Category Archives: Learning

Unexpected Great Feedback

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.

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.

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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)

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

Shaking Trees: Changing the World, in the Face of Death

My friend Niels is dying and is celebrating life. Today he gave his ‘Last Lecture’ (viewable here in Dutch, Niels’ lecture starts at 42:00), following the example of Randy Pausch in 2008, in front of 400 people. He made us laugh, he made us think. He made us connect. So we can continue on after he’s no longer here. He turned us into his torch bearers, fakkeldragers in Dutch. That #fakkeldragers was the number 1 trending topic on Twitter in the Netherlands this morning, even as a major storm passed over and we like nothing more than discussing the weather, tells you a little something about Niels.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
400 people in the audience

I met Niels 10 years ago. He reached out to me online to ask me a question. Today he said to realize your dreams you have to start by asking a question. He asked me about learning online. He was a student then, and despite assurances to the contrary he could not access the univ’s buildings with his electric wheelchair and fully participate in the curriculum (Niels has spasticity and requires daily care). Undeterred he set out to arrange his own education online. We explored Second Life together, and we hung out in knowledge management fora, on blogs and social media. Only some 3 years later we finally met face to face, on a Mobile Monday meet-up in Amsterdam. Later we were both active in the topic of complexity management, and worked together to help build up a new company around participatory narrative inquiry. He married, and became a father, and despite every Kafkaesk requirement the ‘system’ threw at him he cut out his own path and became an entrepreneur. “He does not think it is impossible he’ll hold a regular job” someone wrote in his case file once. Another that he was a difficult patient to work with as “he keeps insisting on creating his own plans”.

His sense of humor not only keeps him sane, but also is his primary ‘weapon’ to create a space to be heard in health care and social care discussions and systems that are mostly accustomed to deciding or talking over him. “My case file never mentions the happinness of our family or the joy I find in my work” as key to personal wellbeing. That also drives him as an entrepreneur, where ever he goes he brings together those stakeholders that normally don’t enter into a proper conversation, and in those conversations plants the seeds to make the social and health care system work better. To replace faceless bureaucracy with a human face. To align the sometimes bewildering logic of the system with the logic of actual life. To make the system more efficient as well as more effective that way. Niels his last name roughly translates into English as Shaking Tree, and that became his brand. Shakingtree Interventions shakes things up. All trees in the Netherlands shook today, because of the mentioned storm, and it seems a fitting tribute.

A testament to him shaking things up is that the Secretary General of the Ministry of Health Care was an opening speaker today. He launched the annual ‘Shakingtree Award’ and presented the first one to Niels himself. At the same time he asked Niels, as he is wont to do anyway, to set the criteria for the Shaking Tree Award. Those criteria center around having experience with the health care system, being able to shake things up, and having a sense of humor.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
The Shakingtree Award Statue, a tree of touching hands

Even if this maybe, hopefully, isn’t his real last lecture, “I hope I will have cancer for a very long time”, it was a great day to call upon 400 friends, colleagues and strangers to step up and be a torch bearer, a #fakkeldrager. That message, even without his personal shout-out to me to ‘fix this already’ (to use maker spaces to create cheaper tools and adptations), was loud and clear to all I think. Niels wants us to learn how to “dance with the system“, that was his lesson for us today. He is launching a ‘social domain lab’ to continue teaching that.

Today was a good and a fun day, despite the reason why it was organized. Or as Niels quoted Pema Chödrön “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” Over the past 18 months in my personal life I’ve learned (again) that to me beauty resides in that room where such layeredness is allowed to exist. Today reinforced it once more. Thank you Niels.

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How to Leave Evernote?

Evernote
How to deal with the green elephant in the room?

After I quit using Gmail earlier this year, Evernote has become my biggest silo and single point of failure in my workflow. I have been using it since October 2010 with a premium account, and maintain some 4500 notes, about 25GB total in size. With my move away from Gmail, my use of Evernote has actually increased as well. Part of my e-mail triage process now is forwarding receipts etc to Evernote, before removing them from my mail box.

As with leaving Gmail, there are no immediately visible alternatives to Evernote, that cater to all convenient affordances I have become accustomed to. This was already apparant when I quit Gmail, when Peter Rukavina and I exchanged some thoughts about it. So in order to make the first steps towards ditching Evernote, I will follow the recipe I derived from leaving Gmail, as I presented it at the Koppelting conference in August.

Why do I want to leave?

  • It’s a single point of failure for both private and work related material
  • It’s on US servers, and I would like my own cloud instead
  • It’s not exportable in a general format

What I don’t like about Evernote

  • No easy way to get an overview or visualisation of my notes (although notes are easy to link, those links are not visible as a network)
  • No easy way to mine the total of notes, aside from regular search for specific notes
  • No way to let Evernote use my own cloud / server for storage
  • No reliable way to share with others who are not Evernote users themselves

What I like about Evernote

  • Really everything can be a note
  • It’s cross device (I consult material on my phone, and store e.g. boarding passes there during travel)
  • It has good webclippers for most browsers (allowing choosing the destination notebook, tags, and add remarks)
  • I can easily share to Evernote from most apps on my phone
  • I can e-mail material to it, while indicating destination notebook and adding tags
  • I can automate Evernote stuff with Applescript (I e.g. integrate Evernote with my other core tools Things (todo lists) and Tinderbox (mindmapping)
  • It makes handwritten stuff, images, and scans searchable (even if it doesn’t convert everything to text)

Next steps will be coming up with viable solutions and alternatives for each of those points, and see if I can then integrate those into a coherent whole again. Terry Frazier pointed me to The Brain again today on FB. The Brain is a tool I heavily used from 18 to 13 years ago. It turns out this mindmapping/note taking tool is still around. It currently works cross-device and has Android and iOS apps, and allows attaching files and navigating links in a visual way. It comes at a hefty price though, and still looks like it really is from 1998. Will explore a bit if it might fit my needs enough to give it another try.

Koppelting – Session on Leaving Gmail

This weekend the grassroots FabLab conference ‘Koppelting‘ is taking place in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Together with Dirk van Vreeswijk I’ll be doing a session this morning on how to leave Gmail and other walled gardens.

In this session I try to summarize the way I constructed my path out of Gmail in such a manner that it becomes a guide that may enable others to act for themselves. The talk explains why I wanted to leave Gmail, how I finally found a way, and what the replacement solution(s) are I now use. It ends with a ‘recipe’, based on how I found a way out of Gmail, to help you think about what keeps you in your own walled gardens, so it becomes easier to explore alternatives.

Outline and slides
Setting the scene:

  • Using gmail since July 2004
  • 250.000 conversations, across 770.000 messages. 21GB total.
  • 12 years the central hub for all my personal and work e-mail

Why I wanted to leave

  • In part: everything was on US servers
  • In part: because Google with my Gmail and all other data has a very extensive profile of me
  • But most of all: Gmail was a single point of failure. Losing access would mean losing everything concerning mail communications

How I left Gmail

  • From early 2014 started seriously considering it
  • Getting to action was hard as it is extremely easy to use what you have, to stick in your routine. Ease of use keeps you locked in
  • Finding “The Alternative” seemed impossible. Until I thought about the specific aspects that made Gmail so easy for me
    • Multiple addresses into 1 inbox
    • Cross device availability
    • Great filtering and tagging
    • A generic mail address as throw away mail
    • Spam filtering
    • Large free storage space
    • Great search
  • Two core things stood out after making the list
    1. GMail makes it easy to be lazy (piling not filing). I needed to treat myself to a better process: spend a few seconds now (delete, file, delegate), to save more time on search later
    2. What made Gmail great to me in 2004, is now widely available functionality and technology

What I have now
This is described in more detail in my earlier posting that triggered this session. For each item that made Gmail attractive to me I searched for an alternative. Recombining them into a new workflow is a viable alternative for my Gmail usage as a whole. Apart from the technology replacements, key part is up front contemplation and more continuous reflection on my working process. I’m a piler, not a filer, but adding a few seconds during e-mail triage to at least decide putting it in a pile that is not my Inbox, makes all the difference.

The slides are available in PDF on this site, and will be embedded below (currently upload is failing).

Leaving a walled garden planning aid
Although the path for me leaving Gmail took quite a bit of time, I think the journey can be abstracted into a recipe to make it easier to spot your own path out of a walled garden (Gmail, Dropbox, etc.)
The basic steps are:

  1. Pick the walled garden you want to leave
  2. List all the things that make it so convenient for you
  3. Reflect on what that list tells you, about your process and your tools
  4. Find replacements for each element, then recombine them into your new workflow
  5. Share what you found and did, so it is easier for others to follow in your footsteps

The outline and collaborative notes from the session are online on one of the etherpads of the Koppelting conference.

About Koppelting
Koppel is an old Dutch word for communal fields, Ting a Germanic word for a meeting of the free. Organized by the Amersfoort FabLab, a fully opensourced bootstrapped FabLab, Koppelting is the annual grassroots festival about peer production and free/libre alternatives for society.

Germanische-ratsversammlung_1-1250x715Germanic Ting, after the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, public domain

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

The Evolution and Role of My Agency Postings: Finding My Unifier

I finally wrote down the full overview of how I look at agency in our networked world, and the role of distributed technology in it, in the past weeks (part 1, part 2, part 3). It had been a long time coming. Here is a brief overview of its origins, and why it matters to me.

Origins
I previously (in the past 18-24 months) wrote down parts of it in rants I shared with others, and as a Manifesto that I wrote in January 2015 to see if I could start a hardware oriented venture with several others. I rewrote it for draft research project proposals (the image below resulted from that in June 2015) that ultimately weren’t submitted, and as a project proposal that resulted in the experiment we will start in the fall to see if we can turn it into a design method, which in itself will become an agency-inducing tool.

But the deeper origins are older, and suffused with everything I over time absorbed from my blogging network and the (un-)conference visits where those bloggers met, such as Reboot in Copenhagen. The first story I created around this was my 2008 presentation at Reboot 10, where I formulated my then thoughts on the type of attitudes, skills and tools we need in the networked age.
There I placed the new networked technology in the context of the social structures it is used in (and compared that to what came before) and what it means for people’s attitudes and skills to be able to use it in response to increased complexity. The bridge between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technology I mention in the three blogpostings on Agency, originates there.

The second story is my closing keynote speech at the SHiFT conference in Lisbon in 2010 (where we had to stay on a week because of the Icelandic ash cloud closing down European airspace). I blogged the submitted talk proposal, and video and slides are also available. There I talked about doing things yourself as a literacy (where literacy in the Howard Rheingold sense implies not just a skill but deploying that skill in the context of a community for it to be valuable), on the back of internet as our new infrastructure (an echo of Reboot 2008). I suggested that that socially embedded DIY was not just empowering in itself, but very necessary to deal with a complex networked world. Not just to be able to create value for yourself, but to be resilient in the face of ‘small world syndrom’ (the global networks finally making visible we live on a finite world) and cascading failures that propagate at the speed of light over our networks exposing us to things we would previously be buffered from or would have time to prepare for. I proposed the term Maker Households as the unit where DIY literacy (i.e. skills plus community) and local resilience meet, to create a new abundance based on the technical tools and methods that the networked world brings us. I was much more optimistic then how those tools and methods had already lowered the barrier to entry and merely pointed to the need to better learn to apply what is already there. I called upon the audience to use their skills and tools in the context of community, with the Maker Household as its local unit of expression. From those local units, a new global economy could grow (as the root meaning of the word economy is household).

Since then these notions have been on my mind daily but usually absorbed into every day work. I registered the domain name makerhouseholds.eu with the intention of writing up my SHiFT talk into an e-book, but never sat down to do it and let everyday life get in its way. Over time I became ever more convinced of the importance of these notions, as incumbent institutions started to crumble more and general discontent kept rising. At the same time I more strongly realized that the needed technology was failing to create more agency beyond a circle of power-users, and where broad adoption was taking place it was because key affordances were being dropped in favor of ease of use and ease of business models. Especially when I in 2014 started to explore how to make myself less dependent on tools that were providing convenience, but at the cost of exposing myself to single points of failure in what should be networked and distributed, and realized how much work it is to make the tools work for you (like maintaining your own server, or leaving Gmail). That triggered the ranting I mentioned, solidifying my conviction that Maker Households should be about packaging technology in ways that make it easy for people to increase their agency, without compromising their resilience.

Personal importance: Agency as unifier
Why this long overview? Because it seems it led me to finally finding ways to express what unifies my work of the past almost 20 years. As a kid I felt everything was connected, although everyone seemed to want put everything into discreet boxes. Internet and digitization made the connectedness all true, and I’ve been fascinated with the potential and consequences of that ever since I first went online in 1989, over 25 years ago. That unifier has however been elusive to me, even as all my work has always been about making it possible for others to better understand their situation and by using technology more purposefully act together with their peers based on their own perceptions of needs and wants. That was what drove me towards the change management side of introducing technology in groups and organizations, what drives my interest in dealing with complexity, informal learning networks, and the empowering aspects of various internet- and digitisation driven technologies such as social media, digital maker machines, and open data. That unifier has been elusive to my clients and peers often as well. I regularly have people call me saying something like “I don’t understand what it is you do, but whenever I search for things I think might help, your name comes up, so I thought I’d better call you.” Increasing agency as a unifier, from which different areas of expressing that flow, may put that confusion to rest.

Agency, as unifier, also makes the ‘menu’ below the way for me to explore additional fields and activities.

Agency by Ton Zylstra

On Agency Pt 3: Technology Needs for Increased Agency

This is the last of three postings about how I see agency in our networked era.
In part 1 I discussed how embracing the distributedness that is the core design feature of the internet needs to be an engine for agency. In part 2 I discussed how agency in the networked era is about both the individual and the immediate group she’s part of in the various contexts those groups exist, and consists of striking power, resilience and agility. In this third part I will discuss what we need to demand from our technology.

My perception of agency more or less provides the design brief for the technology that can support it.

Agency as the design brief for technology
If distributed networks are the leading metaphor for agency, then technology needs to be like that too.

If agency is located in both the individual and the social context of an immediate group the individual is functioning in for a given purpose, then technology needs to be able to support both the individual and group level, and must be trustworthy at that level.

If agency consists of local striking power, resilience, and agility, then technology must be able to take in global knowledge and perspective, but also be independently usable, and locally deployable, as well as socially replicable.

If technology isn’t really distributed, than at least it should be easy to avoid it becoming a single point of failure for your and your groups use case.

Two types of tech to consider
This applies to two forms of technology. The ‘hard’ technology, hardware and software, the stuff we usually call technology. But also the ‘soft’ technology, the way we organize ourselves, the methods we use, the attitudes we adopt.

Technology should be ‘smaller’ than us
My mental shorthand for this is that the technology must be smaller than us, if it is to provide us with agency that isn’t ultimately depending on the benevolence of some central point of authority or circumstances we cannot influence. In 2002 I described the power of social media (blogs, wiki’s etc.), when they emerged and became the backbone for me and my peer network, in exactly those terms: publishing, sharing and connecting between publishers became ‘smaller’ than us, so we could all be publishers. We could run our own outlet, and have distributed conversations over it. Over time our blog or rather our writing was supplanted, by larger blogging platforms, and by the likes of Facebook. This makes social media ‘bigger than us’ again. We don’t decide what FB shows us, breaking out of your own bubble (vital in healthy networks) becomes harder because sharing is based on pre-existing ‘friendships’ and discoverability has been removed. The erosion has been slow, but very visible, not only if you were disconnected from it for 6 years.

  • Smaller than us means it is easy enough to understand how to use the technology and has the possibility to tinker with it.
  • Smaller than us means it is cheap (in terms of time, money and effort) to deploy and to replace.
  • Smaller than us means it is as much within the scope of control/sphere of trust of the user group as possible (either you control your tools, or your node and participation in a much wider distributed whole).
  • Smaller than us means it can be deployed limited to the user group, while tapping into the global network if/when needed or valuable.

Striking power comes from the ease of understanding how to use technology in your group, the ability to tinker with it, to cheaply deploy it, and to trust or control it.
Resilience comes from being able to deploy it limited to the user group, even if the wider whole falls down temporarily, and easily replace the technology when it fails you, as well as from knowing the exact scope of your trust or control and reducing dependancy based on that.
Agility comes from being able to use the technology to keep in touch with the global network, and easily alter (tinker), replace or upgrade your technology.

Technology needs an upgrade
Most of the technology that could provide us with new agency however falls short of those demands, so currently doesn’t.

It is mostly not distributed but often centralized, or at best ‘hubs and spokes’ in nature, which introduces trust and control issues and single points of failure. Bitcoins ultimate centralization of the needed computing power in Chinese clusters is one, Facebooks full control over what it shows you is another.

It is often not easy to use or deploy, requiring strong skill sets even when it is cheap to buy or even freely available. To use Liquid Feedback decision making software for instance, you need unix admin skills to run it. To use cheap computing and sensing/actuating hardware like Arduino, you need both software and electronics skills. Technology might also still be expensive to many.

Technologies are often currently deployed either as a global thing (Facebook), or as a local thing (your local school’s activity board), where for agency local with the ability to tap into the global is key (this is part of true distributedness), as well as the ability to build the global out of the many local instances (like mesh networks, or The Things Network). Mimicking the local inside the centralized global is not good enough (your local school’s closed page on FB). We also need much more ability to make distinctions between local and global in the social sense, between social contexts.

There are many promising technologies out there, but we have to improve on them. Things need to be truly distributed whenever possible, allowing local independence inside global interdependence. Deploying something for a given individual/group and a given use needs to be plug and play, and packaging it like that will allow new demographics to adopt it.

The types of technology I apply this to
Like I said I apply this to both ‘hard’ tech, and ‘soft’ tech. But all are technologies that are currently not accessible enough and underused, but could provide agency on a much wider scale with some tweaks. Together they can provide the agency that broad swathes of people seem to crave, if only they could see what is possible just beyond their fingertips.

The ‘hard’ technologies where barriers need to come further down I am thinking about are:

  • Low cost open source hardware
  • Digital making
  • Low cost computing (devices or hosted)
  • (open) data and data-analysis
  • IoT (sensors and actuators)
  • Mesh networking
  • Algorithms
  • Machine learning
  • Blockchain
  • Energy production
  • Agrotech
  • Biotech

The ‘soft’ technologies where barriers need to come further down I am thinking about are:

  • Peer organizing, organisational structures
  • Peer sourcing
  • Open knowledge
  • Iterative processes and probing design
  • Social media / media production
  • Community building practices
  • Networked (mental) models
  • Workflow and decision making tools
  • Community currencies / exchanges
  • Hacking ethics
  • Ethics by design / Individual rights

Putting it all together gives us the design challenge
Putting the list of social contexts (Agency pt 2) alongside the lists of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ techs, and the areas of impact these techs create agency towards, and taking distributedness (Agency pt 1) and reduced barriers as prerequisites, gives us a menu from which we can select combinations to work on.
If we take a specific combination of individuals in a social context, and we combine one or more ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technologies while bringing barriers down, what specific impact can the group in that context create for themselves? This is the design challenge we can now give ourselves.

In the coming months, as an experiment, with a provincial library and a local FabLab, we will explore putting this into practice. With groups of neighbours in a selected city we will collect specific issues they want to address but don’t currently see the means to (using a bare bones form of participatory narrative inquiry). Together we will work to lower the barriers to technology that allows the group to act on an issue they select from that collection. A separate experiment doing the same with a primary school class is planned as well.

Agency by Ton ZylstraAgency map, click to enlarge

On Agency pt. 2: The Elements of Networked Agency

Earlier this year I wrote a 1st posting of 3 about Agency, and I started with describing how a key affordance is the distributedness that internet and digitisation brings. A key affordance we don’t really fully use or realize yet.
I am convinced that embracing distributed technology and distributed methods and processes allows for an enormous increase in agency. A slightly different agency though: networked agency.

Lack of agency as poverty and powerlesness
Many people currently feel deprived of agency or even powerless in the face of the fall-out of issues originating in systems or institutions over which they have no influence. Things like the financial system and pensions, climate change impact, affordable urban housing, technology pushing the less skilled out of jobs etc. Many vaguely feel there are many things wrong or close to failing, but without an apparant personal path of action in the face of it.

In response to this feeling of being powerless or without any options to act, there is fertile ground for reactionary and populist movements, that promise a lot but are as always incapable of delivering at best and a downright con or powerplay at worst. Lashing out that way at least brings a temporary emotional relief, but beyond that is only making things worse.

In that sense creating agency is the primary radical political standpoint one can take.
Lack of agency I view as a form of poverty. It has never been easier to create contacts outside of your regular environment, it has never been easier to tap into knowledge from elsewhere. There are all kinds of technologies, initiatives and emerging groups that can provide new agency, based on those new connections and knowledge resources. But they’re often invisible, have a barrier to entry, or don’t know how to scale. It means that many suffering from agency poverty actually have a variety of options at their fingertips, but without realizing it, or without the resources (albeit time, tools, or money) to embrace it. That makes us poor, and poor people make poor choices, because other pathways are unattainable. We’re thirsty for agency, and luckily that agency is within our grasp.

Agency in the networked age is different in two ways
The agency within our grasp is however slightly different in two ways from what I think agency looked like before.

Different in what the relevant unit of agency is
The first way in which it is different is what the relevant unit of agency is.
Agency in our networked age, enabling us to confront the complexity of the issues we face, isn’t just individual agency, nor does it mean mass political mobilisation to change our institutions. Agency in a distributed and networked complex world comes from the combination of individuals and the social contexts and groupings they are part of, their meaningful relations in a context.

It sees both groups and small scale networks as well as each individual that is a node in them as the relevant units to look at. Individuals can’t address complexity, mass movements can’t address it either. But you and I within the context of our meaningful relationships around us can. Not: how can I improve my quality of life? Not: how can I change city government to improve my neighborhood? But: what can I do with my neighbours to improve my neighborhood, and through that my own quality of life?
There are many contexts imaginable where this notion of me & my relevant group simultaneously as the appropiate unit of scale to look at agency exists:

  • Me and my colleagues, me and my team
  • Me and my remote colleagues
  • Me on my street, on my block
  • Me in my part of town
  • Me and the association I am a member of
  • Me and the local exchange trading group
  • Me and my production coop
  • Me and my trading or buying coop
  • Me and my peer network(s)
  • Me and my coworking space
  • Me in an event space
  • Me and my home
  • Me in my car on the road
  • Me traveling multi-modal
  • Me and my communities of interest
  • Me and my nuclear family
  • Me and my extended (geographically distributed) family
  • Me and my dearest
  • Me and my closest friends

agency comes from both the individual and immediate group level (photo JD Hancock, CC-BY)

For each of these social contexts you can think about which impact on which issues is of value, what can be done to create that impact in a way that is ‘local’ to you and the specific social context concerned.

Different in how agency is constituted based on type of impact
Impact can come in different shades and varieties, and that is the second way in which my working definition of agency is different. Impact can be the result of striking power, where you and your social context create something constructively. Impact can take the form of resilience, where you and your social context find ways to mitigate the fall-out of events or emergencies propagating from beyond that social context. Impact can be agility, where you and your social context are able to detect, assess and anticipate emerging change and respond to it.

So agency becomes the aggregate of striking power, resilience and agility that you and your social context individually and collectively can deliver to yourself, by making use of the potential that distributedness and being networked creates.
Whether that is to strengthen local community, acting locally on global concerns, increasing resilience, leverage and share group assets, cooperatively create infrastructure, create mutual support structures, scaffold new systems, shield against broken or failing systems, in short build your own distributed and networked living.

Designing for agency
For each of those contexts and desired impacts you can think about and design the (virtual and real) spaces you need to create, the value you seek, the levels of engagement you can/should accommodate, the balancing of safety and excitement you desire, the balance you need between local network density and long distance connections for exposure to other knowledge and perspectives, the ways you want to increase the likelihood of serendipity or make space for multiple parallel experimenting, the way you deal with evolution in the social context concerned, and the rhythms you keep and facilitate.

The tools that enable agency
To be able to organize and mobilise for this, we need to tap into two types of enabling technology, that help us embrace the distributedness and connectedness I described in part 1. The ‘techie’ technology, which is comprised of hard- and software tools, and the ‘soft’ technology which consists of social processes, methods and attitudes.
What types of technologies fit that description, and what those technologies need to be like to have low enough adoption thresholds to be conducive to increased agency, is the topic of part 3.