Monthnotes for September 2018


It’s fall time. But while the days are starting to get shorter, productivity is up. Let’s dive right in.

ThingsCon & the Trustable Tech mark

Lots of progress on the Trustable Tech mark we’re launching under the ThingsCon umbrella.

We just had a lovely two day workshop at Casa Jasmina, Torino’s open source smart home of the future (a project by Bruce Sterling, Jasmina Tesanovic and Davide Gomba).

A warm welcome at Casa Jasmina, and a ThingsCon haiku by Dries de Roeck

There I also spoke, together with Michelle Thorne at Magic Monday, Casa Jasmina’s IoT meetup. Which was extra fun, because 3 years ago we were the first speakers at that meetup, and the first guests at CJ.

Here’s the slide deck:

We also signed up the first official academic/policy launch partner for the trustmark, one of the globally leading internet & society institutes. It’s super exciting. More on that soon.

In related news, we’ll soon have a business master class from ThingsCon, so keep an eye on our social media and website. Also, the big annual ThingsCon Conference that this year takes place at Rotterdam. Super Early Bird tickets are still up I believe this weekend, end Early Bird through October. It’s going to be amazing and you really don’t want to miss out on this one.

Media, etc.

Over on ReadWrite, I wrote an op-ed about the RiOT Report. Reminder: Our annual ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is out.

What’s next?

Mozfest London (Oct), ThingsCon Business Masterclass (Nov; more soon), ThingsCon Rotterdam (Dec).

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat.

Have a great October.

Yours truly, P.

Thanks and Happy Holidays: That was 2017


This is end-of-year post #10 (all prior ones here). That’s right, I’ve been writing this post every year for ten years in a row!

So what happened in 2017? Let’s have a look back: Part work, part personal. Enjoy.

Globally speaking I’d file 2017 under shitty year. So much so that I’ll try not to go into anything global or all too political here. But in terms of work it’s been quite interesting and impactful, and personally it’s been a pretty damn great year.

So, right to it!

The theme for 2017

Last year I wrote (and I’m paraphrasing to keep it short):

“(…) even in hindsight 2016 didn’t have one theme as such, but rather a few in parallel: 1) Growth & stabilization, in the business generally speaking, but also and specifically in all things related to ThingsCon. 2) Lots and lots of collaborations with close friends, which I’m grateful for. 3) Also, 2016 was a year for a bit of overload, I may have spread myself a little thin at times.”

Again, lots of collaboration with old and new friends. But this year I was a lot more focused, with lots of research that allowed me to go deep. I’d say in 2017, the theme was first and foremost impact. Impact through large partners, through policy work, through investments into research.

My work was with some large partners with big picture themes, like our work with Mozilla on trustmarks for the internet of things.

I hope to continue this high-impact work in one way or another.

Friends and family

Overall a bit of a mixed bag.

The bad: Some family members had health issues. Some friends received some nasty diagnoses.

The good: Some of the health issues were solved, we got to spend lots of time with close friends and family. Also, lots of babies were born among our friends, including one of our own. Welcome, little K! To be honest, this alone would make me love 2017. So yay, personal 2017!


For years I had been trying to cut down a little on travel to a somewhat more sustainable level. It kinda-sorta worked in 2017, at least a little bit. Still ways to go, but it’s a start.

Looking at my Tripit, this is what comes up. Tripit stats are a little fuzzy. (Did I mention I still miss Dopplr?) As far as I can reconstruct it on the quick, including vacation time I traveled to 7 countries on just 9 trips, and spent about 89 days traveling. (As opposed to 21 trips to 12 countries for a total of 152 days the year before.) So that’s great, even if it sounds like I might have missed a couple short trips.



There was a lot going on in 2017, so I had to consult my monthnotes to refresh my memory. The focus is still, and ever more so, at the intersection of strategy, emerging technologies, and ethics/governance.

Lots of work around trustmarks and consumer trust generally speaking around the internet of things. Increasingly, artificial intelligence has also solidly established itself as part of the emerging tech canon I’ve been watching closely.

I wrote a lot. I mean, a lot. And I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. Outside my blog and some project-related newsletters and Twitter I did some long and short form writing:

If the writing is part of my overall communications landscape, then so is my website. So I relaunched that completely and restructured it for much more clarity.

I also got to work more with foundations, which is always fun. From workshops with Boell Foundation to research for Mozilla Foundation, the non-commercial, impact-driven sector is certainly an area I’d like to spend more time in.

Very Fun Side Projects

Then there are two “side projects” that have been especially fun this year: ThingsCon and Zephyr.

ThingsCon, our global community on a mission to foster the creation of a responsible & human-centric IoT, has been growing steadily. Milestones in 2017 include:

  • Another research trip to Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley of hardware.
  • We had a bunch of ThingsCon-labeled publications, including about Shenzhen and IoT trustmarks: View Source: Shenzhen, The State of Responsible IoT, A Trustmark for IoT.
  • We launched the ThingsCon Fellowship Program to recognize achievements and commitment that advance the ThingsCon mission of fostering the creation of a responsible and human-centric IoT generally, and support for the ThingsCon community specifically. Shout-out to our most excellent six initial fellows, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Ame Elliott, Dries de Roeck, Iohanna Nicenboim, Michelle Thorne and Ricardo Brito. I hope we’ll get the fellowship program into full swing in 2018!
  • New cities with salons or conferences around the world. Let me use stats from November: At that point ThingsCon events have happened in 20 cities across 12 countries, from Berlin to Brussels to Amsterdam and Milan to London and Shanghai to Austin and Copenhagen and Nairobi.

I can’t possibly tell you how awesome this is for me to watch and experience. Learn more at

Zephyr Berlin, the trousers/pants project M and I launched on Kickstarter just over a year ago, continues to be a lot of fun. Just a few weeks back we produced another small batch of men’s trousers, this time with super deep pockets to make things like cycling with large phones super easy. So there’s a new batch of men’s, and a very small number of women’s available. Check out to learn more.


A lot less conference work this year. What I did in terms of conferences was mostly for ThingsCon. I always enjoyed conferences (both the curation and the planning, but the curation much more than the planning), but not having a conference to plan isn’t too bad either, to be honest. A lot of my other work, especially the writing, would not have been possible if I had committed to another conference.

As a directly related note, without the fantastic, lovable, smart and endlessly committed ThingsCon Amsterdam crew and their annual ThingsCon event (it just happened for the fourth time!), ThingsCon also wouldn’t be what it is today. My eternal thanks go to Iskander, Marcel & Monique and their team.


As part of my cutting down on conference travel, I gave just a few talks in 2017. Most of them focused on IoT and consumer trust.

There were a few at ThingsCon events like in Berlin and Shenzhen, others were at Underexposed, TU Dresden, Netzpolitik conference, DevOpsCon, and Transatlantic Digital Debates. There were also a few (paid) in-house talks.


It was a pretty good year for media and writing. Among others, my thoughts or projects were mentioned/quoted/referenced/etc on CNN, SPIEGEL, and WIRED. I had some interviews—the lovely conversation for Markus Andrezak’s Stories Connected Dots stands out to me.

Things started and discontinued


  • Writing more, if you’ll forgive me going so meta.


  • Zephyr Berlin, producing pants that travel extremely well.
  • ThingsCon as an event platform, and growing it beyond that into other areas of engagement.


  • My Facebook account, just now as I’m writing this. Bye bye Facebook. You feel like Old Social Media by now, not worth having around.

Books read

Read an okay, but not great amount. I think it was pretty much these: WTF, Tim O’Reilly. Control Shift, David Meyer. The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Seibald. Wiener Straße, Sven Regener. Go: Die Mitte des Himmels, Michael H. Koulen. Babyjahre, Remo H. Largo. American Gods, Neil Gaiman. Death’s End, Deep Forest, The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu. Goldene Unternehmerregeln, Bihr & Jahrmarkt. Schadenfreude, Rebecca Schuhman. Rapt, Winifred Gallagher. Shoe Dog, Phil Knight. The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli. Snuff, Terry Pratchett . Deep Work, Cal Newport. Bonk, Mary Roach. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene. The Industries of the the Future, Alec Ross.

Firsts & some things I learned along the way

Firsts: Wrote a ton of long form and launched it properly. Cut an umbilical cord. Diapered a newborn. Merged photo libraries.

Learned: How to communicate my work (focus, offering, structure) better (as the website will demonstrate). To make time for writing, thinking, processing input. Some Python. Some more about tech policy. These are all qualitative upgrades in my book.

So what’s next?

It looks like 2018 might bring a fantastic opportunity to continue some of my work from this year and before in a big-impact context; if this happens, I’ll be extremely happy. (If not, I’ll continue chipping away at the same issues with all the means available to me.) I hope to continue doing lots of research and writing. I’ll take some parental leave at some point, and otherwise spend as much time as I can with the baby. (They grow up so fast, as I’m learning even now, after not even a month.) Some travel, and hopefully once more a month or two spent working from a new place.

I’m always up for discussing interesting new projects. If you’re pondering one, get in touch!

But for now, I hope you get to relax and enjoy the holidays!

Shenzhen travel log: Day 5


These are the quick & dirty travel notes from our second ThingsCon trip to Shenzhen, China. Read all posts from this series here (tag: ViewSourceII), or all blog posts relating to Shenzhen here (tag: Shenzhen). The latter one includes last fall’s trip to Shenzhen as well.

It’s ThingsCon Shenzhen day! I feel I’ve fully arrived: I’m totally in zen mode, happy to be in the moment and go with the flow.


Flyer for ThingsCon Shenzhen

A big thank you to David Li and Vicky of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (SZOIL) for making this event happen!


ThingsCon Shenzhen, doors open!


Before the event starts, we have a little team huddle with David. He catches us up on some recent developments.

He shares the story of the kid from Laos who came to Shenzhen and built POS machines for Lagos’ street markets. It’s easy to forget that there are a lot of very, very different markets and approaches within IoT, and that Shenzhen truly manufactures for the whole world.

Today it’s cheaper to build a smart TV that runs Android than building a non-smart TV, David explains. The economics of large scale production can do wonderful, weird, twisted things.

A large shenzhai phone maker started making an electric car. We look it up: It looks a little like a golf cart and the interior seems cobbled together from medical equipment; it has no doors. But it’s a fully functional electric car. It’s about $1.000.


There are around 50 people at the event, with a great mix of locals and visitors. Entrepreneurs, designers, some folks from incubators: a solid mix, it seems.

In Shenzhen, like everywhere, the movers and shakers seem to be the connectors that hop from place to place: Hong Kong, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, London…


Please note: The following are quick and dirty notes from some of the presentations. I paraphrased as best as I could to keep up.

David opening ThingsCon Shenzhen

My opening — always be repeating the ThingsCon mantra! (Thanks for the photo, Dietrich!)


Jakie Yin of Rone Design is first. He showcases a wide range of connected industrial designs his company has been involved in. He also explains three distinct development phases for hardware:

  • Zero to one
  • One to hundreds
  • Hundreds to X

Each of them requires different skill sets, and/or partners. His company can help with pretty much all of them.


Gabriel Ionut Zlamparet gives an intro to remanufacturing of used medical devices. Remanufacturing, re-use, designing for re-use has huge potential for sustainability. He share slides with great level of details.


Gabriel’s talk stresses the importance of design for re-use, refurbishment, longevity.

I learn a lot in little time. Below some of the slides that stood out for me (apologies for the bad photo quality):


Malavika Jayaram (Digital Asia Hub) skypes in to talk about AI and ethics, and how they relate to IoT.

Malavika larger than life

Malavika explores the social and political aspects of connected technology. Some of the key points she makes:

  • Large-scale deployments of connected technology (like AI and #iot) frequently impact marginalized group disproportionately.
  • How do AI and machine learning apply to social issues? How can they be put to good use in this context?
  • “If you can’t be counted, you don’t count. If you’re not connected, you don’t count.”
  • The Chinese social credit system—and similar approaches everywhere—means that keeping (algorithmically) bad company would implicate you even though you might yourself be squeaky clean, like for example bad credit records.


Dietrich Ayala (Mozilla) speaks about apps, app fatigue, onboarding, interfaces and IoT. A wide range, fantastic presentation.


Here’s what I managed to write down quickly enough:

  • “ZERO. The number of apps the average users installs in a month according to Google. People have app fatigue.”
  • “With IoT we have a new opportunity. The room is now the computer.”
  • One founder shared: 1.000 web views per app installation. 999 users left behind! It’s a choice!
  • In China, QR codes make connecting easy. Outside of China, QR codes are often still considered awkward.
  • QR codes and NFC are powerful connectors. But they have challenges. QR codes have to be big enough. Who scans whom? NFC needs signage to indicate it’s an option.
  • Beacons are an options, very powerful, but still expensive. Onboarding is super easy, though, a pop-up notification is a well-known interaction.
  • Maybe you don’t need speech to activate a thing. Noise might be enough! You can make valuable assumptions from very little data.
  • Frictionless augmented reality. It’s pretty easy to do now within web pages.

Dietrich shows lots of cool demos of lightweight web-based AR demos.

Dietrich demos an experimental AR interface for a music player

It’s becoming super easy to access user media, too:

This is all it takes to access user media for AR.

This doesn’t work on iOS yet, but hopefully this year. Since the global market share of iOS is tiny compared to Android, this shouldn’t stop you.


Monique hosts a panel discussion with Iskander, Holly, Marcel and myself. We talk about responsible IoT, and how it can be applied in the day-to-day work we all do. Also, we try to explore if there’s a special angle that European indie IoT creators can bring in.

Since I was on the panel I can’t share any photos, but there you go.


Marcel gives some closing remarks:

Note the second laptop in front of Marcel? It’s an impromptu hack to let people scan the QR code to join our Wechat event channel. It makes connecting with other participants incredible smooth. We should, of course, have put this QR code up on the big screen all along.


David runs a spontaneous session on how to source components in Shenzhen. After all, running around on the market to find parts is a lot of fun but it’s not the efficient way to find anything. Instead, Wechat and Taobao are good starting points.


Tipps, strategies, useful things to know:

Shenzhen is full of so-called technical solution houses. Solution houses build very specific technical solutions, help you solve specific issues. Say find or build or adapt a certain board. Most customers don’t ask for exclusivity. So these solutions can be re-used. There are somewhere between 5-10K of them. They can help you source. You toss your requirements into a Wechat group: “Who has this?” You get a pretty good hit ratio: Either someone already has what you need, or they can help adapt it.

A solution house’s catalog.

Also, sometimes someone comes back to you and says: We’ve done this a year ago and couldn’t sell it. Are you sure you want to do this?

Wechat is the platform to find people and connect.

The timing also matters: During our last visit 6 months ago, smart bike locks were a fringe offering. Now, due to the big boom in sharing bike companies, there’s a wide range of offerings.

A lot of knowledge (technical, design, software) is in the technical solution houses. It’s often undocumented. This makes it hard to research: There might be really short roadmaps that aren’t shared. Wechat allows these providers to identify themselves and say: “Oh yes, we’re working on this, it’ll be ready in 4-6 weeks.” *Harm confirms this: Searching for bike lock companies, the team found one through Wechat and arranged for a meeting to discuss details. It was all arranged within days, if not hours. “We definitively didn’t find what we needed at the market. What we were looking for was too specific.” * These channels are for professionals. Wasting anyone’s time isn’t appreciated.

Harm’s sketchnotes are pretty awesome

Industrial design houses are also great interfaces for sourcing and more. They’re one abstraction level up, and they bring with them the connections to technical solution houses.

“There are no consultants in Shenzhen. No shipping, no money.”

Q: How about language barriers? When we visited design houses, our hosts spoke excellent English. How about solution houses? A: It’s one abstraction layer down, more in the background. The language barrier might be higher, and you’re often talking to engineers. (Design houses might offer a softer landing pad.) Wechat translation can also help if you collaborate in writing.

David: The golden days of the market are over. Used to be easy money: Source 100 phones, flip them by the afternoon with $10 margin each, you got $1.000 in your pocket.

David: We see more entrepreneurs not coming here with their giant valuations but with solid business models. It’s a good development. (It reminds me of how different the early days of web 2.0 felt compared to the craze of the dotcom boom. This sounds similar.)

Connections are built from social networking: Trust and personal recommendations/introductions. Some companies are more careful today about who to spend time and effort on, to filter out the non-serious folks. But then again, of course nobody knows how to find the 1% of great ideas.


We end up chatting for quite a while, then disperse: Some folks have more market to explore, others visit a design university. Some have meetings. I do a last round on the market, then people watch for a while.

On a bench, a young guy asks if he can sit next to me. I learn he works for a company that assembles phones. I ask if I can see one: It’s a rose gold Android phone, the case looks solidly made at first glance. I don’t want to dig deeper; I’m not sure if he wants to sell and don’t want to encourage him, but he does have a bag of boxed phones with him.

“It runs Android.” “Which version?” “Don’t know, I’m not involved in that part.”

We chat for a bit, then I excuse myself. He stays and finishes his bubble tea.



A BYD (Chinese car maker) dashboard, topped by a Mao-shaped fragrance dispense #artefactsOfShenzhen


A second (or maybe, uhm, third lunch snack)


I bump into Dietrich, who shows me his haul: A lightweight Android VR headset.

Dietrich modeling his haul

I’m looking forward to checking out the demos he’s going to build for it.

Shenzhen travel log: Day 4


These are the quick & dirty travel notes from our second ThingsCon trip to Shenzhen, China. Read all posts from this series here (tag: ViewSourceII), or all blog posts relating to Shenzhen here (tag: Shenzhen). The latter one includes last fall’s trip to Shenzhen as well.

A t-shirt: “Don’t be original. Just be good.”


We visit x.factory. Impressive upscale maker space with great equipment. Funded by a real estate company, of course. Planned official opening for the complex is July, so for the most part the building complex is still empty.

Near the entrance of the new complex, this skate park (or possibly just landscaping)

Note the trees in the photo above? They’re recently planted, hence the stabilizer beams. The whole site used to be a hill made of solid rock. (Keep that in mind, we’ll come back to it later.)

x.factory is part of the Chaihuo family of maker spaces. We had been to their smaller outpost at OCT-LOFT before. (Chaihuo and Seeed are very tightly connected, nearly interchangeable it seems. Within China, the Chaihuo name is very well known; abroad Seeed is the recognized name.) Chaihuo was co-founded by Eric Pan, who also founded Seeed Studios.

Wayne Lin, Director of Operations at x.factory, kindly gives us some insight into the history and future of China’s maker spaces.

Wayne gives us the low-down on the Chinese maker space scene.

ThingsCon site visit to x.factory

A picture of Shenzhen in 1980.

First maker spaces in Shenzhen started around 2013. HAX as well, and added a lot of energy. 2015 was a giant breakthrough year for this community. The government, industry, community all see huge opportunities for IoT and maker communities.


  • Vast resources but manufacturing needs upgrades.
  • Lots of maker spaces but lack of projects. (Many makers go straight for startups instead.)

Makerspace gonna look like makerspace

I can’t help but think that this situation is kinda-sorta like the exact opposite of Europe, where there’s too many ideas and project but not enough time in the day to make them all happen.



But what’s happening in and around these spaces is also a process of maturing, and professionalization. Wayne shares: We’ve been talking for a long time that we’d like to move from “made in China” to “innovate in China”. And it’s happening.

Vanke, a huge (formerly state-owned) real estate developer as a partner for one explains this super high-end looking building. It also means an obvious opportunity for those teams that work on IoT and especially smart buildings: Vanke could be the biggest buyer.

Resources like tooling and manufacturing are available easily here at x.factory. This is a recurring theme on this trip: Resources (including funding) seem to be available if you have the right idea.

A slide reads “Make with Shenzhen resources, at Shenzhen speed.” They mean it. Both.

x.factory’s business model: A mix of small-batch manufacturing, distribution of maker products, provide modules (components?) for production. They also work with corporates like China Mobile or Tencent R&D. in short: 1) Prototyping and developing tech modules 2) manufacturing services 3) distribution and sales

“We’re like translators. We help makers develop and sell their products.”

An audience question about open source: “We need more projects that use open source.” They want to make an impact this way, and see open source as an exciting opportunity.

Wayne gives some background about the role of real estate and why they are so interested in this space: The property market in China is crazy right now. This also means a huge market opportunity for smart building tech and IoT. All of China is a construction site, lots of new buildings go up all the time. But how do you drive people to your mall? That’s a big challenge for many developers.

Asked about the future of Shenzhen, he says: Shenzhen’s future still looks bright. It’s a young city. Average age is maybe 30 years old. It’s very innovative and entrepreneurial. It’s one of the most exciting cities in China. He adds: Sometimes more experienced people know better how to build a good life, more experienced designers know how to design better products even if it takes longer.

The concept of x.factory is that of an open factory, an open maker space. Openness and open source are at the core of the project. Many projects here have an impact way beyond one company.

Wayne during an interview for the documentary

We continue the conversation in a smaller group as part of an interview for the documentary that’s being shot about this trip.


During an interview we hear choppers and explosions: For real estate development in this particular area, solid bedrock needs to be blown up. The very spot of the building complex we’re in used to be a hill of solid rock.

In the background, outside the windows, you can see the bedrock this complex is built on (and into).


Outside the building, there’s a huge construction site.


In an uber-cool and clean concrete and class office, behind a little curtain, there are a bunch of cots: A quiet corner for a post-lunch nap.


Shenzhen’s official city motto: “Time is money, efficiency is life.”


Maybe the most advanced smart rear view mirror I’ve spotted yet: This one show simultaneous live feeds from a front and back camera and records both—as far as I can tell in full HD.

Smart review mirror with full HD video recording


Idea: Chinese maker spaces have great resources and expertise but lack projects. European creatives and entrepreneurs are full of ideas but might lack the time and resources to realize them.

Can we team up European creatives with design schools to share their project ideas, then master students under supervision by a professor, and in close collaboration with the creatives, own these projects and drive them. They realize them in China with the expertise and resources of Chinese makerspaces.

Chinese spaces get projects, students can cut their teeth, the ideas get realized. Everybody wins!


A QR code on our lunch tables replaces the menu: Scan in Wechat to order and pay from your phone. Next level convenience.

Scan QR code to order and pay your lunch.


I can’t get over the fact that the new HuaqiangBei road, simply by becoming a pedestrian zone, makes the whole area feel so much more tame than it felt to me just half a year ago.


This, too, is an electric bike. They don’t have to be fancy.

Shenzhen travel log: Day 3


These are the quick & dirty travel notes from our second ThingsCon trip to Shenzhen, China. Read all posts from this series here (tag: ViewSourceII), or all blog posts relating to Shenzhen here (tag: Shenzhen). The latter one includes last fall’s trip to Shenzhen as well.

I’m in heaven: Jianbing, according to SeriousEats China’s most popular street breakfast, is easily available here.

Delicious Jianbing (12 Yuan, €1.60)


The real life in HuaqiangBei is in the the back alleys. There’s great food, and lots of energy. It’s ok to watch. Just try not to to stand in the way.


We tour the complex of SIDA, the Sino-Finnish Design Association, and our local ThingsCon host organization SZOIL. The whole complex is dedicated to design-related companies, from product design to 3D animation. Impressive walls full of awards drive home one point over and over again: China has been developing a design scene that’s worth taking seriously.


The Starbucks in our hotel has this sign up. I’ve never seen this anywhere else.

“I’d like my espresso with 22 seconds or precision and passion, please!”


Artefacts of Shenzhen: Smart flexible phone


SIDA and their program SZOIL exist to help international companies get their feet on the ground in China, including help with understanding policies, getting work visas, finding funding.

For example, you want a robot. Drop by SIDA, explain your requirements and design, and they can help match you with some design house options, then it’s up to you.

Does Evan, who handles international partnerships for SIDA, have any recommendations for international companies who want to do business her? He says he recommends to gather as much experiments rather than theorizing: Be bolder, practice, practice, practice!


Trying out a new translation app. It shows great promise for translating restaurant menus, and entirely failed me in a live interaction with a shopkeeper.

We discovered a new feature: Emotional translation. I seriously wonder how accurate it is in terms of actual translation? And maybe more to the point, I imagine you’d most need to deploy in in a moment of crisis—but how do you snap a photo of your counterpart then?

Test 1: I’m looking frown-y, and a bit weird. “Painful” works in a pinch. Check.

Test 2: Anh was more dubious than OK, but we decide to give it a pass.

Test 3: Jan-Geert’s smile is a Wonder Smile alright, but would that translation help me in any way? We’re doubtful but well entertained.


It’s rainy. Very, very rainy. I get soaked trying to find a laundry place, and then even more when I continue on to the restaurant. We eat Sichuan food at Casablance—a place we had been to before. Nicely local but with a twist (or two), full of black and white movie references and a cat called “Chairman Meow”.

Stuffed with tofu, fish, shrimp, and “glutinous sesame balls”, lips still tingling from Sichuan’s famous numbing spice, I tap out early to get a little work done.

Glutinous sesame balls (a dessert)

I’m more than happy to see that part of the group continues to explore the city.

Shenzhen travel log: Day 2


These are the quick & dirty travel notes from our second ThingsCon trip to Shenzhen, China. Read all posts from this series here (tag: ViewSourceII), or all blog posts relating to Shenzhen here (tag: Shenzhen). The latter one includes last fall’s trip to Shenzhen as well.

Today the group splits up into two. Part does factory visits. I join team Velocracy.

Harm as we arrive at our local work HQ

I ask for an updated pitch for Velocracy.

Harm explains Velocracy

Velocracy, early prototype

Here’s the pitch; I hope I represent it correctly.

Velocracy is a decentralized bike sharing platform built on the Etherium blockchain and smart contracts. It focuses on the parties are involved in making the sharing bike, notably manufacturers and maintenance/assembly company . Other middlemen/centralizing organizations are cut out to allow a focus on users instead. The assumption is that the price is going to be be cheaper because there’s one organization less to feed. It might even be a first step, potentially, towards a universal sharing platform.

Challenges are plenty given this is a highly explorative, experimental development: How to deal with unintended use, theft, attacks on the system? Which hardware securely interfaces with the blockchain setup? How can this be made open source?


“The First Chinese Electronic Commercial Street of HiaquangBei”

At HuaquiangBei, local police removes a whole bunch of rental bikes.


Monday morning, 10:30h. We set up a temporary HQ in a local coworking space.

Wait-a-minute. Something’s not right here!

The documentary team is plotting shots

Oh, just a couple mini robots at the coworking space.

Meetings that the team hadn’t been able to arrange remotely in advance all start to materialize on extremely short notice. Within an hour, the week ahead fills up.

Ahn making meetings happen

We’ll be meeting potential suppliers, many of whom have tremendous experience with bike sharing and smart locks.


Shenzhen Design Week

Design for the future

All the locals were striking a pose, and we didn’t want to be left out

Design Week is a decentralized event, spread out all over the city. There’s a main hub, though, and we visit. Lots of industrial design in a former grain processing factory next to the waterfront, called i-Factory: A China Merchant Group property, formerly zoned for shipping and industrial use, now on the verge of luxury developments. China Merchant Group plays a significant role in the development of Shenzhen, with 160 years of developing the city through commerce.

Street art at i-Factory

Street art at i-Factory

Fantastic perspective play at i-Factory (the bike is real, the riders are painted on the wall)

Street art at i-Factory. Love the contrast between the motif and the “Design is Future” poster.

Signage at i-Factory. My personal favorite is the mysterious superhero, third from left.

The design is presented in a nicely industrial setting, but it’s a little empty; there aren’t any designers to talk to, it seems. It feels very different from the Industrial Design Fair we visited half a year ago: Here it’s a giant showcase, but a little more stale.

Alas, the Future was closed today

MAKE space

Design fair

China Good Design

We discover the connected products section. Let’s put a chip on it! The range goes from temperature-sensing baby bottles to connected speakers and cleaning robots with security cameras.

VR is always big in China

A smart anti-snoring mat. Not pictured: Giant air pump.

Next door, a more traditionally-oriented industrial design exhibition showcases Red Star Awards.

Not everything at the design fair is electronics: Here’s a bunch of fountain pens


As part of the design fair, there’s an information corner on Shenzhen.

What’s the Sandwich class? It’s professionals working in Shenzhen but not financially able to buy an apartment. They’re considered kind of a lost segment on the lower middle class. The housing boom has priced them out of a chance to be home owners, which is hugely problematic in Chinese society.


We visit OCT Loft, a former industrial and now creative/tech/innovation complex.

At the local Chaihuo makerspace we see a smart lamp: It automatically adjusts the light levels, and if nobody is close-by for 10-15 seconds it switches off to save energy. I would have been underwhelmed—this isn’t a big design coup for a large corporate. Then I learn who made it: A group of 3 kids in 5th grade—10 or 11 years old—built this, from prototype to final product. Programming and making skills start in year 1 of their syllabus.

This smart lamp was design by a group of three 5th graders. That’s right: 10-11 year olds made this connected lamp.

There’s been a recent boom in maker spaces, and the local government subsidizes them. This one focuses, in line with the founder’s policy, on building out a wide base of makers, on which large scale maker driven innovation can be built.

The conversation also reveals that the generation between 20 and 30 in China faces lots of pressure, commercial and social alike (think career and family planning). This is in (relatively) stark contrast to Europe, where the decade between 20 and 30 tends to be one of the most free.

We also hear about “bio payments”, contact-less payments via implanted chips, developed by a Spanish startup via Shenzhen. There’s a lot happening here.


We see smart rear-view mirrors everywhere. This one display’s a compass.


More bike sharing:

Cash rewards for Mobike

Mobike, the (probably?) largest Chinese bike sharing program offers “red envelope” rewards, meaning: Cash. You just got to be the first to claim it from any of these bikes. It’s an aggressive customer acquisition scheme.


A quick scan of HuaqiangBei market gives us a bit of an update of what’s happening, and the newcomers a moment to get oriented. We’ll be back with more time and a permit to film later.


Lots of social life–restaurants, bars, etc.—happens in shopping malls. Malls are ubiquitous in downtown Shenzhen. Absolutely everywhere.

The group seems to grow larger and larger with every dinner.

After two nights of mall dinners the group craves a drink in a bar somewhere other than a pub. Tomorrow night we’ll eat outside an air-conditioned shopping complex, somewhere, wherever. But tonight, it’s 9pm and we want to sit outside somewhere with a cold beer. Easier said than done: Our neighborhood, downtown Shenzhen—more concretely HuaqiangBei—is a business district of sorts. During the day, there’s great food to be had. At night, it’s a little empty.

After a quick pitstop on the terrace of a mall bakery with French croissants and Belgian beers, on Tina and Harm’s initiative we venture a walk to another neighborhood. We end up somewhere else entirely, out on the sidewalk with some fried noodles and cans of Tsingtao and fruit juice, and it’s excellent. This is China alright.

Curb drinks in a local spot. Tina’s Chinese language skills save the night.


Shenzhen travel log: Day 1


These are the quick & dirty travel notes from our second ThingsCon trip to Shenzhen, China. Read all posts from this series here (tag: ViewSourceII), or all blog posts relating to Shenzhen here (tag: Shenzhen). The latter one includes last fall’s trip to Shenzhen as well.

Software eats the world. Nowhere is this move obvious, more graspable than at the Huaqiang markets: You can still feel how diverse a line-up of devices has once existed here. These days, smartphone (and accessories) have taken over huge parts of what was once almost certainly a hugely more diverse market.

That said, there’s a lot of smartphone accessories. And drones. So. Many. Drones.


A guy walks by, whispering in the conspiratorial tone of drug dealers, “iPhone 7?” He won’t be the only one today.


It’s Sunday, 11am. The market is open. It’s quiet, not much going on. But the main floors are open.

Usually the CPARK showroom is a showroom for high-end industrial design of sorts.

Drones, drones, drones!

Beautiful boards

In there’s mayhem of a different sort. An educational DIY robot event is ongoing, and dozens of kids are squeaking with joy as they build and race their robots.

Robo race

A cute little DIY paper robot

On a shelf, a little expo piece has scribbled on it the words “bricks’R’knowledge”.


A salad place called Sexy Salad. A huge wall print sport the tagline “Sexy Life / Salad On”.


The metro is super easy to navigate, and luckily for me plenty of signage is available in English. That said, without being able to pay via phone, you need to stand in line at ticket machines for a long time, with more or less exact change. A single ride in the city runs around 3-7 Yuan (roughly 40-80 Eurocents).

metro plan
Temporary Shenzhen HQ: Huaqiang Bei


More Mobikes.

More mobikes


Quick refreshment to go. €0.40.

Half a year past its Best Before date. But what’s half a year among friends?


Visited Dafen village. In the 1990 it started out as an artist enclave or urban village that produced lots of replica paintings (Wikipedia). (Note: Many of these paintings presumably long have entered the public domain.)

Dafen is in fact situated in between huge residential high rises, see the pic from the metro station:

Dafen metro
This is the view from Dafen metro. The village is a village only in name. In fact, I believe Urban Village is an administrative term in Shenzhen.

Everything in this little urban village revolves around art. Most of it is the making and selling of paintings. But you can also get art supplies. Or frames. So many frames.

art supplies
Art supplies for sale in Dafen

Frameshop in Dafen Village

Dafen Art Museum
Dafen Art Museum

It’s a little hard to tell if this is still the main thing and which role local artists produce in their own right. It’s especially hard since the (supposedly pretty good) Dafen Art Museum seemed to be under renovation, and only one floor was open—and the exhibition there focused on local art students’ rendering of everyday objects:

Note the little info plaques next to the images? They include QR codes so you can follow the artists!

I enjoyed it a great deal, and frankly would’ve bought and hung quite a few of them, but this being the museum they weren’t for sale.

Walking through the village, you can see plenty of artists painting pictures. Right there, out on the street. It’s pretty cool to watch.

Here, some folks are examining a freshly painted canvas


By dinner time, the gang was all here:

The gang’s all here!