Peter in his circle of friendsPeter in his circle of friends at the start of Crafting {:} a Life (image by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA license

When the first Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, went to space on the D1 mission he had a clear goal. Earlier astronauts upon returning to earth had all responded to the question how it was to see the entire earth from above, our blue ball in the black void, with things like “Great”, “Very moving”, “So very beautiful”. Ockels was determined to find a better description for the experience, by preparing for it, by more consciously observing and reflecting while up there. Yet when he came back he realised all he could say was “So very beautiful” as well. There was no way for him to put the layering, depth and richness of the experience in words that would actually fully convey it.

Experiencing an unconference can be like that. It certainly took me about a week to come back down to earth (and overcome the jet-lag) after spending a handful of days on Prince Edward Island in a somewhat parallel universe, Peter‘s Crafting {:} a Life unconference with around 50 of his friends and connections.

Here too, the description “it was great” “it was beautiful” is true but also empty words. I heard several of the other participants comment it was “life changing” for them, and “the start of something momentous on PEI”. I very well understand that sentiment, but was it really? Can it really be that, life changing?

I have heard the same feedback, ‘life changing’, about our events as well. Particularly the 2014 edition. And I know the ripples of those events have changed the lives of participants in smaller and bigger ways. Business partnerships formed, research undertaken, lasting friendships formed. I recognise the emotions of the natural high a heady mix of deep conversations, minds firing, freedom to explore, all around topics of your own interest can create. I felt very much in flow during an hours long conversation at Crafting {:} a Life for instance.

Reboot had that impact on me in 2005, reinforced by the subsequent editions. Those multiple editions created a journey for me. Bringing students there in 2009, because I was one of the event’s sponsors, was certainly life changing for them. It spoilt them for other types of events, and triggered organising their own events.
In a certain way Crafting {:} a Life brought the Reboot spirit to PEI, was a sort of expression of Reboot as it included half a dozen connections that originated there in 2005. Similarly I feel our own unconferences are attempts at spreading the Reboot spirit forward.

What makes it so? What makes one say ‘life changing’ about an event? Space to freely think, building on each other’s thoughts, accepting the trade-off that if your pet topics get discussed others will do other things you may not be interested in. Meeting patience while you formulate your (half-baked) thoughts. That is something that especially has been important in the experience of teenagers that took part in our events, and I think for Oliver too. That everyone is participating in the same way, that age or background doesn’t somehow disqualify contributions, and being treated as having an equal stake in being there.

How do you get to such a place? I find it’s mixing the informal/human with the depth and content normally associated with formalisation.

What made Peter’s event work for instance was the circle at the start.
The room itself was white and clinical to start in, and people were huddled in the corner seeking the warmth of the coffee served there. The seating arrangement however meant everyone had to walk the circle on the inside to find their seat. Then once seated, after welcoming words, there was music by one of the participants who offered it, first a reflective and then an upbeat song. This in aggregate made the room the group’s room, made it a human room. The post-its on the wall after the intro round led by Elmine increased that sense of it being our room, and the big schedule on the wall we made together completed it. Now it was our own central space for the event.

Splitting the event over two days and marking both days differently (meeting/talking, and doing) worked well too. It meant people weren’t coming back for the same thing as yesterday, but had something new to look forward to with the same measure of anticipating the unknown as the first day. While already having established a shared context, and new connections the day before.

The result was, to paraphrase Ockels, “great”. Clark, one of our fellow participants, found a few more and better words:

Crafting {:} a Life was a breath of fresh air. The unconference dispensed with pretension, titles or faux expertise. Everyone had for the most part a chance to share their story, contribute, and talk. While some asked what I did for a living, it was only after all other avenues of discussion were explored. For the most part one-to-one conversations were much like what I had with Robert Paterson, (“What is Clark’s story” he asked) open ended, personal, and with the ability to discover new things about the other. The activities emphasized small groups and there was no “oh my God my PPT is out of order what will we talk about” that I myself have fallen victim to. There was music, laughter, food and tears. It was genuine, …

I think that goes to the heart of it. It was genuine, the format didn’t deny we are human but embraced it as a key element. And in the space we created there was way more room than usually at events to be heard, to listen. And most of all: space to share the enormous gift of two days worth of your focused attention.

I feel it is that that makes these events stand out. Most other events don’t do that for its participants: Space for focused attention, while embracing your humanity. Reboot did that, it even had a kindergarten on site and people brought their kids e.g. But that approach is very scarce. It needn’t be. It also needn’t be an unconference to create it. A conversation, dinner party, or other occasion might just as well. (I found that video btw on a blog in the rss feeds of one of the participants, which seems apt).

On our way home Elmine suggested doing a second edition of our e-book ‘How to unconference your birthday’ (PDF). I think that is a very good idea, as Peter and us now have experience from both being an organiser and a participant, and we have now several additional events worth of experiences to draw upon. We created the first edition as a gift and memento to all participants of our 2010 edition, the 2nd such event we did and the first we did in our home. A decade on a second edition seems fitting.

Every now and then Elmine and I organize (un)conferences for our birthday party, in our home. We did one in 2008, 2010 and 2014 (with a BBQ party of similar effort in 2012). Each one brings 40-50 participants together, and double that for the BBQ the day after. (The whole thing started as a biannual BBQ in 2004, and we added the conference part to make it easier for friends and peers from abroad and clients to join).

We love the events, and we love the way it brings many from our international network together in an atmosphere that creates lasting connections between participants, as well as the inspiration and energy it gives us. (I think of it as invoking the ghost of Reboot)

But as you see several years can pass between two editions.
They involve a lot of work and energy, cost a considerable amount of money. After each one it takes a while before the itch to do it again plays up, and sometimes major life events get in the way.

After the last one in 2014, Paolo suggested doing these events on a yearly, or at least more frequent basis. I replied in similar lines as above. To which Paolo replied “What do you think you are? The Olympics?” As he’s putting on a yearly conference in Italy himself, simply ignoring his remark does not play. He knows the reality of putting on a proper event every year, let alone our smaller scale lower-key ones. Paolo’s question stuck with me, and has been deserving of a proper answer for the past three years.

I know I’m not the Olympics. I also know the ‘lot of work, and oh the costs!’ line of reasoning isn’t fully true. We started doing the events in our home as a way to cut costs after all (the first edition was in the local university’s conference center). And I organized similarly international meet-ups in my spare time every 2 to 3 months with 20-30 participants, which each event taking place in a different European city, all with zero budget, years earlier.

To me the important aspects that create the type of flow, quality of conversations and energy that make the events such fun are:

  • Picking a topic that fits all backgrounds, so it doesn’t put people off and can attract friends, peers, clients and family alike, of all ages
  • Picking a topic that is challenging as well, as that creates the energy
  • Having participants of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, with most (but never all) having a direct connection to either me or Elmine, but less connections to the other participants
  • Doing it in our home, as it creates an informal atmosphere for serious exchanges, and I think the distinctive flavour of it all
  • Providing excellent food and drinks, for all diets, and plenty of it

The reason it takes so much time to organize is mainly that I try to do it all myself. I’m not very skilled at delegating or asking for help (as anyone who’s ever tried to help me out in the kitchen can attest). Finding a topic on a yearly basis that is at the same time broad enough to potentially include anyone and provoking enough for people to start imagining contributing to it, can be challenging
There is also the suspicion that if we’d do it say yearly, it would attract fewer friends from our international peer network (there’s always next year after all), and overall less sense of uniqueness of opportunity or urgency to attend for anyone. Whereas it’s the mix of people that is a key ingredient.

The time since the last edition 2014, really was a matter of life events getting in the way (2015 a year of multiple losses, 2016 of welcoming a new life, this year of moving to a new city). Now the dust has started to settle, and in the coming month we can look forward to spending a few weeks camping and being away from it all. I am also trying to grow roots in our new city and having conversations with people to better understand the events, spaces and things the city has to offer. Maybe the time has come to use this as an opportunity to solve the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum.

Asking for help, the location, the scale of it, maybe a bit of funding, setting topics, are all dimensions to play with and to reflect on.

I’d like to do a new event in 2018, I’ve already been imagining it in our new home since we started unpacking boxes (or rather from the moment we were viewing the house already). What will it take to have the one after that not in 2022 but in 2019? Especially if you’ve attended in 2008, 2010 or 2014, what would entice you to join the event in 2018 as well as 2019, what would make you come back?

Today is midsummer. The heating system came on this morning, and it has been raining since then. Quite a contrast with last year, when over 40 of you came to brighten our home for the Make Stuff That Matters unconference birthday party, and double that for the BBQ the day after it.

#mstm14 crowd
#MSTM14 crowd during my opening remarks, by Paolo

To me it is still a great source of energy to think back to the atmosphere and spirit of MSTM14, and the joy of seeing so many of our colleagues, peers, friends, family and clients interact, having travelled from all over the country, from all over Europe, and even from Canada and spanning 6 decades of age differences. As a bit of sunlight on this day that feels like autumn, some impressions from last year.

We used an introduction game and process, designed with Peter Troxler, to get everyone involved in making something.

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Designing together

We had the Frysklab mobile FabLab parked in front of our home for two days, staffed by Jeroen, Aan, Marleen and Jappie of the incredible Frysklab team. Next to their equipment (multiple 3d-printers, a laser cutter, a CNC mill), we had our own 3D printer and four more on loan through the kind collaboration of Ultimaker. This allowed everyone to get their hands on the machines, guided by the Frysklab team and Elmine.

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Frysklab, and the line-up in our living room

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Klaas ‘borrowing’ our printer 😉 & at work in the Frysklab truck

People started out creating objects with Doodle3d, and then after encountering its limitations, by themselves moved on to more capable but also more complicated software tools. Guiding each other, searching for tips & tricks online, and through trial and error. The 3D-printers kept going for over 2 days, until the last guests left for the airport! Seeing how well everything went, and how our process delivered above our own expectations, made Elmine’s “Maker Moment“. I remember standing in the Frysklab truck towards the end of the first day, with everyone around me excitedly talking, working and making, and I just felt happy seeing the energy all round me. We set out to show ‘making’ as a communal process, and seeing it succeed is joyous.

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Peter and Oliver explaining 3d printing from Minecraft, Tjores proudly writing his name in 3D

MSTM14 Minecraft design, 3d printed
Amarens printed a 3d-hug, after a scan of herself. A castle made in Minecraft printed by Floris

The second day was all about the bbq, bringing about double the number of people together compared to the unconference day. And people kept on making, neighbourhood kids got busy in the Frysklab truck, and unconference participants showed newcomers how the machines worked. Fine food, fine wines, and many helping hands, such as Ray’s, in the kitchen, kept everyone around for conversations, making and fun.

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Ray and Harold making food, Martin and Paolo making music

And even after the event, the ripples kept spreading outward. New connections were made, with friends opening their own home for other participants to stay in during the summer for instance. Elmine and I used a visit to Copenhagen to bring the MSTM experience to our friends Henriette and Thomas, and their sparkling daughter Penny, where we shared what we ourselves had learned from Peter and his son Oliver. My colleague Frank took that same lesson from Peter and Oliver to a whole new level, involving dozens of neighbourhood kids in a 3D-printing event where he lives.

Now a year later, the energy is still palpable to me. On this rainy day a year later I am grateful for the inspiration and friendship of last year. And although it will be hard to top, I am slowly starting to think about what we could do in 2016 for a new edition.
If you are entertaining the thought of doing something similar yourself, do read the e-book we wrote after a previous edition (download the PDF), where we describe the basic steps of hosting your very own birthday unconference and bbq. If you do and we’re invited, I promise Elmine and I will try our best to make it possible for us to attend.

Today 40 kids are gathering in the coworking place Zpot in Utrecht, to build in Minecraft and then print their creations with 3D printers.

The event is organized by my colleague Frank (also initiator of the coworking space itself). He and his son Floris participated in our Make Stuff That Matters unconference & bbq where Peter and Oliver Rukavina demo’d how to 3D print from Minecraft. Floris used it right then to print a castle he built. Earlier Frank already had hosted a Minecraft party for kids in the neighbourhood. His son’s continued enthusiasm for printcrafting, in combination with the earlier event has turned into “Meet2Minecraft” today.

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Minecraft lan party!

Seven 3D printers (including our own trusty Ultimaker Classic, and 6 Felix printers) are lined up to print the creations of 40 children today. Pizza, soda, Minecraft and 3D printers == Perfect Saturday!

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Prepping 7 3D-printers for printing Minecraft designs

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More printcrafting kids

[update]
Comparing some of the printed results

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See more pictures

In just 4 weeks our MidSummer Unconference and BBQ “Make Stuff that Matters” will take place in our home. We’re hugely looking forward to it!

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This third unconference in our home will bring some 40 people together on Friday 20 June, and double that on Saturday 21 June for the BBQ. Haven’t rsvp’d yet for either or both days? Please do so by 6 June!

What will we be up to at the unconference?
We’ll make things together!

We have more opportunity than ever to act and make things ourselves, while connected to and embedded in globally connected networks and globally accessible knowledge. Our world is however a closed system with restraints in terms of resources, with only our creativity in true abundance. So we better learn how to act, prototype, design and make well. Whether it is a product, a system, a structure or a new routine. So we better make stuff that really solves something for you or others, that makes something important possible. So we better Make Stuff That Matters.

With all participants we will explore making. To do that we are not just bringing great people together from many countries and backgrounds, but also a number of cool machines:

  • I am working to get my open source laser cutter working in time for the event
  • We have arranged to have the very cool mobile FabLab Frysklab, operated by the Provincial Library of Fryslan, parked in front of our home for 2 days.
  • Ultimaker, the great 3D printer company from right here in the Netherlands, is lending us a number of their 3D printers. (Together with our own printer, and the mobile FabLab, we will have 7 3D printers for the two days)
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    The Frysklab truck will be at our event

    Next to that we have brought together a wide range of cool guides, and electronics (Sparkcore, Arduino, Rapsberry Pi) to add to the mix. Our visits to ThingsCon in Berlin and 3D Camp in Limerick have added quite a few things to our arsenal of material.

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    Ultimaker is lending us some of their great 3D printers

    Laos open source laser cutter
    I am busy getting my open source laser cutter to work

    Elmine and I have designed a process, with the help of others such as Peter Troxler, and we have a program set out for the day.

    During the Unconference we will work in teams on making things that are meaningful to us. In between we will have up to 6 speakers giving presentations on stories they want to share.

    Two sessions we already have planned:

  • Keith Andrews, a professor at Graz University of Technology, will speak about data visualization (and we’ll have various great books by Edward Tufte to get inspired by as well).
  • Oliver Rukavina (13), the son of Canadian friends of ours, will do a session about 3D printing straight from Minecraft. (Minecraft is a kind of virtual Lego world, and e.g. the whole of Denmark has been recreated in it using open data)
  • I may want to do a session myself as well, but need to think about it. If you are participating on Friday and have a story you really want to share, do let us know and we will aim to fit you in the program.

    Saturday, the day after the conference, all machines and all output of the conference will still be available to work with. We will open up the mobile FabLab to the neighbourhood as well that day. And of course all other BBQ guests will get to play with the 3D printers as well!

    Join the MSTM Facebook group to already meet the rest of the guests, or blog / tweet / share things yourself by using the #mstm14 tag! Do get in touch if you have questions, or like to rsvp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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