This is end-of-year post #13 (all prior ones here).
What happened in 2020?
2020 was a rough year for many, including for me, in that the backdrop of a pandemic to some personal and work-related stress left me feeling somewhat burned out. It was also a good year in that for all the exhaustion I might feel, I’m also keenly aware that we’re alright when so many others are decidedly not. We’re healthy, the little one’s doing great, we have our jobs, we haven’t lost anyone. So, 2020: It’s not going to go on the record as a favorite, but it could’ve been worse for us for sure. Many things are looking well.
It was also just a weird year. Between global politics and the ever changing guidance on how to handle this pandemic, it seemed like everyone was just that little more fragile. Borders between work and private life blurred as bedrooms and kids were suddenly visible in the background of calls in ways I’d never experienced before. Some of that might be for the better — even at work, we’re still the same people after all, not just A Professional Face With No Life Outside Work. Zoom etiquette evolved quickly.
I turned 40, and instead of a big dinner party took a little day trip with M, a nice lunch out in the sun, some time for myself. 2020 simultaneously had me keep an eye out constantly to the news and stats, and inwards. Between those two — looking out and introspection — maybe being in the moment is what came a little short here and there. Something to keep in mind for the next year.
There was also lots of good and promising stuff that happened this year. In our personal life, sure, but also globally. A recognition that the fight against global warming has to finally get serious; a US presidential election that for all its drama and shortcomings elected a winner who truly respects democracy and basic decency; a mounting defense against tech monopolies. These things are all real, and massive, and they’re happening.
The theme for 2020
Last year I wrote:
This [note: “focus on impact”] essentially has stayed true for the third year in a row. I spent more time still on policy-related work — in fact I’d say my work has continued a pretty sharp turn upstream towards policy.
Workwise, impact work has continued to be the focus, and the methods and approaches have become more and more clear. My focus is on working with foundations, civil society, government.
But the theme, overall, if there was one, is this: a clean slate.
I work heavily through side projects. It’s how my brain works, it’s something I need to stay alert, to procrastinate productively, to explore new ideas and methods, to develop partnerships.
Over the years, a great many of side projects have accumulated, which is good; but even when largely dormant, they still take up mental bandwidth. So it was time to clean up, to slash extra-curriculars, wrap up some projects. And to start handing others over to those who’ve grown into leaders there who’ll do a better job at them than I could.
That clean slate serves two purposes: One, I need to cut down on some things to prevent burning out on things I love. Two, I have a bunch of ideas I’m excited about that otherwise I cannot tackle. Things like my new membership program SPECIAL PROJECTS, a book I intend to write, collaborations and experiments with season passes I’m extremely excited about.
So, I’ll be riding into the sunset of 2020 knowing that 2021 will greet me with a clean slate, and it feels amazing.
So, the elephant in the room: What was special about this year? Certainly the pandemic. The first — hopefully, also last — pandemic I’ve experienced. So far, we’ve had a few scares but no more than that. A family member had the virus, but got lucky. We each had to get tested a few times, but also got lucky. We were very careful with as stringent a self-isolation policy as is realistically possible with a toddler, which is to say: We were careful but that system was both exhausting and imperfect. So it was a year of home office for both of us, working full time with a toddler who sometimes could go to daycare and sometimes could not. We didn’t sleep much, and were pretty constantly switched on with rarely any real downtime. We handled it by engaging in the weird little rabbit holes that, according to my Twitter feed, half the world engaged in. Everybody has their little weirdsies, I once heard. I love the expression.
Also, plenty of time for shenanigans with the kid, like replicating old Picasso photos, because those days really want to be filled:
Friends & Family
Trips and weddings were postponed, babies were born. Friends and family members went into quarantines and came out again, ever so slightly more disheveled and with their ’rona cuts.
I miss seeing my friends in person. Zoom is fine; it’s not the same.
Now here’s an interesting one. Let me quote this from last year:
For a few years now, I’ve been trying to cut down on travel, specifically on flights. It’s been working so-so: As best as I can figure out from Tripit and my calendar, I’ve gone on 17 trips for a total of 85 days of travel, which is about par for the course. Around 20 cities in 8 countries. It was still 20 flights.
Last year, this massive reduction was due to two factors as far as I can tell: I skipped a couple of West Coast trips that I usually have most years; and generally I had cut down massively so M wouldn’t have to bear the extra burden of childcare while I traveled. (We’ve both been attempting to cut down on travel for the last couple of years both for kid-related and for environmental reasons.)
So, here comes 2020: I don’t think I’ve ever traveled so little in my life!
In February we were on our way to a wedding in the US and decided to tack on a long vacation before; it had been a long work sprint for both of us and we needed some time off. So we got to Costa Rica, leaving Berlin before there were any known cases of coronavirus infections. But while we were there, global travel came to a screeching halt. We were temporarily stranded, if in a super safe and lovely environment. Needless to say, the wedding was postponed. So those 4 flights were all I did in 2020. (4, not 2, flights because there are barely any long distance flights to and from Berlin these days).
There were a few short trips by train or car to visit family members and to do some hiking. There was a ton of cycling. We tried to still be active and mobile, safely and with appropriate distancing, by completely shifting to nearby regional travel. I now own rain pants for long bike rides, and that’s something I never saw coming.
So in stats, that’s like 7 trips or so, 4 flights. But frankly, because it was so few flights and barely any work travel, my TripIt stats are also somewhat off. That’s ok. Every trip felt extra special.
Speaking & Media
Some Zoom talks, but nothing in person as far as I remember. Spoke at a few conferences about tech, democracy, society; responsible tech; policy and design around IoT and smart cities.
The website has lists of the talks as well as media outputs and mentions, which this year includes fun stuff like producing a video interview series with amazing folks, and hosting an interview podcast with ThingsCon. I also co-published the annual ThingsCon report.
In lockdown life, workouts have suffered a little. But tons of long walks, lots of cycling, and I started running again, which is great. Also I got a new home workout setup that I’m trying to build habits around. Also, it’s not like with a little kid there’s ever a risk of sitting still for too long.
Lots of writing, and a fair amount of reading. Due to the home office + kid setup, a much more distracted work year. I’ve been doing a lot of research and planning around completing my shift of focus away from corporate and into social impact work, work with the third sector, work with governments and policy makers. In other words, work with organizations that offer leverage upstream to have more impact downstream.
Since I’ve been working on consumer trustmarks for connected tech for a long time now — including launching and subsequently wrapping up the Trustable Technology Mark — I get invited to give input by a lot of researchers and initiatives with similar or adjacent interests. And let me just say this: There’s still a lot of room to improve this space — the need is still there, unfulfilled.
I’ve been stepping away from most juries with a bit of a heavy heart, but it was necessary (see also: clean slate above). My OpenDoTT PhD supervision is still on, ThingsCon is going strong, this time with a number of virtual events including a week-long festival, courtesy of the amazing team there who made it work incredibly well despite me being way too absent. My semi-personal newsletter Connection Problem is going strong, and clocked in with some 47.000 words this year.
Speaking of words written: It’s hard this year to figure out an exact-ish number of how much I wrote simply because so much of my writing is wrapped up in report that were written collaboratively. But my best guess is that the blog comes in at another 30.000 or so words, plus reports and essays elsewhere. So… some 80.000 to 100.000 words — plus or minus 5K? That seems to be on par with previous years.
24 books on my list. Mostly fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson, N. K. Jemisin, Eliot Peper…), some history & culture (Longing for Less, In Praise of Shadows, The 99% Invisible City…). I’m currently reading Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow and A Promised Land by Barack Obama, and am pleasantly surprised by both.
Also, I’m getting better at dropping books if I don’t enjoy them. Seems like a super power, and one I’m wielding more and more aptly.
Firsts & some things I learned along the way
Firsts: Quarantine. Owning real rain gear. Multi-day hiking trips. Shot a bow. Took a government repatriation flight.
Learned: Prioritized even more harshly than usual. To be more explicit about giving people permission to take care of themselves and their needs (even simple things like it’s OK to switch off your video camera!).
So what’s next?
First, let’s get into 2021 and hope that things will restart somewhat smoothly out of lockdown. At this point, I don’t take that as a given, but am hoping for the best.
I’m looking forward to a lot more writing, upcoming collaborations.
I also still would be pretty interested in helping a foundation partner set up an impact investment program at that intersection of emerging tech & public policy.
Also, I’m always up for discussing interesting new projects. If you’re pondering one, get in touch.
For now, I hope you get to relax and enjoy the holidays.