Early morning trip to the Eindhoven Makerfair. I am meeting a bus full of librarians first who are driving down from the north, a trip organised by the Frysklab team. Then we will drive to Eindhoven together.
This page is a Hub page, providing an overview of everything about Networked Agency in this wiki-section, with links and references leading away from it.
Networked Agency building blocks
This is my take on agency, which is a networked agency. I formulated it in 2016 as a way to express what unifies all my work, basically since I started working.
In our digital, globally networked and hence more complex age, we need a qualitatively different approach to agency.
This means embracing the affordances digitisation and networks give us.
This means designing our digital tools fully aligned with the core ideas behind interconnected networks (smart at the edges and within control of its users, can work alone yet (much better) locally or preferably globally connected).
This means taking complexity as a given, where experiences, probing, and responding to things play a key role, and recognising that this complexity makes an individual including its meaningful relations to others the relevant unit of agency.
This is networked agency.
Networked Agency, residing at the level of an individual plus its social context, I see consisting of three parts:
- Striking power. The ability to (collectively) act and create on your own accord. This is where low-threshold tools are important, as is knowledge of working methods and processes.
- Resilience. The ability to shield oneself against and mitigate negative consequences of other’s behaviour propagating through the network to you. This is where being able to work locally when disconnected is important, and temporarily suspending interdependencies. Next to early warning systems, and how to help put a brake on negative patterns you identify.
- Agility. The ability to leverage, adapt and respond to opportunities from other’s behaviour propagating through the network to you. This means sensing what is going on early, seeing what aligns with the interests and needs of the local network, how to use that for yourself, and how to feed attractive patterns with ones own contributions to help sustain them. (e.g. open source development).
Relevant blog postings:
- Agency Manifesto, a summary of my 2016 blog postings and manifesto
- On Agency Pt 1.: Embracing Distributedness to Increase Agency, on how tools need to be more aligned with the underlying network structures
- On Agency pt. 2: The Elements of Networked Agency, on the two qualitative differences with ‘regular’ agency: its relevant unit, and adding resilience and agility to striking power, as the former two are a consequence of the added social and networked layers
- On Agency Pt 3: Technology Needs for Increased Agency: Networked agency needs a combination of ‘hard’ (digital) technologies, and methods and processes that work well in a networked environment. This gives us both a design challenge and a design thinking aid.
As an example of a design aid, I created the image below:
Early 2017, in collaboration with the Frisian Library Service, we used the above to design a project with a primary school group, for them to design and create ‘solutions’ to things they wanted to change in their environment. The feedback was very positive, both from the participants, my project partners and the financing Dutch Royal Library. It turned into the basic working method of the Frisian Library Service, and we’re currently trying to extend that collaboration also with other local libraries in Europe.
At the June 2018 State of the Net conference in Trieste I gave a keynote on networked agency. A video, alongside my slides, is available.
Early last year the Frisian regional library service and I collaborated on a great experiment with a primary school class. Titled ‘Impact through connection’, we worked with a group of 10-year olds. They came up with things they’d like to change in their neighbourhood, and we assisted them in mastering the technologies and methods needed to do that. I designed the process, and guided that first group of pupils through the conversations to get them started on their designs. Since then the Frisian regional library service has used my process design in a series of projects.
Standing in the courtyard of the former prison Blokhuispoort. Photo Jeroen de Boer
Yesterday, as part of a video documenting some of the results, I was interviewed. Standing in the freezing cold wind in the court yard of the former prison in Leeuwarden, now bustling hub of creativity and start-ups, in this year’s European Capital of Culture, I answered questions. I might look to be nervous in the video, but I was actually shivering from the cold.
Being asked questions about a project a year ago was useful, as I heard myself put things into words that made them stand out more to me too.
Asked about a memory from the project that stands out for me, I mentioned the huge cheers and applause I got when I returned to the classroom for the third session. I had guided the group in the first session where I talked with them about the things they might want to do, listened to their ideas and together slowly created the first plans. The second session I could not attend, and then I showed up a bit late for the third, and was loudly cheered. Although it is of course nice to be cheered, what is important here is how it shows what we succeeded in doing that first session: build trust and make sure they realized we indeed listened to them and meant it when we said they were the ones to decide.
Another question was about the impact we achieved. Two things are important indicators I think. One of the children I met again during the summer on an Austrian campground by coincidence. The energy and inspiration was still there, six months on, so that seems a lasting effect. An effect also apparent from other feedback we got from the group. The other thing was that in the very first session several children talked about how they weren’t really good at anything or that something they were good at wasn’t useful. I found it quite shocking to hear that from these 10 year olds. One of the children said liking to make things beautiful, but that it wouldn’t be of use. We talked with the group about how in designing things, structure, function and look & feel are equally important. If an object isn’t well shaped it won’t be used, just as much as when it isn’t functional. We succeeded in counteracting some of those assumptions, I feel, and that’s a good lasting result. Making things beautiful was an important part of the project. Other kids, including one who said having no particular skill, came up with an important role in the project we had overlooked ourselves: reporting and documenting.
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
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier today I gave a short talk at 3D Camp in Limerick, Ireland. I explored how open data can inform digital making, and how digital making can help create data. So that we can get around to making things that matter, that solve something for us or the communities we’re part of. Away from making as an individual act, creating a single object. We’re not living up to the potential of social media, open data, internet of things and digital making. In part because we’re still learning, in part because these four things form silos, with not much cross-over. So I discussed how to build a bridge between open data and making. So we can best make use of the new affordances these new tools give us. That goes beyond acquiring skills (like being able to operate a laser cutter) to becoming making literate where you are able to detect what is needed for your living environment to work/be better, then conceptualize, and make a solution, that creates impact through application.
Yesterday I took part in a quick sketch noting workshop at Re:Publica.
Part of my approach for both the ThingsCon and Re:Publica conferences is to go to sessions I feel not immediately comfortable with. The ones that are a bit more challenging or outside my normal familiar topics. So starting RP14 with a sketchnoting workshop seemed the obvious thing to do, as it was the least obvious.
Sketchnoting is taking more visual notes of the presentations and sessions you are participating in. But it requires you to draw, and that can be a challenge.
The workshop taught some basics on how to draw, and to be pleased with the simple things. As long as they express meaning to you.
The workshop had quick instructions on how to draw figurines, faces and emotions, using symbols, text, boxes to emphasize, lines to connect or divide, depict movement, shadow and effects, as well as structuring or pre-structuring how you are going to take notes. Everyone got to apply the instructions themselves while they were explained. Some 200 people drawing like when they were 5 years old again.
There is a Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rhode, if you want to explore further. I’m even in it, as one my talks got sketchnoted during SHiFT 2010 in Lisbon by Bauke Schildt. His inner 5 yr old is way more skilled than mine, quite obviously.
[UPDATE 2: The video of the session is now on-line]
Yesterday I took a first step in a new experiment: I bought a desk top milling machine (Roland MX-15, see pic). At 750 Euro (compared to 3000 new), this second hand machine is price competitive with anything else currently on the (DIY) market. I bought the machine from Hanne van Essen, one of the founders of the Dutch FabLab Foundation (and on which board I currently serve).
Hopefully it is a first step to creating a ‘mini FabLab’ at home. An idea inspired by Bart Bakker who showed you can set-up a FabLab at home for under 3500 Euro, the great guys at FabLab Amersfoort who bootstrapped themselves into existence for 5000 Euro, as well as my own notions of a ‘Maker Household‘ and turning the home more into a productive unit (in terms of both energy as well as actual production), and creating more resilience in the context of our networks and our connected world.
Other elements that in time will be added to this miniFabLab:
- a laser cutter (the true work horse of any ‘making’ set-up. There’s a wonderful open source project LaOS. Cost will be 1500 Euro or so)
- a vinyl cutter (about 300 Euro)
- a micro electronics workbench (the next thing to do probably, some stuff I already have)
- a 3D printer (but they’ve got a way to go before they are truly useful at household level, currently last on my wish list)
The biggest challenge will be finding a space for all this in our home. The utility room would be possible but also needs to fit other things such as the washing machine and dryer, so it’s a challenge space wise. The shed might work space wise, but probably the big variations of temperature over the year in that space (it is not insulated from the outside) are probably detrimental to any equipment.
The experiment has started at least. Next up: planning time in my schedule to figure out how to work with the machine.