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"technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice"

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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?

Disintermediation

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

Open – What Happens When Barriers to Innovation Become Drastically Lower?

The final themed session at Lift 11 France is about OPEN – What happens when barriers to innovation become drastically lower?. From the introduction:

The Internet has radically open innovation systems in digital products, content and services. Today, the same is happening to manufacturing, finance, urban services, even health care and life sciences. What will this new innovation landscape look like?

First up is Juliana Rotich from GlobalVoices. Her talk is about Ushahidi which builds democratizing technology and is powered by open source.

The true size of Africa

The true size of Africa

She starts her talk by showing how large Africa truly is. Ushahidi shares a heritage of openness with the Internet. Africa is getting connected fast and the costs of the connection keeps on dropping. Eventually this will change the rural landscape. Initially a lot of web 2.0 services where local copies of silicon valley services, but now we are starting to see services being developed for true local (check out iHub).

Mobile technology plays an important part. The coverage is getting better. In 2015 they expect to have 7.2 billion non smartphones and 1.3 billion smartphones in Africa. Mobile money is an innovation that is a third world first. More than 20% of Kenia’s GDP flows trough the mobile money system. It is transforming many (government) services: for example prepaying for electricity.

By making the tools open source, people can take the tools, use their own data and make it their own: it really lowers the barriers for people to use the technology. Ushahidi as a platform is now used for all kinds of use-cases that were never imagined. Crowdmap has pushed the number of Ushahidi implementations to over 15.000.

Of course there are challenges: the last mile stays difficult. Nothing is as big a showstopper as power black outs. She then goes on to critique Facebook as a walled garden for its lack of generativity. When there are closed walls around technology it becomes much harder to innovate (hear, hear!). So her advice is to bet on generativity and open source.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino has a talk titled Homesense project: agile and open innovation against all odds.

Homesense started with a blog post. She got a bit sick of the idea of the “smart” home. Every home is different. She thought it would be a good idea to give this new simple open technology to “normal” people without any specific interest in technology and let them use it in a creative commons way. She then went looking for people who were willing to get people to volunteer their home for experimentation. In the end they found 6 households in 4 countries.

The Homesense Kit

The Homesense Kit

So what happened? People were given a “homesense kit” based around the Arduino. The households worked with technological experts to create things that were useful to them, like a robot that would tell you when you left the toilet seat up, or a little map that would show you were the shared bike-hubs around your house had bikes available, or something that would turn off the light when there was enough light around the house.

Then suddenly the project received a cease and desist letter from a large manufacturer who has a trademark on the word “Homesense”. Luckily, after some legal advice, they could go on. Now they’ve been invited by the MoMa to exhibit their project in the Talk to me exhibition.

Open innovation is hard to do when you are an organization. It is very hard to do when you are a big business. Smaller outfits can do this much cheaper and get the results shared much more quickly.

The last speaker in this session about openness is Gabriel Borges talking about two initiatives based on open innovation. He will show how peer production can be the main factor of innovation.

Brazil is now the 5th largest Internet audience with only 38% penetration. A new digital middle class is coming up in Brazil and they are the most intense social media users in the world. Portuguese is the second most spoken language in Twitter and Brazil is the 2nd largest Youtube audience in the world. Why is this the case? Brazilians are social by nature. A global average social media user in the world has 120 network friends, in Latin America this is 176 and Brazil this is 230 friends.

What happens when you mix all these ingredients? You can get things like Queremos with five guys organizing concert by disintermediating all the people that are normally between a band and the attendee. It works like this:

Queremos

Another example is how they used WordPress to invite consumers to really help in designing a concept car. The Fiat Mio concept car had 17.000 consumers bringing in their 11.000 ideas in about 15 months. It is fundamentally changing the way that Fiat Brazil wants to work going forward.

What are the 3 key learnings from this?

  1. A collaborative environment should never be based on anarchy. Leadership, stimulation, organization and ground rules are very necessary.
  2. It doesn’t mean that everyone interested in your cause will feel thrilled to collaborate effectively. Make room for all interested people.
  3. Even for the most collaborative cause, at the end, the motivation for any and every participant will be extremely individualist.

Written by Hans de Zwart

08-07-2011 at 19:06

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