversations

    This is not a doom and gloom posting, far from it. It’s just that for now I am merely holding questions, and wondering what ‘working on things that matter’ should mean for me right now. What questions are you holding?
    (pics: random people going about their lifes, and enjoying themselves)