'Guest post by Dave Malouf.
PICNIC 2010 was the 5th incarnation of this now staple Amsterdam event. They call it a festival so people don't think they are supposed to come and sit on their butts for the 3 days. The motto this year was "What are you bringing?" and most everyone brought something.
Attendees have been known to call it a hands-on TED, but I think that's inaccurate. While there are plenty of good ideas, the caliber is not consistent. Some speakers are, in fact, former TED speakers themselves, but not all live up to that level of performance and story telling. Still, there is definitely plenty to do beyond listening and networking, though that is, of course, a big part of any event.
Picnic has many ties to educational and social organizations. There were several portions of the conference either restricted to student/youth participation or showcasing student work to the general community. There was a specific emphasis on Dutch education, but also a pre-event competition where Dutch students competed with students from Parsons School of Design.
Though three days in total, the bulk of attendees came on the 2nd day only. There was an over 33% spike in attendance on day two, making for an interesting situation for the attendees of the entire conference. This produced a dramatic change in energy that refocused the festival on the content more than the people—space constraints forced people to think about the content in a competitive way.
PICNIC should really be a circus more than a festival. When you enter the huge gas works cylinder, you are transported into a circus big top. There was so much going on, that for a first-timer like myself, it could be quite overwhelming.
The enormity of the space allowed for the building of micro-habitats inside the "Gashoud" (name of the building in Dutch). There were Yurts for labs, loft spaces for Speakers, VIPs & Press, booths by sponsors, food carts, a massage station (that helped at the end of day two), internet stations, and lots of picnic tables. All of the sponsor booths had hands-on activities to participate in. Microsoft had Surface Tables and a preview of Kinect. Vodofone was doing a service design exercise run by @designthinkers, while the Waag Society showed digital artifact rendering machines (3D printers, die-cutters & laser cutters).
But the venue didn't stop with the Gashoud. Outside the circus tent were more Yurts and picnic tables, with speaker spaces the shortest of walks away. There was a double-decker bus where students worked, a Tesla electronic sports car to be test driven, a glass house by the THINK project, and more. Food for the event was prepared in plain site under a canopy tent outside.
All of this was housed in a much bigger and very beautiful park and public use space, which made for nice relaxing breaks and access to other goings-on in the city, like the a bamboo architecture exhibit in the park, for example.
The venue left you stimulated and open to possibilities. It was designed to encourage the paradox of frenetic energy and opportunities for relaxed communication. Here's how is all played out.
After getting myself accustomed to is new type of conference I decided to start my day in a yurt discussing sensors. Many of the "labs" either started or ended with a topic panel of experts who would either introduce the attendees to a lab topic or summarize what people did. Some panels were highly participatory and others were like mini-conference threads. The sensor project, like many of the lab projects, was primarily for students though the introduction panel was for the entire conference (though the yurt was indeed small).
The first speaker was Natalie Jeremijenko from NYU. She was a passionate speaker on the topic of understanding how the environmental effects our health, especially the man-made damage to the environment.
For her, sensors were not so much a tool for gathering scientific data, as much as a means of telling the story of our destruction of our own bodies through the insertion of damaging ingredients into our environment.
She did her work as a professor, healer and activist. She created an environmental health clinic whose patients she called "impatients" because of their impatience with society's passivity in the wake of these environmental issues. Her sensors allowed them to gain information and often teach people around them, as well.
Dr. Jeremijenko's sensors were often biological agents working on our behalf. She gave her "impatients" tadpoles to take home and take care of. Because of their rapid and extreme maturation they present symptoms of disruption of their endocrine system in clear and absolute terms. Dr. Jeremijenko spoke about how industrial inorganic toxins can be tied to endocrine disorders rising among humans including early onset puberty and obesity.
Her work doesn't only use biological sensors. For example, one of her sensors is a simple surgical mask that had a printers gray scale printed on it. As an impatient wore it, especially in urban environments, the black carbon and other toxins in the air would make the mask darker and darker, clearly representing the dirt in the air.
The biggest take away from Dr. Jerimijenjo's talk was two fold: sensing is not nearly as important as measuring and what you decide to measure effects the measuring and influences the demonstrated outcome.
Next the press were invited to listen to representatives of Vodofone discuss a public project they are working on in Holland: "Leefritme" or Life Rhythm. Vodofone put together a study that looked at the changing nature of life rhythms due to the disruptions of mobile technologies. The study looked at issues caused by mobile technologies such as the convergence of personal and professional life and the overall expectations in regards to privacy. The study looked at how people define success and happiness and what mixture of tasks, social elements and personal needs lead to more happiness. Vodofone has made the study public and are looking for partners to join the work.
Appropriately, after this session, I went to one on Social Media. The opening speaker set the tone by discussing ways people use their social network for professional gains. The speaker from Linkedin discussed the growing trend of the "personal brand."
Day two's theme started out a lot less technical. The first speaker, David Gallo introduced us to how little we know about the most abundant part of the earth, our oceans. The image above, depicting earth with all its water stripped away, tells us how important these are. The smaller blue dot just to right shows us what the spherical volume of all the water on earth would be; the rightmost blue speck represents freshwater.
David showed us creatures we are just discovering as our improving technology allows us to go deeper and deeper into the oceans. Discoveries of amazing lifeforms that live where nothing should, due to lack of light and poisonous gases from volcanic ruptures, thrive. These underwater volcanoes are taller than the Alps and buried inside them are actual lakes with air pockets and waterfalls taller than any we have discovered on land.
David Gallo's message was clear. If we are to really say we understand our planet, we need to take care of our oceans and continue to learn about them.
While David Gallo helped us explore the planet, Evan Ratliff from Wired Magazine told us his story of how he tried to "vanish," how he got caught and what he learned. The short form of the story is that it is nearly impossible to remain invisible if you remain online (a requirement of the game Wired Magazine set Evan on). But on the flip side, it is not very hard to maintain a new identity even w/o a social security number if you have enough money.
My two big take-aways from this talk were that when people are motivated to work together they can be incredibly effective and that, today, to be real, you must have a digital social footprint.
Digital data and social and cultural realities was a recurring theme throughout the festival. Andreas Weigen discussed how we have moved from our identities being purely social constructs to one that we directly contribute to through social networks; we are who we say we are. His core message: our behavior is changed by the data we share, whether created directly, passively, or through sensors and metrics.
Next, I was invited to a special interview with the creators and the partners of the Instructables Restaurant. Throughout the festival, the restaurant served up pizza whose recipes were crowdsourced. The trio involved wanted to create an experiment where open designed ideas were converted to something physical and discussed the experience of running an experimental open design restaurant. At this point, they have many more questions than answers, but it's a project I'm excited to continue following,
Mitchell Joachim presented an overview of the work he has done with both MIT and his new organization, Teraform One. Joachim is a futurist who stitches together optimistic stories of future possibilities: new cars, jetpacks, mobile whims and resulting infrastructure. The most practical questions I heard him try to answer were centered around solving the problem of the last 5km that current public transit doesn't seem to handle well, especially in urban spiral and suburban contexts.
One of my favorite talks was given by the Director of Design for Mozilla, Aza Raskin. Instead of demonstrating technology or discussing design techniques, he showed us how fragile our memory is and how predictably we can manipulate it. For example he convinced the entire audience that there was something in his slides that wasn't there. He then warned us of the dangers—within our growing digital collections of our memories are the arsenal for marketers to manipulate us quite easily.
Tom Hulme started out the last day discussing IDEO's new focus on systems design, focusing on how to empower systems design on the organization:
- Make decisions holistically.
- View everything through the eyes of the consumer. Even apply business models through the eyes of the consumer. This allows everyone to participate.
- Prototype all parts of the system.
- Launch early and often.
Since making decisions holistically means getting all stakeholders involved, it is important to create systems that democratize the design process. Here are some tips Tom suggested for doing that:
- Remember the importance of the question. It is important to define success.
- Understand your community and its motivations.
- Collaboration just doesn't happen. You must engage the community, and create engines of facilitation.
The best talk of the event was up. Author, entrepreneur, and activist Corey Doctorow gave an eloquent, articulate and impassioned talk on copyright and digital rights management (DRM). His talk was a series of tweet sized quotes strung together to reveal the idiocy of locking content with DRM. Here are a few:
Axiom: copying is never ever going to get harder.
Obscurity is worse than piracy.
It is harder to monetize obscurity than fame.
You can get a bible for free in any hotel room yet people still buy them.
DRM is the equivalent of buying a book that requires that it is only shelved on an IKEA bookshelf.
It took 24 hours for fans of Harry Potter to type a copy of all 1600 pages of the last book. Another 24 for the German translation.
People don't know why they have problems reading long form on digital devices. They complain about the screen, but it's the distraction that's the problem.
A device is only as good as its ecosystem. The more you engage that system the more you are locked into it.
The ability to be able transport and transition our media is not a bug but an important feature.
There were more complex thoughts than these tweets; the overall message is that DRM connoted systems are actually bad for economics and counter intuitive to human-centered media.
Doctorow presented the many experimental ways he is making money of of freely available media. My favorite example is that he will put anyone's name in the next limited run physical printing of his book if they find a typo/misspelling, of which there are many. Most people will buy the physical copy because now it has their name in it.
For me, the conference closed at the Waag Society/FabLab session on Open Design. The keynote speaker was Jos de Mul, a professor of Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Rotterdam. He spoke about "open design" and called for a new role for the designer: "Designers should not design objects but design the spaces and data structures where others can design for themselves." This theme resonated with the rest of the festival, but Jos de Mul described it best.
Jos went on to explain that there are three areas where design can be open—input, process, and output&mdashl and continued by describing four areas that are problematic for open design:
Physical products require capital
Hard to get people to join in in productive ways
The folly of crowds (they aren't always wise)
Designed items can be dangerous w/ rigor
The conversation took an odd turn for me when de Mul delved into databases, landing on a poignant insight: "Everything can be made into a database, and the database has become a hammer looking for its nail." But instead of calling on designers to avoid the database, he encourages them to "create a multidimensional path through the design frame, so they can create order from disorder."
Returning to "open design," he discussed its economics, referencing Kevin Kelly, who says that copies of content should be free and that "paying attention" brings a new layer of value. Properties like immediacy and design are value propositions that the marketplace may be willing to pay for.