Brakman poem
A poem by Willem Brakman on the university’s steps: philosphy makes sense, science explains. But art shows, shows what it can’t say.

I facilitated two unconferences this week, on Monday and Thursday. The Industrial Design professorate at the Saxion University for Applied Sciences in Enschede celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Karin van Beurden who has been leading the professorate from the start wanted to have a celebratory event. Not to look back, but to look forward to the next 15 years. She also wanted to do it in a slightly unconventional way. Karin participated in one of our birthday unconferences, and asked me to help her shape the event. In the past 2 months, Karin, her colleague Nienke and I collaborated on this. It was unconventional in the eyes of the university’s board, as well as for the network Karin invited. So we had some explaining and managing of expectations to do in the run-up to the event.

When the professorate started, the theme of Karin’s inaugural speech was how “oysters turn their irritants into pearls”. Now after 15 years it was time to not just look at the pearls created during that period, but mostly at what the pearls of the future would be and thus the issues of today. Under this broad theme some 50 people participated in the unconference, and it was a pleasure to facilitate the process.

After opening up the space, making everyone feel at ease and explaining the process, we created a program for the afternoon in BarCamp style, listing 15 sessions across four spaces, in a 2 hour program.

the program on a whiteboard

What followed (the way I experienced it) was a carroussel of amazing stories, ranging from financing challenges for research projects, enabling alternative energy provision discussion, the psychological impact of turning breast prostheses from a medically framed issue into a fashion issue, and the use of 3d printing to reduce time needed in operation rooms. Afterwards we had a pleasant bbq and further conversations nearby, and during the train ride back I had further good conversation with one of the participants. It was a pleasant day to be back in Enschede.

FabLab Session
One of the sessions, in the FabLab space
A session in the FabLab Enschede space

Discussing the energy grid
Using pluggable hexagons to discuss energy grid issues

Medical 3d prints
3d printed elements for bone reconstruction

What stood out for me was how various participants encountering the format for the first time, immediately realised its potential for their own work. The university’s chair mentioned how she would like to do this with her board to more freely explore issues and options for the university. A professor remarked how it might be a good way to have better, more varied project evaluation sessions with students in his courses. Also, judging by the conversations I had, we succeeded apparently in creating a space and set-up that felt safe for a range of very personal stories and details to be shared.

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As I had a few minutes before my train left, I got to visit our favourite ice cream parlor in Enschede, our home town until 2 years ago. We haven’t found a comparably good ice cream vendor in Amersfoort.

(At CaL earlier this month in Canada, someone asked me if I did unconference facilitation as work. I said no, but then realised I had two events lined up this week putting the lie to that ‘no’. This week E suggested we might start offering training on how to host and facilitate an unconference.)

Saturday I visited the Maker Faire in Eindhoven. Jeroen of the Frysklab team invited me to come along, when their mobile FabLab was parked in our courtyard for Smart Stuff That Matters. They had arranged a touring car to take a group of librarians and educators to the Maker Faire, and invited me to join the bus ride. So I took a train to Apeldoorn and then a taxi out to a truck stop where the bus was scheduled to stop for a coffee break, and then joined them for the rest of the drive down south.

The Maker Faire was filled with all kinds of makers showing their projects, and there was a track with 30 minute slots for various talks.
It was fun to walk around, meet up with lots of people I know. Lots of projects shown seemed to lack a purpose beyond the initial fascination of technological possibilities however. There were many education oriented projects as well, and many kids happily trying their hand on them. From a networked agency point of view there were not that many projects that aimed for collective capabilities.

Some images, and a line or two of comment.

Makerfair Eindhoven
En-able, a network of volunteers printing 3d-printed prosthetics, was present. Talked to the volunteer in the image, with his steam-punk prosthetic device. They printed 18 hands and arm prosthetics for kids in the Netherlands last year, and 10 this year until now. Children need new prosthetics every 3 to 6 months, and 3d printing them saves a lot of costs and time. You even get to customise them with colors, and your favourite cartoon figure or super hero.

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3d printing with concrete, a project in which our local FabLab Amersfoort is involved. Didn’t get to see the printer working alas.

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Novelty 3d printing of portraits.

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Building your own electronic music devices.

Makerfair Eindhoven Makerfair Eindhoven
Bringing LED-farming to your home, open source. Astroplant is an educational citizen science project, supported by ESA.

Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
Robot football team versus kids team. Quite a few educational projects around robotics were shown. Mostly from a university of applied sciences, but with efforts now branching out to preceding education levels. Chatted to Ronald Scheer who’s deeply involved in this (and who participated in our Smart Stuff That Matters unconference).

Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
A good way to showcase a wide range of Microbit projects by school children. I can see this mounted on a class room wall.

Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
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An open source 3d-printed, arduino controlled android. But what is it for? Open source robotics in general is of interest of course. There were also remote controlled robots, which were quite a lot of fun, as the video shows.

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At the fringe of the event there was some steam punk going on.

Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
Building with card board boxes for children. Makedo is an Australian brand, and next to their kits, you can find additional tools and elements as 3d printable designs online.

Maker Faire Eindhoven
The Frysklab team presented the new Dutch language Data Detox kit, which they translated from the English version the Berlin based Tactical Tech Collective created.

Earlier this year I worked closely with the Frisian Library Service to create the project ‘Impact through connection, at school‘ together. At the core was my model of agency and a process I designed to guide a group towards exploring using both technology and methods to address a local issue. Today I had a conversation with Jeroen de Boer, of the FryskLab team, who had involved me in putting my idea to practice, at a primary school with a group of 10 year olds. We talked about what came after the project that took place in January to March.

Group photo with the class
The class and our team in front of the Frysklab truck last March

That’s when I received some awesome feedback.

“Your experimental process has basically become the way we work now during workshops and with groups”.

He also had heard from the teacher of the class we worked with that “the pupils said it was the best thing in the entire school year”.

The project was partly financed by the Dutch Royal Library and they indicated it was “one of the most inspiring projects they helped finance this year”.

That sounds like a great starting point to explore what else we can do together next year.

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.

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Gathering the group for the final group picture

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

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

Every day I save a bunch of links from my explorations over the interwebs. Stuff that passes my radar, may become fodder for my writing at some point, but often gets piled and forgotten.I thought maybe it is good to share some of the unsought links I encounter, and some of the notions why I bookmarked it. Blogging of course used to be linklogging, sharing links to your blog neighbourhood, so let’s say it’s returning to a respected tradition. Here are a fistful of links from this week.

    Distributed web

  • IPFS, a distributed way of delivering webpages and files. Pointed out to me in the context of my postings on distributedness and agency. Napsterizing/torrenting everything. Also seems to want to preserve everything on the web better.
  • Steem is a blockchain based social media platform. Aims to ‘pay’ you for contributing, and do the bookkeeping in a blockchain ledger. Not sure that may work, nor that permanent records of each social media utterance are desirable. Like with IPFS mentioned above, ’not forgetting’ may not be a feature but a very concerning social bug. My friend Boris Mann is trying it out, looking forward to reading more of his reflections. I may not understand, I never understood the purpose of Medium either, which superficially seems to be the same thing but without the bookkeeping.
  • Anil Dash reflects on the lost infrastructure of social media. This resonates strongly with me in terms of what made blogging so exciting 10-15 years ago, as well as with my recent writings about agency. Part of the picture is weaving a tapestry of functionality across different services and tools that together are a potent mix. It needs plumbing like RSS, trackback and discoverability over the lines of conversations distributed over the individual blogs of the participants. My friend Lilia did her Phd on those distributed conversations. And as Hoder wrote seeing the web again after six years in an Iranian prison: much of our web now, such as Facebook, is just TV, not coffee house interaction.
    Governance

  • Free private cities. Sign up to live in one, so you have an ‘equal’ position based on contracted service provision. Because tinkering with democracy and the fact that others have different needs is bothersome, or such. Apparantly the social contract isn’t good enough. This has high overtones of Snowcrash Burbclaves, and the micro-democracy states (100.000 people each, and with every election there is freedom of movement globally to pick the government (corporate, value or ethnicity based) of your choice in the very entertaining near-future SF book Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older. These private city contracts don’t seem to account for the cost of leaving if you cancel your contract, as it is still territory bound, so finding a new service provider means physically moving. With all the social and monetary cost of doing that. Also seems to me that the Principality of Monaco held up as a good practice example, incorporated US towns, or the City of London for that matter provide ample demonstration of why this may not be the way forward to a more inclusive global society.
    Effectiveness

  • The Ribbon Farm, a blog by Venkatesh Rao, newly added to my feed-reader. His recent newsletter edition on premature synchronization as a cause of problems, chimes with a lot of my experience. Converging too early (because there are just 10 minutes left in the meeting), or forcing convergence in a group doesn’t help much usually. The leading example in the link being military reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about “the world championship of armies” where the US military units were failing because they waited or tried to confirm orders continuously, and the Dutch fared better because they upon receiving others did what seemed worth doing based on context and observation, not seeking further orders and disregarding the literal meaning of orders in the process. Desyncing, as a practice seems valuable advice, and similar to making stuff distributed by design, or probe-based evolution. Seek out new perspectives and let yourself be challenged as part of your routines.