PICNIC Festival 2012 Day Two

Today was the second day of the 2012 PICNIC festival in Amsterdam. My notes about the first day are available here. Below my notes and thoughts on day 2:

Doc Searls – How the Old Bottom is the New Top

Searls spoke at at SxSW earlier this year. I caught him there already and made some notes. His talk today was very similar and still relates to the new book he has written: The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge.

Andy Hood – The Unselfish Gene

Hood is from AKQA a (marketing? branding? ad?) agency and sponsor of the festival that helps brands “improve business performance through innovation”. He talked about how in our current times it is incredibly necessary to try things and to make sure you learn from whatever it is that you try. According to Hood whenever you learn you can consider yourself to be successful. He quoted Wayne Gretzky who said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Having learned something you have to act on it and follow it through.

His reference to The Selfish Gene was a bit thin: “evolve or die” (meaning you need to keep learning) and “the genepool needs to be diverse” (meaning you need to have an ecosystem of partners).

Finally he referenced an interesting Disney project around gesture recognition on normal surfaces (like a door knob):

Rupert Turnbull – An Inside Job: Tales from a Corporate Startup

Turnbull is the publisher of Wired UK. He talked about intrapeneurship (although I am not sure what he meant to say other than that we should cherish intrapeneurs). He beliefs we are all born with an entrepeneurial spirit, but that we don’t all use this spirit when we grow up. Turnbull is a good storyteller and shared his own forays into the world of starting businesses. He also discussed how disruption can be an opportunity: Wired UK has an incredibly diverse sets of business outlets: website, magazine (print and tablet), podcast, consulting, events, hospitality, retail, etc.

Louisa Heinrich – I am Superman

Heinrich works for Fjord and has no slides (brave!). She talked about how the extended Quantified Self movement and its thinking can make us better human beings. Our lives are made of thousands of decisions every day without us even being conscious about many of those decisions. Our brains process massive amounts of data and it is an illusion to think that computers can just take over that task.

We are inherently narrative creatures. We think of our own lives as a set of very rich stories and we cannot help but see patterns in these stories. She loves the ideas of technology helping us creating stories about ourselves on the basis of the data that is in our lives. When this happens we should all have the power to decide who gets to look at our data though.

I’ve put some thought into the quantified self and how this relates to learning myself. There is a summary of a talk I did on that topic in Dutch or in English.

Ross Ashcroft – No More Business As Usual

Ashcroft is from Motherlode and directed Four Horsemen, a film about the fundamental flaws in our economic system:

His talk was also mainly about storytelling. He showed the Hollywood formula:

The Hollywood Formula

The Hollywood Formula

On the basis of these plot elements Ashcroft told a story about a new way of doing business and “new ownership” (the theme of PICNIC). Similarly to the talks of Turnbull and Hood this seemed to be more about how you say something than what you say. I’m left with barely any content… Yes, the world is changing. Now what?

Elizabeth Stark – The Democratization of Knowledge and Innovation

Stark talked about the largest online protest in history: against SOPA. She described how the media portrayed the demonstrations as a top down approach from a set of Silicon Valley executives, whereas in reality it very much was a bottom-up, decentralized and chaotic movement. Stark sees this as a way of working and innovating in the future: harnessing the creativity of millions of people who realise that you can learn anything you want, that experts are made (rather than born) and you don’t need a PhD to innovate.

Farid Tabarki – Burdened with Radical Freedom

Tabarki (a trendwatcher with his own company Studio Zeitgeist) started his talk by looking back at the rise of Lady Gaga who rose to the position of most influential woman in media in only two to three years. She was able to do this because of three things:

  • In the past you needed MTV to become well known. Lady Gaga uses a platform where anybody can tune in anytime (2 billion views on her YouTube channel)
  • Before you could only communicate with your fans through magazines. She has around 30 million followers on Twitter.
  • In the past you had to make sure your records were in physical stores, now you have global instant delivery with things like iTunes.

We are all little Lady Gagas: we are also liberated from the constraints of the past and we live in the age of digital decentralization. The next part of his talk focused on education (the usual Coursera-like examples). These new ways of doing education are based on the fact that one size no longer fits all. Other fundamental changes are related to sharing, transparency (check out this Norwegian website showing the income of all Norwegians for an example of true radical transparency). Finally, we will also have a much more hybrid approach to things.

How will we go from the old centralized system to the new system? Will it be a revolution or a transformation? One thing is for sure: we need take some risks.

Cathal Garvey – Enter Bio-Hacking!

Garvey is a biohacker and an academic (his slides actualy have content, unique in PICNIC):

Garvey's R&D interests

Garvey’s R&D interests

His wish is for this “most fundamental technology of them all” to be democratized. Garvey showed quotes from Bill Gates and Freeman Dyson saying how important biotechnology will be in the future (“the machine language of life”). Biotechnology as the original open source technology, it is there for anyone to hack on.

He talked about open access, PLoS and the concept of Research Blogging. He showed us something I hadn’t heard about before: sciencecommons.org (an open source Material Transfer Agreement).

Why biohacking? Basically because it is about the ownership of self. 20% of the Human genome is currently patented (WTF?!). So there is a rich community of hackers (in hackspaces and dedicated biolabs) and biopunkers using things like the OpenPCR (for thermocycling) trying to democratize access to this type of technology and genetic information.

Jon Lombardo – HealthyShare: Because Friends are Good for Your Health

Lombardo leads social media for GE and talked about their new app: HealthyShare, a way to let your friends help you with your health challenges. GE sees health as a social thing. There are four things you do to or with others when it comes to health:

  • Well-wishing
  • Researching
  • Inspiring
  • Teaching

The app transfers these pre-existing things to the online domain (unfortunaty this is another app that is heavily based on Facebook). Right now the app is mainly focused on what he calls “casual health”. They want to move it to the more serious health concerns.

Tim O’Reilly – The Clothesline Paradox and the Sharing Economy

I saw O’Reilly being interviewed on the same topic at SxSW and wrote a blogpost about it. His truly excellent talk today (refreshingly full of content compared to the morning) was mainly a rehashing of what was discussed there.

Make sure to also read his first principles titled Work on Stuff that Matters and his article Trading for their own account.

O’Reilly has published a case study documenting the economic impact of open source on small business.

Finally O’Reilly talked about skateboarder Rodney Mullen talking about innovation and creativity:

Clash of Systems: A Socratic Conversation

Humberto Schwab, the “innovation philosopher for business” who used to be my philosophy teacher at the Montessori Lyceum and was called Huib then, led a Socratic conversation with a few of the speakers of the day.

Schwab started by outlining the basic rules for the Socratic method (as one way of battling the intellectual fallacy and putting the practical knowledge and practical intelligence in the center of our acting):

  • You can only get the floor when you ask for it by raising your hand, and only then when the chair gives you the floor
  • There is no discussion, you are in a process of thinking together and trying to answer a question
  • Before you can speak, you have to be capable of repeating what the person before you said and you have to be able to summarize the previous 15 minutes of dialogue
  • You are not allowed to refer to books, investigations or other smart people
  • You have to use simple and concrete language
  • The chair will be a philosopher, who will not provide any content but will make sure that all dimensions of the question are explored by creating the space for that
  • If the rules madden you then you can ask for a timeout

He then asked the four speakers to come up with one philosophic question each. The speakers asked the following questions:

  • Why do people do things for eachother without necessarily getting something in return?
  • Do we own ourselves?
  • What am I willing to share as a human being?
  • Are we losing leadership?

I focused more on the methodology than on the contents of the discussion, very interesting!

Cardboarders

Cardboarders is “a blog about artists, engineers, architects and people with a fetish for cardboard.” They created a giant cardboard marble run in the main hall of the Eye:

The Carboarders Marble Run

The Carboarders Marble Run

PICNIC Festival 2012 Day One

Today was the first day of the seventh edition of the PICNIC festival in Amsterdam (hashtag #picnic12. The festival’s goal is “to discover opportunities for transformation: processes, cultures, products, services, models and experiences”. The theme for the year is New Ownership: the shift from top down to bottom up. This is my first time attending the festival. I am on the lookout for interesting insights and connections around the topic of how to innovate at scale. Below some of my general notes and thoughts on the day.

George Dyson – There is Plenty of Room at the Top

Dyson‘s title is of course a reference to Feynman’s 1959 talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. He talked a bit about Feynman’s role at Los Alamos. The digital world we live in today is the result of a “deal with the devil”: if scientist would help the government get nuclear weapons then they would get the computers.

There is room at the bottom, but there is also room at the top: a development of a global intelligence through networked machines and computation at all levels. We are starting to make machines that can think, machines that can replicate themselves and evolve. The founders of the computing age already saw this coming and questioned what this would mean and where it would take us (e.g. Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics).

His whole talk was looking back at what people have said 50-100 years ago and how those statements translate to current times. I can see why the festival programmers decided to open with him, but his talk was all description and very little prescription which made it less than interesting for me.

Byron Reese – The Great Disconnect

Reese started talking about how it used to be that most of the basic elements of life where decided for you at birth. A lot of aspects of your life came from where you were born and in what type of family. These things did not change, there was very little mobility. Today, if there is something about your life you don’t like, you have the ability to change it: you are unthethered. Who you are is no longer a set of circumstances, instead it is a set of choices. There is self-determination. If we combine that with the freedom of conscience then we can have a set of beliefs that can actually underpin a nation.

These changes are driven by the enormous amounts of technological developments that are happening around us. He thinks we are on the cusp of eliminating poverty, hunger and disease by solving them as technological problems (this reminds me of the book Abundance I recently read). I guess Reese is a true techno-optimist (unfortunately without the sense to talk about how many people in the word aren’t “unthethered” yet). He beliefs that even though we are unthethered, we aren’t used to that yet and still behave as if we are thethered in many ways. His advice: “make the most of it”.

Rich Pell – Strategies in Genetic Copy-Protection

Pell is director of the Center for PostNatural History, basically a museum dedicated to living things that were altered by people.

PostNatural is an adjective defined as biological life that has been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. This usually requires human mediated and controlled production. This leads to ethical questions, mainly around the ownership of life. There are now patents on life forms (Pasteur actually had the first patent on a life form: on yeast for beer) and a few strategies for genetic copy prevention are emerging:

  • Security through obscurity: not giving any information about what your organism is or does.
  • Genetic control: built-in reproductive control in the genes, initially a way to make sure that it was possible to contain the genetically engineered organism.
  • Contractual agreement: a contract that prohibits breeding (standard in pure-bred lines for dogs for example).

Pell then showed Monsanto’s terms of agreement for farmers wanting to use their seeds. A legal text scrolled by for a long time of which the main point is that the seed is single-use and that the farmer doesn’t own the seed. You agree to the terms by opening the bag of seeds. Pell had to do some smart legal and physical “hacking” to be able to put Monsanto corn legally in their museum.

Dale Stephens – The Empowered Learner

Stephens didn’t enjoy school when he was twelve. He found a group of unschoolers and quit school with the reluctant permission of his parents.

Unschooling is a set of ideas that try to solve the current failings of education (cost are going up, while value of the education is going down (see here), no equality of opportunity, academic rigour disappearing). The term was coined by John Holt who wrote two books titled How Children Learn and How Children Fail. Holt was inspired by theSummerhill school (the school as a democratic community). Growing without schooling was a magazine that came out of this movement. I am surprised Stephens did not quote Illich’ Deschooling Society which will become a very important text in the next few years I believe (it is listed on the uncollege reading list I now see).

Unschooling is not the same as homeschooling. It isn’t isolating, Stephens learned in a group of 30 unschoolers who created their own learning experiences (“collaborative learning groups”). The basic idea is to trust people’s innate capacity to be curious.

When he didn’t go to college he was asked: “But what about beer and the girls?”. His standard answer to that question is now “I actually prefer guys and champagne”. Stephens has founded Uncollege (read the manifesto here) with the goal of decentralising education and has written the book Hacking Your Education through interviewing fifty people who have done something interesting with their lives without taking part in the traditional educational system.

Mike Lee- Macrometaengineering

Mike Lee talked about the creation of Appsterdam. Appsterdam is now 18 months old and Lee is the “mayor”. It is his attempt to create a tech ecosystem. In his talked he answered a few questions that I guess you could term macrometaengineering.

How do you attract entrepreneurs? You just have to better than the default (which Silicon Valley) and then you have to be easy to get to. One thing that is nice about Europe is the patent law. He quickly took a jab at patent law in the United States and how ridiculous it is to own ideas. Ideas come from zeitgeist, it is all about implementation.
How to create jobs? By making talented people and creating a technical labour surplus.
How to fund your company? It is incrediby easy to find money in the Netherlands. Check out le.mu.rs to see what he’ll be doing with his funding soon.
How to promote diversity? Very easy: stop discriminating and make sure that everybody is welcome.
How to open your data? How to keep your subsidies? How to resolve the crisis? Share the information with everyone in the world, please don’t care about borders.
How to build the future? Let’s figure it out if we are all fingers on the same hand. The future is ours to create.

I will have to take a closer look at Appsterdam as it seems like Lee has created a force for change out of nowhere.

Michael Schwarz – Re-Design for the Era of Sustainism

According to Schwarz we are in a new cultural era. To bring new culture into existence we first have to rename the world. So they came up with the word Sustainism (the new modernism: “less is more” is modernist, “do more with less” is sustainist) which is a lens to think about the world. Sustainist design is where connectivity (technology), sustainibility (nature) and community (people) meet. Everything is seen as interconnected and interdependent. Global goals are connected to local initiatives. Local is an ethical, aesthetic quality. Sustainism is not just the name for an era, it also is a movement and even an ethos. This makes sustainibility and social good the new drivers for innovation and design. Open source is the cultural operating system for this time. You are what you share (rather than what you have).

How can we design for sustainist qualities? And redesign the world? To summarize, you need to start with the following sustainist values in your design briefs and use them as key drivers for innovation:

  • Connectedness – everything is connected
  • Localism – Local as a quality
  • Sharing – You are what you share

Also check out Open Sustainist Design.

Bas van Abel – If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It

Van Abel started his talk with a picture from Occupy Wallstreet of a guy holding up a board saying: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit”. He is convinced that it is important to open up stuff because that allows you to understand the systems behind the stuff and that will enable you to take action.

Companies don’t like you to open up their things. Nintendo uses proprietary screws so that you can’t open their DS devices. Our “Electronic Anorexia” is a driver for thinner and thinner devices. These devices (e.g. the latest generation of Macbooks) are nearly impossible to fix yourself.

Makezine has the following quote: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”. They see ownership not just as property, but also as engagement. They have published The Maker’s Bill of Rights.

Van Abel then showed the problem with mobile phones and how they are produced. To solve this problem he is working on Fairphone an effort to bring a fairly produced smartphone to the market.

Anne Shongwe – Empowering Bottom Up

Shongwe from Afroes is working on a process that tries to inspire young Africans to re-imagine Africa. How do you move the mindset of young people from hopelessness to entrepreneurial and progressive? Mobile is the fastest growing media platform in Africa and has surpassed even radio in its usage. 73% of Africans have a mobile phone and this will be 85% by 2015. 450 young people in Africa have access to a mobile phone. Many organisations in Africa already use mobile technology to their advantage.

The mobile revolution is a social revolution for young people. Young people love playing games, so they’ve decided to create educational games. Their first game is Moraba a mobile game on the topic of gender based violence. They’ve put quite a lot of thought into how this works pedagogically.

Bonnie Shaw – Playful Communities and Urban Experiments

Shaw is dean of a chapter of the Awesome Foundation in Washington DC. She described herself through a Venn-diagram (a nexus between people, place and technology). The first few minutes of her presentation was completely conceptual and used words like collective individualism, aggregated, scale, disruptive, networks, local, etc. She completely lost me as she did not relate these themes or words to anything concrete. She then went on to talk about Snap-Shot-City as her introduction to social technology.

The Awesome Foundation chapters fund projects through $1000 grants that are scraped together by the chapter members. An example of a funded project is Petworth Jazz Project (Why is EVERYTHING called a project nowadays? Why isn’t this called a festival or a concert? I am starting a crusade with The New Vocabuary against the use of the word). I guess this is basically a localised version of crowdfunding.

Cesar Harada – Open Hardware for the Environment

Cesar asks the question of whether open source technology can help clean up or ameliorate our man-made natural disasters. He was in Kenya working at the iHub when the BP Oil Spill happened. Ushahidi was used to map the oil spill. He was then invited to MIT to work on oil spill clean up technology. They were working on long term, expensive and patented technology. Even though this was his dream job he decided to quit, because he wanted to make more impact on the short term. He connected to the public laboratory which was mapping the oil spill with balloons. He then focused on trying to clean up the oil spill with robotic sailboats.

He started Protei in which already a couple of engineering problems that came from trying to drag something heavy and still sail into the wind seem to have been solved. They created a robot boat with two steering rudders (front and back) and the ability to articulate itself. The boat is actually creating a whole new set of physics for sailing. This is community-generated technology: people from all over the world help to iterate this open hardware design.

He calls this way of producing “using an innovation network”.

Daan Roosegaarde – The Business of Soft and Hard Capital

Daan Roosegaarde runs an international design laboratory for interactive projects. He thinks artist nowadays have to be half priest (ideology, the vision to go somewhere) and half entrepreneur (the ability to make it happen). He showed some interesting projects humanising technology.

Things like Dune which is a set of fibers reacting to their environment:

Or Intimacy a dress that changes transparency based on how intimate you are with somebody (as measured by your heartbeat):

And a few other of their projects. This was easily the best talk of the day.

Live Scrabble

The designers of the festival created a small game to get people talking to each other: playing scrabble with the letters on your badge. See some of the results here. If any team needs an “E” (worth five points) tomorrow, just ping me.