Aaron Parecki has been playing around with sensors in his home. He lists the three principles he applies to how his home automation is set up:

  • Manual override: Everything automated has to still have the ability to be controlled manually
  • Keep it at home: No “cloud” services unless absolutely necessary (e.g. push notifications to a phone)
  • Open: Avoid vendor lock-in, use open source and open protocols where possible

These are three principles that make sense in more contexts, where the second principle “keep it at home” I relate to the “useful on its own, more useful when connected to other instances” element that is important to me in thinking about smart homes.

Rather impressive is that Aaron is dropping technology that has been acquired by silos, and breaks those principles after he started using it, and not just uses them to inform buying decisions.

Silo-imprisonment and closed tools result in a smart home that isn’t smart for you, but smart for the vendors. Like how Smart City TM visions were about dull boring security focused panopticons keeping people in check. Not the vibrant community where ideas, people, capital, goods and artisanship recombine into a total so much more than the sum of its parts, where smart technology aids those serendipitous recombinations.

A smart home to me is one that is not just a dwelling but a productive actor (a “MakerHousehold“), for the people that live in it, for its immediate neighbourhood and for the city it is in. This was what I was interested in when shaping the ‘Smart Stuff That Matters‘ unconference last year.

Aaron got me thinking about potential sensors in our home again. Also because data gathering is the starting point for finding points of action. AI for the rest of us I think needs to be based on self collected data around the house / person, mixed with public data for context.

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Over the past few weekends I’ve been overhauling my home automation systems. At the core, as I decide what to buy and how to configure it, there are three primary principles

This article in the Atlantic talks about families using tools like Trello and Slack to keep track of each others activities and tasks.
It calls it treating the home like the office or running the household like a business and presents it like an oddity if not a 21st century abberation of family life. E.g. tracking how often you call your mom.

I find the tongue in cheek tone rather tone deaf. It misses the point on several levels.
The examples are not showing how families are run like an office or business. Families are seeing parallels between work and private processes.
After all task allocation and keeping track of each other is important in the household too. Besides households are the original economic unit.

Tracking tasks, also for children, has been around for ages. Dalton schools, with their focus on independent learning tasks, have had to do / doing / done boards since the 1920s.
Hallways and refrigerator doors have displayed lists and overviews forever too. My grandma kept track of everything in notebooks, how many beans harvested and stored for the winter, how much fuel used etc.
All it shows is that what families have been doing all along is also done using tools imagined for a work environment. Just like owning carpentry tools was once limited to masters who were members in a guild, and are now found in every household.

That is useful for several reasons. It helps make sure that the household and family get at least equal attention as areas of responsibility.
Keeping track of work but not the home easily means the home gets attention when all else is finished, which it never is.
For that reason I have areas in my GTD todo lists for me personally, family, daughter, partner and the house. Similarly I have long term goal descriptions for them too.

We would never have moved so quickly and readily early 2017 if we had not set it as a goal in the summer of 2013 to be ready by the end of 2016 for it.
It meant building up the financial buffer for it, and thinking about where we would want to live. As part of that we regularly temporarily moved to other cities for a month to figure out what we wanted.
Since July 2013 when we set the goal on the balcony of a friends home in Switzerland, I kept track of what we needed to do for it in my GTD tools.

It does sometimes feel odd to track things like how often I spoke to my parents. But it was necessary as my parents would often forget when we talked last. Sometimes telling me it had been weeks when it was yesterday.
So I made sure I called them at least once a week by having it in my todo lists. I also kept notes especially when their health deteriorated as they would tell my sisters different things, so we could compare.

For the household and for our family we have shared Evernote notebooks. To share receipts, info about daycare, holiday plans, or my itinerary when I travel for work.
Weekly we look ahead at what is happening the next week or two.

I mentioned the household being the original economic unit, and in one aspect it means I do treat it as a business.
Optimising household income also means I regularly spend time assisting Elmines business, as she does mine. It helps maintain and increase our freedom of action.
Every Euro I help her make and she me being better at what I do means improvement for us and providing our daughter with a good start in life.

If Slack or Trello, Evernote or Things help us do that then great.

Sometime last year I had a conversation with a friend who told me he was starting a new company together with his wife. I thought it was an inspiring and intriguing step, and also a logical extension of thinking of the household as an economic unit (after all, economics, after Aristotle(‘s student)’s work titled Οἰκονομικά, oikonimika, means household management).

We’re in a similar situation, both of us working as independent professionals. Regularly there are things where one of us might support the other with something, so both of us can be more effective in our work.

Today we sat down for a first scheduled and real conversation about how to augment each other’s efforts, and what steps to take. It is in part also a result of our sessions with our financial planner, which showed us the importance of more closely looking at our household as an economic unit, and less as two separate working individuals.

Some first actions have been formulated, and I hope we can keep up these conversations and sparring sessions.

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.

This makes an individual including its meaningful relations to others, in a specific and real life context 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:

As an example of a design aid, I created the image below:

Application

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.

Keynote video

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.