Emerge: Artists + Scientist Redesign the Future – Closing Day

The closing day of Emerge consisted of a set of speeches, panel discussions and a digital culture festival. Below my barely edited notes on the day.

Micheal Crow

Michael Crow is the president of the Arizona State University (ASU) and its chief knowledge architect. He has presented at Google’s Solve for X:


He calls universities “knowledge enterprises”. He is trying to move away from bureaucratized and routinized science and technology and away from silo-ed thinking. By changing how they do things, they have managed to double their number of engineering students. Usually universities find smart people and then focus them as narrowly as possible. Universities shouldn’t be structured like that. At ASU they are very much focused on exploration (science as a means). They are also very interested in origins and have built another way of organizing “genius” around that. Many scientists and engineers are pursuing “valueless engagement”. Why don’t we have at least some of the knowledge enterprise have an objective purpose outside of science itself. At ASU this objective function is sustainability, a value to be pursued.

I personally loved how provocative Crow was: I think he really managed to show how little clothes the emperor is wearing in the academic world (e.g. “The status of the university should not be achieved by who you exclude from the university”).

Envisioning the Future Panel, moderated by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson started by talking about the word “vision” which implies some coherence. The history of the last 110 years or so can be used to show the importance of have coherent visions of the future and how that relates to “valueless engagement”. If you take somebody from 1900 and put them in the now, they would lack the vocabulary to describe the things around them. If you’d take somebody from 1968 and bring them to here, that wouldn’t be the case anymore. Somehow and somewhere we seem to have lost our ability to envision coherent futures that can actually come about. Stephenson dislikes making predictions, he is now starting to call the future the “F-word”.

Brian David Johnson @intelfuturist is Intel’s futurist working in the The Tomorrow Project. The project started in 2010 and it asks science fiction writers to write science fiction based on upon science facts. The five-step methodology is captured in a book Science Fiction Prototyping. He then showed a set of examples of the work that was done in the last two days. He likes to ask the following question: “If the future is in your hands what will you do with it?”.

An artists and a psychologist created a book with artifacts about time from the past and statements about the future. They also interviewed people on the street to ask them what they thought life in a hundred years would look like (“pets would live forever”, “school would take five seconds a day”). One of my favourite pages from the book looked something like this:

Disasters are not just instantaneous events
Disasters are not just instantaneous events

Gary Dirks led a scenario session titled “Humanist Narratives for Energy” with “How will Arizona consume and produce energy in 2050?” as the central question. They came up with two axis:

  • Capacity for investment (high – low)
  • Energy freedom who decides (centralized – decentralized)

They then created four scenarios: Green Silicon Valley (high, decentralized), Desert Power (high, centralized), Hippies & Cowboys Separate But Equal (low, decentralized) and a fourth title that I missed. The scenario planner guru Napier Collyns was present during the work.

The methodology for this is very similar to the work I have been doing with Willem Manders and other on creating scenarios for learning in the future.

It’s All Gardening, Stewart Brand

Stewart Brand, calls himself an environmentalist and started his talk with demographics and the move towards the city. The subsistence agriculture that was a poverty trap is disappearing (and being taken back by nature). People are moving into the slums of the mega-cities in the world. They are quickly moving out of poverty: you cannot hold them back. They will use more energy and will require higher quality food. The largest cities are now in the developing world and five out of six people live in the developing world. The next 30 years is an interesting demographic period where the world is mostly new cities full of young people dealing with a residue of old people in old cities. Where do you think the action will be?

He laid out the irrationality of Germany banning nuclear energy (after the Fukushima disaster) while not trying to ban organic food after bean sprout killed 42 people. He showed a set of small nuclear reactors that have now been designed and Integral Fast Reactors which use nuclear waste as fuel. There is a lot of potential in Thorium.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are finally giving us a toehold into making food in a better way. We have been very conservative in adopting them. But we have had a lot of success with it. The Amish actually like to use it. There are many examples of where genetic engineering can feed more people in a green fashion. Biofortified foods are coming and The Nature Conservancy is now writing “Could Conservation-Friendly Farming Include GMOs” But the green movement (i.e. Greenpeace) is still blindly objecting to all kinds of experiments.

Biotechnology is an incredibly fast moving field. We are moving from the “Earth National Park” (a notion from the Sierra Club) to the realization that it is all gardening (a friendlier way of saying that it is all engineering. The previous generations used “KEEP CALM and CARRY ON” as advice to their people, now there is a generation of people with “GET EXCITED and MAKE THINGS” as their motto. We have the whole make movement, but we are also trying to bring back species that have gone extinct (e.g. the passenger pigeon).

Geoengineering will become imperative too. He showed the example of the Stratoshield. We are still thinking about the norms that are needed around this. One set of guidelines that has emerged are the Oxford Principles:

  1. Geoengineering to be regulated as a public good.
  2. Public participation in geoengineering decision-making.
  3. Disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results.
  4. Governance before deployment.
  5. Independent assessment of impacts.

Designing the Future Panel, moderated by Merlyna Lim

Merlyna Lim led this panel.

Daniel Erasmus and Dave Conz worked with a group of participants to craft archaeology from the future. The process was straightforward: they made an object (not to imagine and make, but to make and then imagine), print it and then listen to how people interact with it (to use it as a string to pull on a tomorrow), redesigned it and printed it again. They then created descriptions of what the objects could do and might mean.

Another workshop led by Julian Bleecker and a companion was around the convenience store of future (inspired by a newspaper they created. They wanted to focus especially on the ordinary and mundane things. They created a set of products with stories attached to them (i.e. synthetic panda jerky, or Tic Tac pheromone+) and then created a film on the basis of this. Read more here or watch the video:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/37870061]

The third project was titled “The People Who Vanished”. This workshop explored the people that lived in the valley around Phoenix around six hundred years go. These precolumbian (the person on stage kept calling them prehistoric) people built many wide canals that were incredibly well engineered. Their presentation ended with a quote from Stewart Brand: “Fiction has to be plausible, reality doesn’t”.

Evocative objects, Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle has done a lot of work on contemporary technology and how it affects our psyche and is now Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Her talk was about objects and what they do to us. She talked about three things:

  • My path in (the memory closet), or how she got interested in evocative objects. She referred to “bricolage” (thinking with things) as talked about by Levi-Strauss as particular passion of hers.
  • What makes an object evocative?
  • Vignettes: two examples of people who were inspired by objects.

This talk certainly wasn’t very tweet-friendly: her story was very anecdotal and hard to reproductive in a blog post here. One last question she finished with was quite insightful: objects are concrete and protect us from virtualization and simulation, what does it mean when we digitize everything?

Embodying the Future Panel, moderated by Colin Milburn

This panel was moderated by Colin Milburn who reminded us of the Alan Kay quote: the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

David McConville (of Geodome fame), Gretchen Gano and Ned Gardiner led a workshop titled “Starting with the Universe”. Looking at the universe in a way is looking at the operating systems of our paradigms. McConville showed some great examples from Buckminster Fuller and his example of the “trim tab”, the little rudder that moves the big rudder, basically finding the leverage point where the least effort would have the most impact. “To make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” is the Buckminster Fuller Challenge

Ken Eklund, best known for his work on the World without Oil alternate reality game. They worked for a day and a half on creating a alternate reality bases around the ludic affordances of the common padlock. Games seem to be both a tool and shaping process. The means to make games is being democratized and that will finally fill in the missing ingredient for games: relevance.

Alan Gershenfeld and Sasha Barab led a workshop around Games for Impact in which a game was designed in 1.5 days (I was part of this process). The starting point was to imagine a future in which fab-labs would be everywhere. The group quickly landed on the concept of conscious makerism based on the fact that everybody making everything themselves is not necessarily sustainable. The game is then a “tutorial” for a fabricator machine teaching people the fact that resources are limited and data exists about these resources. I personally got a bit disconnected with the project because it wasn’t addressing the questions that I find interesting about a world in which making is ubiquitous: which is the question of access and freedom. When hardware becomes software how will things like licenses work for example? How much of our physical world will come with usage restriction (read this piece by Doc Searls to get some idea of where this is going).

24 Hrs 2 Massive Change, Bruce Mau

Bruce Mau also started Institute without Borders showed us that the number one challenge of CEOs is “creativity” (an IBM study) and quipped it might have been better if it had been ethics. He shared is personal story of how he became a designer. He defines design as “science & art” and then translates that into “smart & sexy”. He now works with people like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry.

When Mau wanted to teach his design methods somebody told him “Bruce, you’re so old fashioned, You should have 300,000 students not 30”. So he decided to try and massively change education. Education is currently: outmoded, slow, boring, expensive (if it not expensive it is suspect). It is piling up debt (United States has more student debt than credit card debt). It is only reaching 1%. Education is about:

  • Research
  • Innovate
  • Communicate
  • Educate
  • Network

He has started the Massive Change Network and they are working on a project titled “24 hours to massive change” in which they will create twenty-four one hour experiences that connect you to the most effective design methods. The first one is about leadership. Number eleven is “compete with beauty”. This is a very interesting concept that is very true: you can only make people change if you create alternatives that are more beautiful because we won’t make a step backwards (the Tesla is a good example of this).

Science, Art and Design in Tomorrow’s Network, Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling treated us with a little on stage performance. Watch it online when it appears.


Four Questions (and Answers) about Learning in 2012

In a post about Learning Technologies 2012, I’ve asked four questions to a set of learning (technology) experts. In reaction, some people have asked me how I would have answered the questions myself. Here goes:

1. What will be the most exciting (professional) thing you are planning to do in 2012?**

From April 1st my role in the company I work for will slightly shift: instead of solely focusing on learning-related technology the scope of my innovation work will be enlarged to encompass all HR related technologies. This will include renumeration and benefits, talent, recruitment, health and more. It will be a challenge to try and replicate the innovation methodology that I used in learning inside these other domains. I very much look forward to engrossing myself in completely new problems with completely new solutions.

Another exciting thing is the work I am doing inside the Gamechanger team. Gamechanger is a very successful organization and is on a journey to see how the recently emerged hyper-connectedness of this world could influence the way it works. There will be more public information about that project on gc30.com very soon.

In 2011 I have given a lot of attention to serious games for learning and I am hoping to make a next step with that in 2012 by trying out a safety-related 3D immersive game in the field and measure its impact.

Finally, this year I have been given the opportunity to visit a big set of very stimulating gatherings. I will be present (and occasionally present) at Emerge 2012 (Phoenix, US), SxSW Edu (Austin, US), SxSW Interactive (Austin, US), e-Learning Event 2012 (Den Bosch, NL), ICBE Conferenc (Dublin, IE) and Masie’s Learning 2012 (Orlando, US).

2. Which corporate learning trend will “break through” this year?

Here are two predictions and one thing that is imminent to happen, but will likely not make it for 2012.

  • 2012 will mark the start of a slow but sure shift away from courses towards resources and networks. This means that learning organizations will have to start creating new business models for themselves as the way that their value proposition, benefits and costs align is going out of whack. If your budgetary unit is a course, if you separate design from development from delivery, if your recovery model is based on course fees, how can you ever move into more of a performance support or community management role?
  • Even though there is a crisis all around us, we will see a revival of classroom and face-to-face training. It will be driven by people who are getting tired of the hyperconnected world and are trying to create “reflective retreats” away from the daily business pressures. Yes, I understand this is contrary to the point above, but we are not looking at a homogenous world!.
  • “Social Contextualization of Content” is a trend that will become ever more noticable in the consumer space (“How do I know whether to buy something if don’t know what my network thinks about it?”). At some point smart companies will start stepping into the opportunity space for this type of technology in the enterprise market. They do this by delivering two things: a flexible way to capture and represent the social graph of employees (preferably one that also works from an outside-in perspective), and a platform for capturing, managing and displaying meta information about all available content (because everything is starting to become URL addressable it will likely be the browser that is the point where this technology meets the end-user). I would like to develop this argument a bit further in some of my speeches this year. Get in touch if you want to help push my thinking forward.

3. Which company (other than your own) is doing interesting things in the learning space?

I could have named others, but I would like to name three (unlikely) companies here:

  • Mozilla, creators of the Firefox browser and shepherds of an open and free Internet are becoming more and more active in the education space. Initially driven by their mission to skill up people on all things Internet and (web)development, they are slowly increasing their scope and reach and are even proposing an alternative architecture for certifications: open badges. Not only is what they do remarkable, the way (or how) they do it is inspirational too. Imagine working for a company in which everything that you do would default to open. Mozilla applies this to their source code, but also for example to their meetings. When they come together to talk about learning, the telcon details, the agenda, the ability to join the conversation and the minutes are all openly available. Refreshing right?
  • StackExchange is step by step creating the ultimately way to do Question and Answer sites for one particular set of questions: the ones that could actually have a perfect answer. Their platform is contineously improving and makes use of the latest understanding of how we tick (gamification anyone?) to entice people to keep coming back, ask more questions and give more answers. If you haven’t used it already I’d urge you to go to a community that interests you and try it out. It is a real shame that they have stopped delivering te technology in a “white label” fashion, but I do appreciate their somewhat noble reasons (they only want to have successful communities).
  • XTeam Training is based in Israel. They are one of the many companies who have jumped on the Unity 3D bandwagon to start delivering games with a purpose that is external to the game. They are the first however that I have seen to productize their game (rather than offering their services for bespoke development to solve particular problems). Their team development/assessment game is rooted in practical experience working with teams in outdoor sports and they have come up with a few clever concepts that make sure that the people playing the multiplayer game learn certain lessons about their behaviour and the behaviour of others.
Mission Island from XTeam Training
Mission Island from XTeam Training

Finally I want mention (again) the person who has given me the most insight in the last few months and somebody who I believe isn’t appreciated enough in our community of practice: Stephen Downes. If you haven’t signed up for his newsletter yet, then please do it here. Try reading it every day for at least a week. If you aren’t intellectually tickled by this particular blend of learning- (actually “living”-)related mix of philosophy and technology with free sharp commentary, then I’d rather not sit next to you at our next dinner party (and you would probably not enjoy sitting next to me either).

4. What was the best book you have read in 2011?

I read in public (although my friends at Bits of Freedom are probably right when they tell me that out of principle one should not give over your reading habits to some foreign company. To see the books I have read that I have rated with five stars, go here

One more thing

Let me finish by asking you a question: Which four questions would you like to ask learning professionals when you meet them?

Bruce Sterling on Design-Fiction

Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling

Design-fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to dismiss the disbelieve about change. It is not an art movement or an academic movement, instead it is a sneaky hack that makes believing in change easier.

This is becoming relevant now because networked society makes prototypes much more visible than before. Most objects are imaginary: 90 percent of the patented objects have never been built. It has always been hard to see these concepts and prototypes: only very large corporations (think concept-cars) could do it. Now pretty much anybody can do it. Design-fiction pulls in multi-disciplinary people, there are assemble concensus around a product sketch. It crystalizes techno-social potentionals. It can do this outside standard commercial contexts.

One very tweetable quote is “If you know what to call what you are doing, you are not doing real fieldwork now”.

The most important term in design-fiction is diegetic.

Sterling has shared some examples of design-fiction on his Wired.com blog.

From Technocracy to Democracy

David H. Guston is the director for the Center for Nanotechnology in Society. His talk titled “From Technocracy to Democracy” tries to add some human purpose to the techno-scientific potential in the morning. How do you govern the stuff that hasn’t been made yet? Technology is always deeply social too: we call this socio-technical. He made a set of points about technology and society with relevant images (that I can’t reproduce)

  • People make technologies
  • People live in, with and through technologies
  • Technological change and social change are closely connected
  • There are multiple solutions to any given technological problem
  • Socio-technological systems are difficult or impossible to predict (and even if we get right, we often get it wrong)
  • Socio-technical change can be incremental or disruptive
  • New technologies are often controversial and risky
  • Our socio-technical imaginations shape our future (e.g. Frederick Soddy and H.G. Wells inspired each other)
  • People play an important role in governing technologies and this leads to many questions that we need to start answering. Can we be more reflexive about how we imagine, research, design, build, market, and assess new technologies by asking:
    • Who are the people who innovate?
    • Who are the people subject to innovation?
    • How do they participate in the governance of technology now?
    • How might that change in the future(Ss) we are imagining for them?
    • How can technology be democratically governed (we have to heed to Eisenhower’s warning: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Portraits of Science at Emerge 2012

The Scientists on Stage
The Scientists on Stage

These next few days I am attending Emerge 2012 conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The subtitle of this conference is “Artists + Scientist Redesign the Future”. The conference is a mix of talks, workshops and a media festival. The basic idea is that current science can inform us about what might happen in the future. Artistic exploration of those futures (i.e. science fiction) can than pull these futures forward and in turn inform science.

I will try and semi-live blog as much of this event as possible. Reflection will have to wait for later. Apologies for typos: I have a new laptop with a new keyboard that I still have to get used to.

Portraits of science and technology

The day kicked off with a group of scientists giving small portraits of the current cutting edge of their work:

What is interesting – Lee Hartwell

Hartwell really wants to understand where “interest” comes from. This is a research project that he is embarking on. He is hoping that he will find some answers to his question at this conference.

Some Thoughts on the Future of Healthcare – Neal Woodbury

Woodbury is from the Biodesign Institute from Arizona State University. How do you make medicine a much more sustainable practice? How do get useful medical technologies that are very inexpensive and look at medicine from an angle of keeping people healthy, rather than treating late stage disease? One example of this type of technology is the “Comprehensive Immunosignature Detection Array Platform: you take some blood and put it on a set of peptides and the outcome gives your insight in your current immune system. People with different diseases get very different immune system signatures/profiles. To enable this there are looking at possibilities for “painless blood draw”. His open question is how to you translate this type of technologies into useful practice at scale. What is the medical system of the future that will actually be able to utilize this type of information? When you have comprehensive health monitoring, you really have to change what diagnosis is for example.

Creating Creatures That Eat Bad Stuff and Excrete Valuable Stuff – Bruce Rittman

Rittman is focused on Environmental Biotechnology. The challenge they are addressing is that we need to replace most fossil fuels with renewable substitutes. We need to do this to slow down (and hopefully reverse) the atmospheric build up of CO2. He showed us a diagram of how renewable bioenergy might work in a carbon neutral loop where CO2 just goes through the circular process. They use a bacterium called “Synechocystis” which is capable of converting solar energy with CO2 into a fuel that can be used. They are tuning the genes of this bacterium to make it work even better, so that can turn these organisms into factories for producing energy based materials we might need. Another example are “Microbial Electrochemical Cells” in which they use bio-organisms on the anode of a fuel cell. The advantage of this is that they can create organic fuels.

Developing Synthetic Telepathy – Stephen Helms-Tillery

Helms-Tillery showed us a lot of different projects, most of them focusing on the hand and creating prosthetic devices for the hand. The hand is an interesting object for study: a complicated mechanical device that is essential for nearly everything that we do. It has twenty joints in in and all the “movers” are in the arm. Picking up something like a bottle is not a trivial thing from a biomechanical perspective. The hand doesn’t operate by itself, so it is important to look at the arm too (e.g. for reach). They are also looking at using your brain to control these external interfaces. Hands are also sensory organs and prosthetic hands should have similar sensory ability, so they are building sensorized skins. Current experiments with children who are in hospital to be treated for epilepsy show that it is very feasible to let them control something on the screen with their brain.

Be All You Can Be and Then Some: Military Human Enhancement – Dan Sarewitz and Brad Allenby

Sarewitz’ question is: where will the “next people” be come from. We are all currently much more enhanced than we were in the past (think doping in sports, kids taking Ritalin, vaccines, artificial knees or Google). This is all pedestrian though, the really enhanced people are in the military right now. So tomorrow’s humans will emerge from the Pentagon. What kind of things are happening there now: weapons, body armor, exo-skeletons.

According to Allenby is the problem that the human bandwidth is now the weakest link in systems necessary for operations in complex environments. They are working on building cognitive networks that include many individual human brains with systems of consciousness emerging as a property of this. They might even drive human beings out of the decision loop, because they might not be necessary anymore and might just be too slow. They will design human varietals: “we will never be human again”, get over it.

The Triumphs and Tragedies of Social Networks – Hari Sundaram and Marco Janssen

Janssen is interested in using information technology (and social networks) to empower citizens to act. How can we stimulate people to contribute to the public good? A few examples: In San Marcos they gave a few hundred households energy bills that showed how their energy use related to that of their neighbours. By combining this with simple smilies they actually managed to get people to use less energy overall. Another example is the use of towels in hotels: they experimented with it and found out that people cooperate if others do too. There are examples of this everywhere, like in Bali where people have shared irrigation for many years. The tragedy of the commons is not necessarily true anymore: Elinor Ostrom has developed a framework that shows how high level of cooperation is possible, but mainly in small homogenous communities. Cities are different: they are very heterogeneous and lack feedback on your behaviour. They think they can use computing to create these small homogenous communities in large cities. What is people are willing to be monitored in exchange for a reward? This is what some car insurance companies are already doing. The promise of technology lies in its ability to connect the large scale to the everyday.

Gaming the Future, With Impact – Sasha Barab and Alan Gershenfeld

Acccording to Gershenfeld, the game industry understands motivation and has pushed this forward as artistic artform. They keep people exactly on the edge of their capabilities and through challenges induce continued engagement with the game. Just because this medium has this potential doesn’t mean that is used for good. The current state of game-based learning is that the level of promise is very high, but that the scale of impact is relatively low: there is a big gap. Closing this gap is still a relatively young science and the Center for Games and Impact are working on creating a framework for actually building games that deliver impact and they have managed to rise the sector and get involvement from a lot of partners that are willing to fund the work and are interested in seeing what it can do for their problems.

Barab, a learning scientist, showed some of the initiatives that the center is doing are understanding, engineering and scaling for impact. Things like: games for transformational play, games as design fictions. He believes that video games of entire worlds in which learners are central, important and active participants. They are a place where the actions one takes have an impact on that gaming world and a place in which what you know is directly related to what you are able to do and who you become.

Sensor Networks in Search of Meaningful Knowledge – Andreas Spanias and Pavan Turaga

Enhancement, engagement and empowerment are the three themes that Turaga has heard about today. He talks about sensor networks that can actually empower change in behaviour. Sensing modalities are all over the place: these can mined for patterns. He showed an example of how their system could learn the rules of Blackjack by observing the interactions between people playing the game. How do we do this at scale? Using for example livelogged data to create adaptive representations which can then be used to make us better.

Spanias talked about sensor networks in our homes. He showed an example of moving from single microphones to microphone arrays that with proper algorithms can localize sound, cancel noise, do acoustic scene analysis and even solve the cocktail effect. They can use this to record and then create a spatial sound experience or do acoustic scene characterisation.