Reflecting on Lift France 2011: Key Themes

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Lift France 2011 conference. For me this was different than my usual conference experience. I have written before how Anglo-Saxon my perspective is, so to be at a conference where the majority of the audience is French was refreshing.

Although there was a track about learning, most of the conference approached the effects of digital technology on society from angles that were relatively new to me. In a pure learning conference, I am usually able to contextualize what I see immediately and do some real time reflecting. This time I had to stick to reporting on what I saw (all my #lift11 posts are listed here) and was forced to take a few days and reflect on what I had seen.

Below, in random order, an overview of what I would consider to be the big themes of the conference. Occasionally I will try to speculate on what these themes might mean for learning and for innovation.

Utilization of excess capacity empowered by collaborative platforms

Robin Chase gave the clearest explanation of this theme that many speakers kept referring back to:

Economic Logic of Using Access Capacity by Robin Chase

Economic Logic of Using Access Capacity by Robin Chase

This world has large amounts of excess capacity that isn’t used. In the past, the transaction costs of sharing (or renting out) this capacity was too high to make it worthwhile. The Internet has facilitated the creation of collaborative platforms that lower these transaction costs and make trust explicit. Chase’s most simple example is the couch surfing idea and her Zipcar and Buzzcar businesses are examples of this too.

Entangled with the idea of sharing capacity is the idea of access being more important than ownership. This will likely come with a change in the models for consumption: from owning a product to consuming a service. The importance of access shows why it is important to pay attention to the (legal) battles being fought on patents, copyrights, trademarks and licenses.

I had some good discussions with colleagues about this topic. Many facilities, like desks in offices, are underused and it would be good to try and find ways of getting the percentage of utilization up. One problem we saw is how to deal with peak demand. Rick Marriner made the valid suggestion that transparency about the demand (e.g. knowing how many cars are booked in the near future) will actually feed back into the demand and thus flatten the peaks.

A quick question that any (part of an) organization should ask itself is which assets and resources have excess capacity because in the past transaction costs for sharing them across the organization were too high. Would it now be possible to create platforms that allow the use of this extra capacity?

Another question to which I currently do not have an answer is whether we can translate this story to cognitive capacity. Do we have excess cognitive capacity and would there be a way of sharing this? Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and the Wikipedia project seem to suggest we do. Can organizations capture this value?


The idea of the Internet getting rid of intermediaries is very much related to the point above. Intermediaries were a big part of the transaction costs and they are disappearing everywhere. Travel agents are the canonical example, but at the conference, Paul Wicks talked about PatientsLikeMe, a site that partially tries to disintermediate doctors out of the patient-medicine relationship.

What candidates for disintermediation exist in learning? Is the Learning Management System the intermediary or the disintermediator? I think the former. What about the learning function itself? In the last years I have seen a shift where the learning function is moving away from designing learning programs into becoming a curator of content and service providers and a manager of logistics. These are exactly the type of activities that are not needed anymore in the networked world. Is this why the learning profession is in crisis? I certainly think so.

The primacy (and urgency) of design

Maybe it was the fact that the conference was full of French designeurs (with the characteristic Philippe Starck-ish eccentricities that I enjoy so much), but it really did put the urgency of design to the forefront once again for me. I would argue that design means you think about the effects that you would like to have in this world. As a creator it is your responsibility to think deeply and holistically. I will not say that you can always know the results of your design (product, service, building, city, organization, etc.), there will be externalities, but it is important that you leave nothing to chance (accident) or to convenience (laziness).

There is a wealth of productivity to be gained here. I am bombarded by bad (non-)design every single day. Large corporations are the worst offenders. The only design parameter that seems to be relevant for processes is whether they reduce risk enough, not whether they are usable for somebody trying to get something done. Most templates focus on completeness and not on aesthetics or ease of use. When last did you receive a PowerPoint deck that wasn’t full of superfluous elements that the author couldn’t be bothered to remove?

Ivo Wenzler reminded me of Checkhov’s gun (no unnecessary elements in a story). What percentage of the learning events that you have attended in the last couple of years adhered to this?

We can’t afford not to design. The company I work for is full of brilliant engineers. Where are the brilliant designers?

Distributed, federated and networked systems

Robin Chase used the image below and explicitly said that we now finally realize that distributed networks are the right model to overcome the problems of centralized and decentralized systems.

From "On Distributed Communication Networks", Baran, 1962

From "On Distributed Communication Networks", Baran, 1962

I have to admit that the distinction between decentralized and distributed eludes me for now (I guess I should read Baran’s paper), but I did notice at Fosdem earlier this year that the open source world is urgently trying to create alternatives to big centralized services like Twitter and Facebook. Moglen talked about the Freedombox as a small local computer that would do all the tasks that the cloud would normally do, there is StatusNet, unhosted and even talk of distributed redundant file systems and wireless mesh networking.

Can large organizations learn from this? I always see a tension between the need for central governance, standardization and uniformity on the one hand and the local and specific requirements on the other hand. More and more systems are now designed to allow for central governance and the advantages of interoperability and integration, while at the same time providing configurability away from the center. Call it organized customization or maybe even federation. I truly believe you should think deeply about this whenever you are implementing (or designing!) large scale information systems.

Blurring the distinction between the real and the virtual worlds

Lift also had an exhibitors section titled “the lift experience“, mostly a place for multimedia art (imagine a goldfish in a bowl sat atop an electric wheelchair, a camera captured the direction the fish swam in and the wheelchair would then move in the same direction). There were quite a few projects using the Arduino and even more that used “hacked” Kinects to enable new types of interaction languages.

Photo by Rick Marriner

Photo by Rick Marriner

Most projects tried, in some way, to negotiate a new way of working between the virtual and the real (or should I call it the visceral). As soon as those boundaries disappear designers will have an increased ability to shape reality. One of the projects that I engaged with the most was the UrbanMusicalGame: a set of gyroscopes and accelerometers hidden in soft balls. By playing with these balls you could make beautiful music while using an iPhone app to change the settings (unfortunately the algorithms were not yet optimized for my juggling). This type of project is the vanguard of what we will see in the near term.

Discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of technology

A surprising theme for me was the well articulated discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of some of the emerging digital technologies. As Benkler says: technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice and not all practices that are becoming feasible now have positive societal impact.

One artist, Emmanuel Germond, seemed to be very much in touch with these feeling. His project, Exposition au Danger Psychologique, made fun of people’s inability to deal with all this information and provided some coy solutions. Alex Peng talked about contemplative computing, Chris de Decker showed examples of low-tech solutions from the past that can help solve our current problems and projects in the Lift Experience showed things like analog wooden interfaces for manipulating digital music.

This leads me to believe that both physical reality and being disconnected will come at a premium in the near future. People will be willing to pay for having real experiences versus the ubiquitous virtual experiences. Not being connected to the virtual world will become more expensive as it becomes more difficult. Imagine a retreat which markets itself as having no wifi and a giving you a free physical newspaper in the morning (places like this are starting to pop up, see this unplugged conference or this reporter’s unconnected weekend).

There will be consequences for Learning and HR at large. For the last couple of years we have been moving more and more of our learning interventions into the virtual space. Companies have set up virtual universities with virtual classrooms, thousands and thousands of hours of e-learning are produced every year and the virtual worlds that are used in serious games are getting more like reality every month.

Thinking about the premium of reality it is then only logical that allowing your staff to connect with each other in the real world and collaborate in face to face meetings will be a differentiator for acquiring and retaining talent.

Big data for innovation

I’ve done a lot of thinking about big data this year (see for example these learning analytics posts) and this was a tangential topic at the conference. The clearest example came from a carpool site which can use it’s data about future reservation to clearly predict how busy traffic will be on a particular day. PatientsLikeMe is of course another example of a company that uses data as a valuable asset.

Supercrunchers is full of examples of data-driven solutions to business problems. The ease of capturing data, combined with the increase in computing power and data storage has made doing randomized trials and regression analysis feasible where before it was impossible.

This means that the following question is now relevant for any business: How can we use the data that we capture to make our products, services and processes better? Any answers?

The need to overcome the open/closed dichotomy

In my circles, I usually only encounter people who believe that most things should be open. Geoff Mulgan spoke of ways to synthesize the open/closed dichotomy. I am not completely sure how he foresees doing this, but I do know that both sides have a lot to learn from each other.

Disruptive software innovations currently don’t seem to happen int the open source world, but open source does manage to innovate when it comes to their own processes. They manage to scale projects to thousands of participants, have figured out ways of pragmatically dealing with issues of intellectual property (in a way that doesn’t inhibit development) and have created their own tool sets to make them successful at working in dispersed teams (Git being my favorite example).

When we want to change the way we do innovation in a networked world, then we shouldn’t look at the open source world for the content of innovation or the thought leadership, instead we should look at their process.

Your thoughts

A lot of the above is still very immature and incoherent thinking. I would therefore love to have a dialog with anybody who could help me deepen my thoughts on these topics.

Finally, to give a quick flavour of all my other posts about Lift 11, the following word cloud based on those posts:

Lift11 Word Cloud

My Lift 11 wordcloud, made with Wordle

Transforming the Way We Work, Innovate and Learn

The WORK/LEARN track at Lift 11 is subtitled: Transforming the way we work, innovate and learn. From the introduction:

What will the XXIst-century organization look like: A network, a nebula, or a process-based system where everything is standardized and measured? How can these two cultures, these two ways of producing and of innovating, work together? And, since education seems to have changed far less than most of society, how can we prepare for a world where we all learn continuously and ubiquitously?

Geoff Mulgan is Chief Executive at Nesta, a funding body for science, and talks about Openness and collective intelligence, its prospects and its challenges.

According to him people have different perspectives on networks. People predicted networks would lead to big brother states and corporations and fascistic organizations, whereas other said it would flatten hierarchies. The truth is, networks do both. We need to learn how to navigate the balance of openness and closure.

He thinks we will need to develop three different strategies to do the following:

  • Stop the abuses of networked technology
  • Infect and embrace the hierarchies
  • Grow the new

Who shows the example of Who Owns My Neighbourhood and Sutton Bookshare. He is interested in depth rather than breadth in relationships. Another project he is involved with is the Action for Happiness website, giving people science based advice on how to be happy:

Next he focuses on some methodological solutions to make progress in solving the problems mentioned above. One is social innovation camps, another is I do ideas where you people can get a grant not by filling in a grant request form, but by posting a video.

He uses some Hegelian thinking to frame the problem. If “Hierarchy” is the “Thesis” and “Open Networks” are the “Antithesis”, then what is the “Synthesis”? There are testing out the model by means of a Global Innovation Academy with pilots in many countries.

He leaves us with his advice on what we need. We need fast and slow, we need always on, but also often off and we need open as well as closed. He doesn’t have the answer on how to do these things and realizes we are in a time of heavy experimentation.

Edial Dekker is the CEO of Gidsy a marketplace for authentic experiences. He is of Hack de Overheid (Hack the government) fame. His talk is titled Trusted networks and the rise of the micro-entrepreneur.

According to Edial we are in trouble: we are in the slowest economic recovery since the 30s, we will run out of natural resources and we are at peak globalization. He sees all kinds of initiatives that are trying to tackle these problems from the bottom up and are getting a lot of traction. Examples are The School of Life or How to Homestead, a community that tries to help you become self-sufficient, or the Betahaus a very successful makers-lab in Berlin. He could give endless examples of empowering technologies allowing people to share resources in a different way.

He aligns his argument with Robin Chase, where these new collaborative platform are very scalable and capable of making use of the excess capacity. He quotes Kevin Kelly who says that “Access is better than ownership”:

Currently he is raising money for his start up. The question that always comes up from investors is: “How big is your market?”. He didn’t really know how to answer that question. So he asked his advisers at Etsy who told him that when they started there was no market for handmade items. They created a market that wasn’t there before. Jyri Engeström invented the concept of “Social objects” to describe this.

He finished by giving some tips:

  • Make your product as human as possible (Rob Kalin of Etsy)
  • It start with chips and end with trust (Kevin Kelly)
  • Unmute the web (Alex & Eric from Soundcloud)
  • Don’t solve problems, pursue opportunities

The final speaker in this track is the Finnish Ville Keränen, a “geek and learning designer” at Monkey Business (check out their site, the tag line is “More action. More chaos. More mistakes. More learning.”). He must be the best branded speaker of the event, taking his sun-glassed banana everywhere and wearing yellow pants. His talk has the title: From Team Academy to the future: Building organizations for humans.

He first asks us to get up and give each other a “tender and dynamic greeting”.

For Ville it is all about people, courage and fun and well-being. He feels we are sometimes a bit too serious in the way we work. He quotes Tom Peters who said “I would have done some real cool stuff, but my boss didn’t allow me”. He then shows a quite incredible youtube video in which a Finnish ice hockey player show exactly the right behaviors you need:

Some key concepts from the team academy: you enter the academy and start a company with a team of people on day one (even without a business idea). There are no simulations, only real projects. There are no lectures, but there is lots of dialog. There are no teachers, but team coaches instead. There are no exams, only team companies. There are no grades, but real clients. One of the goals is to make a trip around the world with the money you have made (if you made enough money).

There are few learning principles behind the team academy. Learners learn what they want to learn (constructivism). Learning is always situational and contextual. Learning is social and happens in a community. I believe that in my company we are relatively good at the second principle, but have a lot to learn about the first and third principles.

Team Academy is now expanding rapidly. Their challenges are currently how to lead a global network, how to think big and how to expand to domains outside of business? One thing that they are doing well is capturing the excess capacity of their students.