Tagnote to self

Snapshot: The Digital Agenda for the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities

S

Over the last few months it’s become painfully obvious – once more – that we’re not really set for the 21st century, policy-wise. This probably holds true globally except for very few exceptions, but it’s certainly true for Europe and particularly for Germany. It’s something I’ve been discussing with friends and peers for a while, and I’m more and more convinced that we need to collectively dig into getting the policy level right.

In our industry, and among the tech elite, there’s a widespread school of thought that politics move too slow to bother with, and that pushing ahead and just innovating (aka “doing our thing”) is the preferred way to go. There’s something to say for this mode of operation, too. But I think that we need to also get the actual policy right too, the laws, the codified rulebook that our society is based on.

Trying to collect my thoughts turned into a massive scribbling session.

 

Notes: Digital Agenda for the 21st Century

 

Notes: Digital Agenda for the 21st Century

 

Notes: Digital Agenda for the 21st Century

 

Here are the key policy areas I think need to be addressed as they came to me scribbling away. I tried to list key challenges and opportunities; this list is by no means complete – not even near to complete. It’s a snapshot of my thinking at this moment, in early October 2013, and a note to myself more than anything else. So if you see all the points that might seem out of context or just single words/references, that’s why. Much of it also focuses on a European/German context. Again, these are just quick notes.

I’m hoping that going forward I find the time to explore these areas further, beginning with more detailed blog posts, then let’s see where the path leads.

So here goes. Proceed at your own risk.

Key challenges for the 21st century

  • Education
  • New Work
  • Innovation
  • New Manufacture
  • Connected Cities & Things
  • Health, Tech & Data
  • Politics, Governance & Administration
  • Cyber Foreign Policy

Education

  • Budgets. We need to invest massively more into education at all levels.
  • Embrace technology, foster tech literacy (personally, culturally, institutionally)
  • Peer learning (student-student, teacher-teacher, teacher-student, student-teacher)
  • Collaborations & partnerships
    • domestic/international
    • Social Media Classroom
    • Hive Learning Network
    • Webmaker Movement
  • Alternative certification of knowledge & open access
    • Open badges, etc.
    • Open Educational Resources (OER)
    • MOOCs

New Work

  • Trend to more flexible work structure
    • Less full time employment, more part-time/project-based/freelance work
    • international mobility (global nomad elite/elite nomads). How to enable, empower, capture value?
  • Administration has to catch up
    • We need easier transition between systems
      • between countries/jurisdictions
      • between employment, freelance, alternative phases (family time, sabbaticals, education breaks, etc.)
      • between public/private systems (health insurance, social security)
      • pension plans & social security must follow the person around the globe (at least around Europe)
    • Social security for freelancers & other not-full-time-employed
    • Hubs/coworking spaces, etc., can revive and enrich buildings and neighborhoods. Embrace & foster them!

Innovation

  • Universities
    • Universities need massive budgets for applied research
      • Increase budgets
      • Foster cooperation with industry & non-profits
      • Foster trans-disciplinary cooperation & adjust budgeting processes accordingly
    • Increase cooperation between technical & design universities and departments
      • Create products and spin them off. Feed profits back to research.
      • Research and critically explore societal implications of technological innovation.
  • Fund experimentation and innovation
    • Create easy-to-tap innovation and founders funds & make it easy to raise money from distributed (non-VC) sources
  • Don’t regard political regulation as barrier but as creative constraint/framework to innovate withing
    • Example: Europe’s strict privacy laws are often regarded as a barrier to market entry by US companies. Rather, they can be an asset. Europe as data/privacy safe haven and privacy innovation cluster; home of privacy focused startups and services.
  • Update copyright, licensing, relationship between content creators, distributors, consumers/users.

New Manufacture

  • Germany is well positioned to play a leading role in new manufacturing (3D printing and related technologies)
    • But only one globally leading company in Munich, while most consumer-focused companies in the industry are based in US, UK or NL. Huge potential!
    • Foster collaborations with universities (like in the US), recognition as a policy priority (like in the UK).

Connected Cities & Things

  • Rules of engagement: Core philosophies of citizen/user empowerment are key.
  • Find & foster alternatives to authoritarian/top down models of “smart cities”
    • see Adam Greenfield’s work (Urbanscale, LSE)
      • empowerment instead of control
      • bottom up instead of top down
      • give citizens tools & control
  • Empower the organic networks of researchers & practicioners that exist outside big industry and universities
    • see critical & constructive informal networks exploring connected cities & devices
      • manifested in clusters like Silicon Roundabout/Tech City, or design school/lab Fabrica, built around small groups of committed individuals
      • Driven by practicioners, researchers & connectors like Dan Hill, Alexandra D-S, BERG, etc., who implement their philosophies of user empowerment in their design work/products/teaching each within their discipline
  • Can Europe play out its strength by empowerung these networks & structures?
    • plus a strong set of rules of data ownership/protection equivalent to privacy laws
    • more user/citizen centric power structures are possible

Health & Tech

  • Can Europe’s privacy laws be extended to other kinds of data/data ownership/open access?
  • Find the sweet spot at the intersection of
    1. Privacy/data ownershop/open data
    2. Body data/quantified self/personal analytics/health data
    3. Innovation
  • Potential of cluster in health tech built around these rules/ideals?

Politics, Governance & Administration

Most pressing issues/topics:

  • Legal framework needs to be updated to 21st century requirements
  • Net neutrality
  • Surveillance
  • Privacy
  • Governance, direct democracy, responsiveness
  • Transparency & open data
  • Digital inclusion
  • Update admin, processes (see gov.uk, nyc.gov)

Cyber Foreign Policy

  • Current focus of CFP in Germany is security/defense
  • How can a European version of 21st century statecraft evolve and work?
    • And who can be the actors/drivers?
    • see Ben Hammersley’s work
  • Merge and/or foster exchange between foreign policy/statecraft and innovation

 

Many, many big, gaping holes there, and lots of questions to explore and dig deeper. Hoping I can find the time and resources to do so in some way or another.

A job I’d enjoy: running an R&D lab

A

nur dinge / just things

I believe it’s good to articulate personal preferences, wishes and goals clearly and, if possible, publicly. It can help foster serendipity, but mostly it keeps one honest. So as a note to myself, a reminder of something I’d love to do at some point in my life: Run an R&D lab.

More concretely, one that outputs products, services, and insights and works on a project mix spanning the commercially interesting, the purely explorational and the primarily socially valuable. In other words, prototyping tomorrow with business savvy and a moral compass.

The rough organizational framework would look something like this:

  • a serious budget
  • full autonomy in how things are run and what the teams work on
  • a mission statement to work on a mix of commercially interesting, purely explorational and primarily socially valuable projects

And with this, I’d set out to gather a team of kick-ass developers, designers and tinkerers who could have a crack of lots of thorny, challenging issues, fascinating ideas or just inspired whims.

I’m almost sure it’d be much cooler to do this outside the corporate context, more like a self-sustainable autonomous R&D/exploration thing. (Needless to say, initial funding might turn out to be somewhat tricky, but that’s not what this post is about.) But even if it’d happen within a corporation, I don’t assume anyone would just walk up to me with this kind of a job description. More likely, it’s a job I’ll rather have to invent for myself at some point in my life.

Until then, I’ll just work bits and pieces of this mental framework into the way I work whenever I can. After all, to some degree (and minus the big budget) it’s something that’s really quite compatible with how I work. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that would be quite fun.

Experiences from planning a big conference

E

Next12 is over, and it’s been intense and quite an experience. Feedback from speakers and audience alike has been positive as far as I can tell, but of course there’s always lots of stuff that can be done better. So first up, a shout out to the team both at SinnerSchrader and the crew on the ground: Great work!

Next Experience

That said, let’s dig into some of the bigger questions that I’ve faced at pretty much all the events I’ve been involved with, ever.

Twitter / @frauenzeit: yes, and there are always ...

Diversity: Too few women, always.

What can I say? It’s true! And as a curator I’m as responsible as anyone, if not more so. If I say I’m aware of it and I try to get a diverse and gender-balanced lineup, you can only take my word for it. The fact that the panels aren’t gender-balanced still holds true, no matter what my intentions were. Whenever events I’m involved in I do try to get things as diverse as I can, and I can tell you: It’s not easy. At all. It’s not like there aren’t many smart and interesting women out there who could tell a great story. There are, of course there are, and I feel happy and honored that so many fantastic, smart, engaging women agreed to speak at Next12. But we were far from 50/50, and picking a speaker line up there’s a million aspects to consider. Among them: availability, experience, name recognition, willingness to speak, internal politics, sponsoring deals and last but not least: a good chunk of pure luck. Do I know the right person? Can they make it at that time?

I won’t name any names, and I’m writing this to my best recollection without going back and double checking the exact numbers. As far as I remember, three or four speakers (and a curator among them) dropped out because of health-related issues; two or three of them happened to be women who were awesome and considerate enough to propose a replacement, in at least two instances men. Several people had conflicting engagements and had to drop out (in this case, mostly men, some of whom made it eventually, some who we replaced on short notice). The list goes on. Please note that these are just some of the reasons I remember most vividly, and that no gender arguments should be made regarding the reasons for these cancellations! Let me repeat just to be clear: I’m not indicating that more women cancel due to health related issues, and I strongly recommend not to fall for some stupid argument like this – this just happened to be the stats in this very instance, no more.

In many other cases, the people on stage are on stage because they are considered experts in their fields, and in many instances this recognition as an expert is a function of being in a senior position. In a corporate context, this often means that the person has moved up a corporate career track, which statistically means significantly more men than women. Sadly, I’d like to add, for all the wrong reasons. Corporate careers are still ridiculously male-oriented. Or men just play along with it, or whatever the reasons might be, the stats are pretty clear on this one. You can see how that doesn’t apply where I invited speakers from less established fields: design, research, UX, startups, IoT. Here, younger people often are the experts, and once you take the corporate structures out of things, you get a much more diverse mix of experts. Look at the track called Experience at Next12, and you’ll find that it’s a lot more diverse in many ways. No gender balance, but a tad more diversity.

I once read, and sadly can’t remember where, a tip for men in tech: If you’re offered a slot to speak or join a panel, ask who else is on the panel. If it’s only other guys, propose a woman to replace you. I’m kinda liking it, and want to get into the habit of doing that more.

Speaking of which, we have a few events coming up, and we’ll try even harder to get to true gender balance. In fact, checking the lineup just now, for our event on the quantified self and personal analytics today (link) it was exactly 50/50. So there’s a start.

Politics are part of the game

Any organization has some level of internal politics to work around. No point in bitching about it, just get used to it. It’s part of the game.

Budgets are never what they appear to be.

I want you to re-read that sentence slowly and repeat after me: Budgets are never what they appear to be.

I’ve attended uncountable conferences and have been involved in quite a few in different roles – lead organizer, speaker, live blogger and many more. Events always (!) look like they have more budget than they really do. All events I know are less profitable than they might seem, or at least that’s my understanding of things. I can’t remember the details, so don’t quote me on that, but I think we put together CoCities for less than 50K. If you’ve ever organized anything at scale, you know that that’s ridiculously little money. Bigger commercial conferences probably run on a different economic model, but consider that the budget pays for speakers (travel, maybe fees), location rent, insurance, food & drinks, staff, rent for tech and people to handle it, logistics of shuttling all kinds of stuff back and forth, wifi (even if it turns out not to work flawlessly), printing etc etc etc. It’s a long, long list, and it keeps growing. Events are expensive to run, even if you bootstrap them. So before I say something like “how hard can it be?”, I take a deep breath and think for a moment of the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t, and I think a moment about how hard it might actually be, and usually by that time I don’t feel like that sentence should be uttered, ever.

Language barriers are tricky

International conferences are always a bit of a challenge from a language perspective. Mixing languages is possible, but hard to do well. Excellent (!) signage is the least you can do. But really I’d opt for going all English. In fact, I believe that’s what I’ve always done so far. If in doubt, go for common ground. Most conference attendees will speak it well enough to understand what’s going on, and your pool of potential speakers is many, many times larger than otherwise. There’s different philosophies on this, so it’s a bit of a personal question. In the French-speaking part of Canada for example, things tend to be bi-lingual instead of English. That’s perfectly fine too, as long as people are used to handling that kind of thing. Make sure that every speaker, moderator, sponsor and organizer speaks enough of whichever language you choose that there’s no awkwardness. And make sure that everybody knows what to expect, then things can’t really go all that wrong.

Assume less, ask more!

A

Three notes to myself, based on experiences and conversations about the things others do well.

One, to avoid misunderstandings, or disappointments based on misunderstandings, try to express your expectations explicitly. Less hints, more statements. Bonus points for social grace while doing so.

Two, after important interactions (meetings, finished projects, or anything really), ask how you could do better in the future. Some smart people I know have been doing this for awhile, and it makes a lot of sense. Takes the edge off things by pre-emptively inviting constructive criticism and helps, well, be a better person all ’round.

Three, ask more questions. If in doubt, and maybe even when not in doubt, ask. Is this what you meant? Why do you say that? How do you mean that? What is it that you’re trying to achieve with this? Asking open questions leads to knowledge, better understanding, and an overall better communication style. It also helps getting stuff done by avoiding doing unnecessary stuff. (Note: rhetoric questions and statements with a question mark in the end don’t count.) Assume less, ask more!

All these rules particularly hold true in digital communications, of course, where our messages are stripped of most social clues and misunderstandings are easily amplified.

Now, invoking rule #2 and #3: Are blogposts like this helpful or interesting for you? How could I have communicated these points more clearly?