Note: We were traveling in Costa Rica when due to the spread of coronavirus, things around the globe started shutting down. (We had considered not going on the trip in the first place, but when we left our home town was still free of any known infections and we had a reasonably important reason to go that had nothing to do with our vacation. At the time, it seemed like a safe, responsible choice.) We’re on the south-western tip of the Nicoya peninsula, about as far from anything as you could possibly be, and waiting for an evacuation flight out. We’re safe, healthy and in good spirits, and in a relaxed place.

19-23 March: A highly dynamic situation

The last few days were a bit of a blur. Our little hustle before had provided us with everything we’d need — a house, a full fridge and a solid supply of water, and a couple of good bottles of wine. Mobility with out little golf cart, and for entertainment purposes a surfboard and a body board as well as more toys for little K. In the absence of flight options back home, we were ready to settle in.

Then the closures started for real. Schools, bars and clubs had long since been shuttered. Next up were restaurants and cafés. Shops were still allowed to be open, but many closed anyway: the double punch combo of Corona and no tourists was enough reason not to keep going. But again, we now had a kitchen and a fridge, so we’d be ok. Not just survive ok, but actual this could be enjoyable ok.

Then the country started to close of the beaches. Not all, but many. The situation had turned, as they say, highly dynamic.

For us, that meant a new reality. Our trade-offs now were:

  • Costa Rica had low numbers of infections, and good measures in place to slow down the spread of the virus. It was sunny, and food was good. Unlike in Germany, toilet paper and soap supplies were plenty. But we didn’t know how things would escalate here, nor how robust the health system would be if push came to shove. More than that, with the beaches closed, our radius had just shrunk to our little house: Outside it was mostly too hot to do anything outside except very early in the morning. So we’d be entertaining a 2 year old from our rented house — quarantine with a good view, but still quarantine.
  • Berlin is our home, we have plenty of friends there and our own place. It’s a known entity. The health system would be overloaded, no doubt, but presumably at a higher baseline. But it’s an infection hot spot, essential supplies had been running low for some time now, and we’d be stuck in an apartment without a garden, which with a 2 year old can get pretty intense. To be frank, by the news and stories related by friends and family about the situation in Germany and Berlin, I kind of dread going there; but in the end, it’s home for us. So we’re better equipped to weather a storm there than elsewhere.

That’s when Germany’s state department, Auswärtiges Amt, announced an evacuation program to get Germans abroad back home, if they so wish. This program first focused on high-risk areas with a high number of German travelers, but was eventually extended to Costa Rica (low risk, low numbers of Germans).

We decided to go for it, and trade the paradise with an uncertain future for our home with a certainly worrying present and future.

The website that Auswärtiges Amt (AA) uses to register Germans abroad was down, constantly, the servers overloaded with requests. In a surprising act of agility, AA had SAP build a new, dedicated site just for this Corona-specific evac program, rueckholprogramm.de. This site was much more contemporary and also worked on mobile browsers, but it too was overloaded.

In the end, by Friday night we managed to register our family there. (You will not receive a confirmation email, the site warned, and please don’t call us.) It’s now Monday afternoon; we’re waiting for a call from the embassy confirming that we’ve made it onto the evacuation list.

In the meantime, we try to enjoy the last few days of our vacation, at an arms length or two from everyone else. Since the town is mostly empty, that’s not too hard.

I’m reminded of Leo Lionni’s childens’ book Frederick in which a mouse just appears to be lazing around all summer, soaking up the sun. Come winter, food supplies and morale are running low, but at least Frederick can tell stories about the summer, the sun, and the colors of the world. He hadn’t just been lazing: He’d actively engaged with the summer, and now could remember those good times for everyone. In this spirit we try to make the best out of the situation and not to worry too much: We’re actively enjoying the sun, the breeze, the colors of the waves. Those memories will help us get through our upcoming months of indoor isolation.

17-18 March: Settling in for the long haul

As Covid-19 spreads, and with it closures of schools, bars, and airports, we face a simple question: Stay or leave? Evac out on the next plane, into a high-risk region; or settle in and isolate (pardon: socially distance) in Costa Rica.

Here in CR, the situation has been quiet and under control. The government reacted swiftly, right when only 5 cases of infections were known. By now, a few days later, no tourists are aloud to enter the country. Schools are closed, and overall it’s been a lot quieter.

Given the uncertainty back home and the overall guideline to try to stay put rather than travel, we decide to stay – so we had to act quickly as all around, everything was in flux.

Through our surprisingly extensive local network of landlords, restaurant staff and others, we sort out the essentials: a house, mobility (an honest to god all-terrain golf cart), and internet. Everyone has been incredibly helpful and there’s a real sense of community – we’re all in this together. It’s an incredible demonstration of solidarity and the strength of weak ties.

Sat, 15 March: Should I stay or should I go?

Corona impact is growing around the globe. We follow the news of its spreading, of shutdowns, of cancellations.

The wedding we were traveling for is cancelled; sad, but certainly a good call.

Italy is shut down. In France, shops and restaurants are closed. The US banned travel from Europe. Most countries cancelled all events – first of 1000+ participants, now increasingly also sub-50. Berlin just shut down all kitas and schools.

So now we’re looking at options. Stay in Costa Rica and work from here? Go home? Working without daycare is barely realistic. All options are on the table. There’s a distinct feeling that things are going to get worse before they get better. (And that’s a pandemic that isn’t even that aggressive!)

Meanwhile, we’re in vacation mode in relative isolation, in a remote location.

Always Be Experimenting with Your Daily Routines


Having been self-employed most of my life, and often been part of a peer-group that tends to be interested in experimenting with self-organization (cough did someone just say life hacks), I’ve had the privilege to be very much in charge of my daily routines for most of my adult life.

So I made a point early on in my career to experiment with them and see what sticks, what helps me be more productive, more aware, more awake, more creative—or simply be in a better mood.

After a period of experimentation, I tend to settle into a pattern that works well—for a while. The last few years, that has been a pretty steady, almost comically traditional day at the office, if with a somewhat relaxed schedule. I’d show up between 8:30 and 10, would have a lunch break (preferably without meetings), and try to leave between 5 and 7. At any given time the details would depend on the current ongoing projects: Higher workload meant longer and more intense hours, a lighter workload meant more time to read, write, and meet with folks. It was almost as if I had the most traditional routing because I didn’t have to. I got pretty effective and efficient with my workflows. This was pretty much a management schedule (as opposed to a maker schedule), optimized for conference calls and meetings rather than uninterrupted periods of deep work time that would allow flow.

Image: Public Domain. Image from page 517 of "Railway mechanical engineer" (1916)

But recently, especially since we had a baby, this has been a little less satisfying: I’ve been doing a lot more deep work (research, writing) that isn’t really all that compatible with a management-style schedule, so I’ve been needing more uninterrupted time to get into the flow. Also, I now need a bit more flexibility to take care of the little one or relieve M even while she’s on parental leave now (I’ll take a leave a little later, too). Still, it’s not like I need to simulate an “orderly” workday for anyone: There’s still no boss to convince I’m working if I’m not. Additionally to the deep work time I need more of, I also want to make a point of allowing me to put in more time to learn and develop new skills: It feels like I’ve been plateauing on my core skills and it’s time for upgrades in adjacent branches of the skill tree. (Yes, I’m nerdy enough that I used to play pen-and-paper role playing games.)

In other words, time for another round of experimentation.

I plan to read some more about opportunities and frameworks to optimize for combinations of deep work and learning new skills, and will seek out some the advice of friends who know more about this than I do.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ll be trying for a while:

  • Spend more time in offline, especially in the morning: No checking emails and social media for as long as possible in the mornings, and absolutely not before breakfast. This should help with mindfulness and to have more control over the way my day starts. I like to be proactive rather than reactive. The inbox is the natural enemy of being proactive.
  • Schedule time for reading, writing, learning. Especially I’ll set aside 1-2 longer uninterrupted blocks per week for learning or upgrading skills, like producing podcasts, Python, machine learning basics, or even notionally boring-but-important management things like better accounting/budgeting/leadership skills.
  • More walks. I often and frequently walk, it’s the best catalyst I know for thinking through challenging problems. Recently I’ve fallen short, I’ve walked less than usual. This will change right away. Walking is the best thing ever.
  • Cluster meetings and calls in the afternoon. Part of this will be to have calls and meetings in the afternoon as much as possible. It’s my least productive time in terms of focused input/output, but it’s perfect for conversations.

I hope that this might lead to concrete improvements and outcomes:

  • Stronger focus for longer periods of time, which should result in more long text output (essays, blog posts, maybe a book or two).
  • Less reactive scheduling, and more productive use of my time.
  • More flexibility to be present in my family as the better use of my time leads to less time-at-desk and rather to better-output-per-day.
  • Both new opportunities and improvements in my practice through new skills.

Are there any techniques or approaches you found very helpful yourself? Give me a shout, I’m curious!

I’m leaving Facebook


I’m leaving Facebook.

I’m not leaving in a huff, nor to make a strong statement. I simply haven’t been getting anything out of Facebook in a long time and like to do a good house cleaning from time to time.

To be honest, I’m a bit surprised myself to find myself leaving out of disinterest rather than conviction. (I do feel a little ashamed of that fact, but there you go. We all contain multitudes.) I never particularly liked FB, but used to use it a lot. And as someone who for a long time worked professionally in/with/about social media, there simply wasn’t a way around it, and that was ok, and I would say “I’m not a fan, but it works for x or y, and there’s no way around it anyway.” In 2017, this feels patently untrue.

I’d like to stress that I’m not judging for using or not using FB or any other platform. People like what they like, and it’s ok!

Personally, to me Facebook feels like an outdated model of social media. It feels a bit like reading the news on paper rather than my phone: It might be ok, but it’s just not for me anymore. Social conversations still happen of course, but the semi-public model, and more importantly the model that’s financed through driving up “engagement” (read: anything goes that gets you to click “like” or “share”) is one that feels kind of dirty by now.

For me, the conversations happen across a number of platforms. Slack and Whatsapp are a constant presence in my communications landscape, I still enjoy a good private Instagram, and of course I never left Twitter: It’s still the platform I use most, every single day, and I still get a lot of interesting and helpful interactions there every day. (I’m old school that way.)

Again, this isn’t a political statement. I’m 5 years too late for that, when many of my early adopter friends left. It simply feels like the party is over. That said, I’ll be happy to vote with my feet and take a tiny, miniscule fraction out of the “monthly active users” stats away with me. Facebook aligned its service a little too perfectly with their financial incentives, and picked dangerous incentives for my taste.

I’m of course a little worried about losing some contact details. I’m afraid there’s only so much I can do about that. The best I can do, at this point, is to share my contact details and hope everybody who needs them notes them down. They’re also easy to find online.

I might also keep a shadow profile to occasionally have a look at some pages I (notionally) manage. But given that we haven’t done a great job maintaining those anyway and you can tell by the lack of conversations there, we might just delete them altogether. The conversations for ThingsCon and my other collaborative projects are happening on Twitter and Slack anyway. Maybe it’s better that way.

Sincerely, P.

Spain travel log


In July & August, we spent about 3 weeks in Spain: First in the Pyrenees around Ordesa Valley, then in Basque Country along the coast in San Sebastian, Getaria and Bilbao. Here, with a delay of just a couple of months, are some travel notes.

Ordesa Valley, Torla

Torla in Ordesa Valley

Day 1 / Ordesa Valley

Today’s hike: Faja Racon 11 km, 580m ascent, 5-6 hours “This path under the northern cliffs is overlooked by many visitors but it’s one of my favourites. You really get close to the cliffs walking directly underneath them and get an idea of the scale of the valley. There’s a lovely contrast between the bare rock of the cliffs on your left and the lush green woods sloping away to your right. There’s a good chance of spotting sarrios (chamois) on this route as well as lammergeier.”

What a lammergeier looks like, courtesy of the hotel interior design team.

This was a beautiful hike with great views of Vale de Ordesa, but also very seriously steep hike in places. Highly recommended.

Map of Ordesa Valley

Good signage everywhere. Ordesa Valley and its environs are very, very accessible.

The path became a little clearer once we got around the corner. Still, this part turned out a bit trickier to navigate than expected.

The cairns turned out quite helpful.

Vistas all around

Day 2 / Ordesa Valley

Today’s hike: The valley floor, aka the horse’s tail 16 km, 450m ascent, 6-7 hours

“Most day hikers take the path on the valley floor. A good easy to follow path winds through lovely beech and silver fir woods with cliffs flanking you on either side. You pass several fantastic waterfalls before the woods open up to meadows that are filled with flowers in early summer. The trail ends at the waterfall in the Circo de Soasa with Monte Perdido dominating the skyline above.”

A good part of the valley floor hike hugs the little river.

Day 3 / Ordesa Valley

Glorious nothingness but strolling, eating, reading.

One small caveat: It seems I’ve somewhat put out my back, so visit the the local emerging room. I leave with a handwritten subscription—literally handwritten on a piece of blank paper—and get some meds.

Day 4 / Ordesa Valley

The meds seem to be working, but I figure it’s better to take it easy today.

Day trip to Jaca for a lazy stroll in the mid-day heat, and a visit to the mid-19th century citadel. We skipped them military miniatures museum inside.

Day 5 / Ordesa Valley

Vale de Bujaruelo. Another extremely lovely, very accessible walk. Shorter, much shorter, than the other ones, so we did two rounds. Back’s getting better.

Dramatic light in Vale de Bujaruelo

At night, loud moo-ing and the hollow clanking of cowbells wakes us. A cow herd is driven by the hotel along the only street along the valley. It’s hypnotic, almost ghostly, to see these cows slowly ambling by in the 4:30am darkness.

Spain / Ordesa Valley

Day 6 / Ordesa Valley

We tried to find another super easy route while my back is in recovery. We poked our heads into a few different caminos, but they were all quite steep and rocky, aka not-back-friendly. In the end, we ended up walking along the valley on a very lovely route along the river through the woods, then sat and chatted, feet in the refreshing river, until our toes got almost numb. Perfect!

More cows at 4:30.

Day 7 / Ordesa Valley to San Sebastian via Pamplona

Last night’s cow herd was later, but much larger than the previous nights.

It’s pouring. It’s been pouring all night. We grab a last breakfast at the spot that has become our go-to place, then off to Pamplona. On the way, we stop by at the medical center once more to check if we’re owing any money; the doc had been vague about that, or maybe our Spanish wasn’t up to snuff. We settle the bill, and are off to Pamplona.

On the way, we rip through a large part of the excellent S-Town podcast.

Everything in Pamplona is bull fight-themed.

Pamplona makes for a great lunch stop. We park near the bullfighting arena—the last annual bullfighting week happened was a week or so before we got here—and stroll the city. The old town is quite lovely. Above the market hall we find a restaurant that serves an excellent watermelon gazpacho, then are off to our final destination for the day, San Sebastian.

Our apartment is smack in the center. The city is bigger than I remembered. Full with tourists, but very laid back. An upscale beach & food town, essentially, which is just what we’re after. After scouting out the beach and our immediate neighborhood, we eat pintxos (Basque tapas) at Atari Gastroteka, where we also put in another reservation for the day after tomorrow.

Day 8 / San Sebastian

Sakona coffee roasters & Kafe Botanika & La Cuchara de San Telmo. In between, lots of strolling, swimming, a couple of concerts at the jazz festival.

San Sebastian looks gorgeous in the sunlight, especially from any of the hills around.

Also, good colors.

Day 9 / San Sebastian

After coffee at Sakona, hiked to Pasaia/San Pedro for lunch. Gorgeous 3h track, but upon descent no decent food. Back to San S!

Swing-by at the art fair, which was largely ok but not super inspiring. Discovered a fun & playful artist, though, Daniel Sueira.

Some laptop time.

Botanika for a vegetarian dinner (at long last, the food has been incredibly meat-centric) over live music. Caught a bit of The Lucky Chops’ concert at the jazz festival’s beach stage.

We’ve been lucky to absorb a lot of gigs in passing thanks to the ubiquitous jazz festival.

Day 10 / San Sebastian

It pours. Not all day, but frequently. After running some errands (haircut, post office, etc.) we do a lot of walking and reading, hiding out in cafés whenever necessary. It’s almost warm enough to go swimming in the rain.

In the evening, we’re back at Atari for a massive, long dinner. We sit outside under the awning. Across from us, the church’s front steps are teeming with people having drinks and pintxos.

Day 11 / San Sebastian

We’re surprised by a public holiday, so most things are closed. We take it easy, swing by Sanoka roastery, take a longer walk along the river. We check out former tobacco factory, now cultural center and museum Tabakalera—gorgeous building and a noteworthy, lovely little shop downstairs for art prints and some cute clothes.

The inner backyard of the San Telmo museum is an old cloister.

Later we visit the excellent San Telmo Museum which featured a range of exhibitions including paintings from 5 centuries, photos from fashion photography pioneer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, an exhibit about the changes in Basque country throughout modernity, and a big one on Alfred Hitchcock and his works.

Day 12 / San Sebastian

Today, some friends are joining for the next few days. V, a close friend from my days in Sydney, and his travel companion J. We pick up Vinci at the Guggenheim in Bilbao (J sticks wants to spend some extra time at the museum) and head on up the coast for lunch.

The Guggenheim still looks good.

Afternoon swimming at the beach. First time since my back troubles, and it feels fantastic.

Bar hopping for pintxos in the evening till late.

Day 13 / San Sebastian

After a yummy breakfast at Sakona & picking up some beans for home, we took a walk around the little peninsula that stands out into the sea behind the old town.

For lunch, we hiked up part of Mount Ulia for the degustation menu at Mirador de Ulía, which was spectacular. Between 14:30 and 18:00—a proper San Sebastian lunch!—we sampled some 9 main courses plus some in-between-courses like pre- and post-desserts. The food is matched only by the view, which is also incredibly. Highly recommended!

The view is the true strength of Mirador de Ulia. Go for lunch!

A swim later, we’re back in old town for more pintxos, this time at Atari Akademi (Atari’s “lab”) and La Cucharra de San Telmo.

We’ve managed to properly adapt to the perfect state of being in San Sebastian: A mellow state of mind coupled with a constant readiness to enjoy a bit of excellent food or drink.

Day 14 / San Sebastian

After avocado toasts at Sakona and some light shopping with M & V, we rent bikes. The city has excellent bike paths, and we circle the city in maybe 30 minutes. It’s a small town after all! Along the way we stop at the hill on the western end of the beach and take the funicular up the mountain to a somewhat derelict theme park.

My rule of thumb is: Never miss a chance to visit a derelict or abandoned theme park! You never know what you can see. In this case the view down on San Sebastian is spectacular.

As derelict theme parks go, this one is pretty... sad.

Again, great view, though!

We somehow miss the lunch slot, so quickly get something at the super market deli around the corner to eat at home. A little later, dinner brings all of us back to Atari for a proper sit-down feast, followed by a long stroll along the waterfront.

Day 15 / San Sebastian

We’re nearing the end of our stay in San Sebastian. J has left, but V spontaneously decides to do a few days of hiking along the coastal route of the Camino de Santiago, which goes from here along the coast west-bound. We’ll meet back up in Getaria, two days of hiking west.

Apropos of nothing, San Sebastian's coat of arms.

For now, we have a shared lunch, visit Tabakalera—the culture center in a former tobacco factory—again for some art prints only to find the shop closed for siesta, and way beyond. A stroll later, and we’re off to the beach for a long swim as V heads off on his mini pilgrimage.

To recap, some of our favorite restaurants from San Sebastian at a glance:

Atari Gastroteka https://foursquare.com/v/atari-gastroteka/4bf3f3166a31d13aa125952e Excellent pintxo. Also veggie options.

La Cuchara de San Telmo https://foursquare.com/v/la-cuchara-de-san-telmo/4b891542f964a520d01b32e3 Non-fussy, innovative tapas bar.

Bar Nestor https://foursquare.com/v/bar-nestor/4b7dc11cf964a5208bd22fe3 For no-nonsense steak & tomato salad

Viewpoint of Ulia https://foursquare.com/v/mirador-de-ulia/4b9a9f66f964a52039c735e3?tipsSort=popular 1 Michelin Star. Great view. Offers tasting menus (lunch & dinner). http://www.miradordeulia.es/menu-degustacion/

Basque Culinary Center Offer a tasting menu by the chefs of tomorrow Paseo Juan Avelino Barriola, 101 Requires reservation up to a month in advance, only available May/June. We missed this, but I wouldn’t mind trying this if we’re ever back in town.

Day 15 / Getaria

After breakfast we hit the road west towards Getaria, a small Basque fishing village—and get there within less than half an hour. We take it easy for the day. I while away the afternoon with some pintxos and some reading at a terrace café, with a view of the old harbor.

Our hotel is on the edge of the tiny old town and has a lovely little garden and terrace with a spectacular sea view.

Getaria's small harbor

There was an intense match of Pelote going on

For some reason, the tiny village of Getaria has a system of escalators that are very reminiscent of Hong Kong's mid-levels.

As a fishing village, Getaria's specialty is grilled fish.

Day 16 / Getaria

We join forces with V once more for a day hike from Zarautz to Deba, where we first had lunch with him a week or so ago.

We start at Zarautz, walk along the promenade to Getaria, then follow the Camino seashell first to Zumaia where we break for lunch, then onto Elorriaga. There we spontaneously reroute and follow not the Santiago route to Deba but a GR branch as this one hugs the gorgeous coast. It’s a much harder route, but a more rewarding one. We catch the very last train back from Deba and finish the day with grilled fish in Getaria.

A Flysch

Day 17 / Getaria

M comes down with a bit of a cold, we take it extra easy. I’ve been meaning to surf, but today the waves aren’t there. So later in the day we do a little stand-up paddling, which turns out to be fun.

Day 18 / Bilbao

We arrive in the early, drop our car off at the airport, and head straight to the Mercado de la Ribera for lunch. A long stroll and some window shopping later it becomes clear that Bilbao is quite charming indeed.

Day 19 / Bilbao

From our base in the old town, we head on over to the Guggenheim. I’d been here before, more than 10 years ago. It’s still a gorgeous building, and luckily there’s a great Bill Viola exhibition on in addition to the regular exhibition.

The afternoon turns to evening at a local tapas bar & hang-out spot. The next morning we’re off to southern Germany.

Day 20-22 / Southern Germany

Family time for a few days.

As an aside, on the drive from the airport, next to a country road, I spotted a potato vending machine. A potato. Vending. Machine.

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 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.