Peter Bihr and Max Krüger have written a 43 page handbook on how to organize your own independent conference: The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook.

You can download it for free as PDF, or an e-reader friendly version for a small fee.

It’s great Peter and Max wrote down their experiences. This May when I visited their ThingsCon conference, and later that week Re:Publica, both in Berlin, I realised how long it had been that I went to a conference where I was a mere participant (which I was at these 2 events), and not somehow involved in organizing it or speaking at it. I also realized how long it has been since I visited a ‘proper’ conference.

Independent events have been the mainstay of my curriculum of professional learning. Visiting Reboot conferences in Copenhagen, SHiFT in Lisbon, the BlogTalk conferences in Vienna, a range of community initiated open data conferences across Europe (over 50 in 2011 and 2012 alone), more BarCamps than I can list, Cognitive Cities and ThingsCon by a.o. the aforementioned Peter Bihr, State of the Net in Trieste, all had one thing in common: there was no real difference between my speaking and my participating and there was no difference between the organizers and the community present.

Usually this happens,in Peter’s words, “for a simple reason: each time we were looking for an event — a focal point where we could meet like-minded people or those with shared interests — we could not find one“. Because quite often the right setting simply isn’t there, or the organizers actually don’t have your learning or interaction as a goal. Because you’re interested in emergent themes around which there isn’t enough going on yet for established conference organizers to see an opportunity. The last ‘proper’ conferences I went to on my own accord were in 2004 and 2005, when I and others proferred it is “cheaper to host your own event than visit one“. Conference and event organizing turned into just one of those things you do in your community, and for me now really requires of the organizers to have a role and be part of that community. I haven’t looked back, and all the events I visit voluntarily are indie events.

During my opening remarks at Make Stuff That Matters, birthday unconference 2014 in our home, by Paolo Valdemarin

Over the years, with others I have organized a lot of indie events as well. Examples are many workshops, the first open data barcamps in the Netherlands (which over time became the Open State Foundation), Data Drinks (now bringing together some 250 people in Copenhagen), international conferences for some 350 people in Rotterdam and Warsaw (because doing it in a city or country where you don’t reside and have no contacts gives it that little extra edge 😉 ), the global FabLab Conference in 2009 (where as additional obstacle course we opted to spread the event over 4 Dutch cities with buses transporting participants and on-board workshops), the BlogWalk series of 2004-2008 in 11 cities on 3 continents, and of course the three Birthday Unconferences Elmine and I organized right in our own home (2008, 2010, 2014).

Elmine and I were so energized from doing those birthday unconferences we created an e-book (download PDF) on how to do it. Mostly to find an outlet for that energy we felt, and as a gift to all who had been there. Even then we saw it was a welcome document although focussing on a very specific type of indie event.

How to Unconference Your Birthday e-book, properly printed and bound

And now Peter and Max have written down their experiences in the Indie Conference Organizer Handbook. This is a great gift to all of us out there visiting, participating and trying our hand at our own events. Let’s make good use of it!

Another element I want to highlight from the ThingsCon opening keynote by Alex Deschamps-Sonsino (Designswarm), is her discussion of what the internet of things (IoT) is and is not.

Of course the internet of things, just like any other technology is only a novel and separate subject by itself as long as it is the exception and not mainstream. Right now we are simply somewhere on the continuum between early human computer interaction and normal regular life. At the singularity point, or perhaps better, the vanishing point, an everyday object will ‚simply’ be smart, and we’ll just get on with it.

the continuum to normal life
slide from the keynote

This autonomy and smartness in everyday objects where it is relevant, does not equate automation, nor only smartness. It also means playing well with others (objects / interfaces / people, through APIs), and it means being connected to the internet as the underlying substrate, so it can become a grid or platform of objects and can be built upon.

One of the slides is shown below as a handy comparison chart.

Smart vs Connected

The deconstruction of the smart fridge is one of things I took away from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s opening key-note at ThingsCon.

I think I have heard versions of the ‚smart fridge’ ever since I first went online 25 years ago, even before the web. Alex presented it as a typical ‚males who never use a kitchen dreaming up a use case for what they imagine (mostly) females do in there’ situation.
The current incarnation of the smart fridge is I think one with an iPad glued to the front of it. Or the one that has a proper place for everything so it can determine if you’re running out of milk. (A much better use for that is automatic charging for minibars in hotels, as I encountered in Stockholm, where indeed everything does have its place.)

as alternative, smart fridge
Slide from Alex keynote

It’s not about the fridge!” Unless its power got cut, it needs servicing, is about to break or explode, there’s nothing you need to hear from your fridge. It is about our behavior and the groceries we buy. The state of the food in your fridge is of course important, so Alex showed an app she prototyped, Pntry, as alternative that keeps track of when you last bought something. If you last bought milk 200 days ago and it is still sitting in the fridge, better have it removed by a biohazard crew, and not use it anymore. If it was a spice you bought 200 days ago, that’s fine.

In his talk later in the day, on a similar note, Matt Webb, discussed the ‚smart’ washing machine they hacked from a regular Zanussi. „We put it on the matrix, it still thinks it is a normal washing machine.” They added a button you press when you are about to run out of detergent etc. It only puts it on your normal shopping list, as it is at the washing machine you notice if you’re about to run out of detergent. Again it isn’t about the machine but your surrounding flow of behavior.

Unsurprisingly at Re:Publica, Germany’s largest annual gathering of internet techies, the smart fridge reared its ugly head this morning. This one was dreamt up to tweet its power usage to compare it with others of similar type. Not that tweeting that info is a good way to gather data, nor is adding more power consumption to measure the same.

On that note, can we now say goodbye to the smart fridge (and the washing machine), and not let it reincarnate yet again and again in the internet of things? Can we make this the Alex’ Law: whoever mentions the smart fridge as a viable use case first loses any argument about internet, of things or otherwise. Only to be met with “It’s not about the fridge!

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino gave the opening key-note at ThingsCon, in her usual thought provoking way backed up by conviction and active experience. There is much to take home from her presentation and resulting discussion in general, but much more so in particular which I will do in a few separate postings, to be able to connect it to other thoughts and take-aways from the conference. For now, here are the slides to her presentation.

Far too little key-notes do what they should: be a kernel for conversation and interaction, while otherwise not getting in the way of the same. This keynote was exactly fit for purpose.

How do you design applications that remove screens, and not add more rectangles of light to your environment? A lot of public screens are ignored, ‚banner blindness’ manifesting itself physically. Screens may get in the way even, distracting you, like some car UI’s.

At the first day of ThingsCon I attended a workshop Designing Discreetness by Sami Niemelä of Nordkapp, who invited us to explore with him ways of removing screens, and get to more discreet designs. Think of a butler who anticipates your desires, and is there at the right moment, but otherwise gets out of the way.


Sami, the workshop host, described the workshop as “Our homes, workplaces and vehicles are being saturated with glowing rectangles, all competing from our attention. We augment ourselves with pieces of glass we carry, and we are at the dawn of an era where all the world’s data is accessible to us everywhere, all the time. There must be a better way. I believe the answer to cracking this is creating and experimenting with smart, connected things that are silent, behave well, and play nicely with others. How to approach connected physical objects and the attached services as a medium for something larger, instead of the thing itself? Join me in 90-minute workshop where we will discuss and sketch the new frontiers and behaviors for the post screen world ahead of us. Because someone has to.”

The workshop felt like a good fit for me, because Sami used the urban touch screens in Helsinki as a trigger. When we were in Helsinki 18 months ago I also noticed those screens and that they were unused and thus disfunctional.

Sami explained how with wearables and connected things we’re still very much in the innovators and maybe early adopters phase, and that robustness, natural language vs gestures, privacy vs proximity, and useful for mainstream vs niche experts are still aspects in need of a lot of attention.

He then took us through a work format, reminiscent of the Spimes workshop I did in Lisbon at SHiFT in 2008, and the open data workshops I do myself:

Choose one of the following to improve / brainstorm around:

1. ATMs
2. Car UIs
3. Public information screens
4. Shop transactions
5. Wearables
6. Something else

Pick one or more from each of the following:

What: private / personal / shared / common / public
How: haptics + screens + touch + voice + other = 100%
When: Now / next year / in 3 years / in 5 years or more

There was also a card game, again reminiscent of my open data workshop, that provided inputs, APIs and outputs, out of the combination of which you had to build an application.

Designing Discreetness Designing Discreetness

Then generate ideas for a different approach.
I was in a group that worked on public information screens.

Two notions came up early on. One, that these screens may be obsolete because of mobile phones, and are a digital replacement of earlier fixed info points like maps etc. So making them interactive etc may not actually be useful. Two, we treat them like adverts and ignore them, but those adverts are only there to pay for the screens, so if we find a different way to finance it we can do without adverts.

I shared the idea of a park or street bench that changes color according to air quality, pollen and/or particulate matter (which came up during an open data workshop once). The color signals if it is ok to sit there, and there is no need to actually share the underlying environmental information in much detail, so no screen needed.
If you can move the information into existing street furniture, you also bypass the financial constraints that necessitates advertising: all that street furniture has its own budget cycles.

We did see a need for more sensors, to be able to better contextualize information public screens share. E.g. if it is raining maybe adapt information shared towards indoor activities etc.

Moving away from fully public screens to e.g. more personal apps, we suggested that maybe info-apps could learn or recognize me as a repeat visitor. If I am in a new city, I may have a need the first day for information on how to get by metro from the hotel to the conference. On the second day I already know that, so maybe I want to hear more about things along the way, or an event that evening close to where I am. An application that helps you quickly establish a rhythm in your new environment.

Designing Discreetness Designing Discreetness

Designing Discreetness

I enjoyed the workshop, although I was pretty much out of energy at the end of a long day. The ‚recipe’ we used I will add to my thinking toolbox.

Update: Sami posted the slides and notes of the workshop