A year of two crashes

A year ago today I was in Bali.

We spent the bet­ter part of Decem­ber 2015 there. It wasn’t real­ly a hol­i­day, but we weren’t real­ly work­ing either. I was wrap­ping up a few final Hub­bub things back then. But for the most part life was qui­et. Very qui­et. We would get up real­ly ear­ly. We would buy some veg­eta­bles and things from a lady who would dri­ve into town every morn­ing with a load from the mar­ket.

I’d swim, exer­cise, med­i­tate, have break­fast and do some work. Writ­ing and read­ing most­ly. By the end of the morn­ing we would cook lunch. The major meal of the day. In the after­noon we wouldn’t do much of any­thing because of the heat. Decem­ber is rainy sea­son in Bali and it gets incred­i­bly hot and humid. Towards dusk we would often take a walk. We would have an ear­ly light din­ner and enter­tain our­selves with the antics of tokay geck­os. We would turn in ear­ly.

Now I am writ­ing this back in our home in Utrecht. In many ways my life has returned to the way it was before that month in Bali. But in oth­er ways it has changed. I used to run a small agency and would be in the stu­dio almost every day. Now I am free­lanc­ing and I split my time between work­ing on site at clients, work­ing from home and meet­ing up with peo­ple in town. I enjoy the vari­ety.

I used to be in the busi­ness of design­ing games and play­things for learn­ing and oth­er pur­pos­es. Now I am back to my old voca­tion of inter­ac­tion design and in the­o­ry I can and work on any­thing.

Towards the end of Hubbub’s run I felt boxed in. Now I feel like I can pur­sue what­ev­er inter­ests me.

Right now, under the ban­ner of Eend I am help­ing the Dutch vic­tim sup­port foun­da­tion devel­op new dig­i­tal ser­vices. I spend about three days a week work­ing on site as part of cross-dis­ci­pli­nary agile team made up of a mix of inter­nal and exter­nal peo­ple. It’s good, impor­tant work and I can con­tribute a lot.

The time that remains I divide between the usu­al free­lancer things like admin, net­work­ing and so on, and devel­op­ing a plan for a PhD.

I’ve been blog­ging on and off about intel­li­gent design tools this year and that is no coin­ci­dence. I am con­sid­er­ing going into research full­time to work in that space. It is still ear­ly days but I am hav­ing fun read­ing up on the sub­ject, writ­ing, mak­ing plans, and talk­ing to peo­ple in acad­e­mia about it.

In between this ‘new nor­mal’ and those qui­et days in Bali was a year of two crash­es. I basi­cal­ly start­ed from scratch in many ways twice this year and I feel like it has helped me get reori­ent­ed.

Crash one.

In Jan­u­ary we moved to Sin­ga­pore. We would end up spend­ing sev­en months there. In that time I joined a start­up called ARTO. I helped build a team, devel­op a design and devel­op­ment process and act­ed as prod­uct man­ag­er and prod­uct design­er. We launched a first ver­sion of the prod­uct in that peri­od and we pushed out a cou­ple of new fea­tures as well. The last thing I did was find a replace­ment for myself.

In between work­ing on ARTO I taught a two-part engage­ment design work­shop with Michael and helped Edo and his team build ArtHit. I got into run­ning and ate my way through the abun­dance of amaz­ing food Sin­ga­pore has to offer.

Of all the things I enjoyed about Sin­ga­pore, its cos­mopoli­tanism has to be the absolute high­light. I worked with peo­ple from Myan­mar, Malaysia, Viet­nam and India. I made friends with peo­ple from many more places. Dis­cov­er­ing the things we have in com­mon and the things that set us apart was a con­tin­u­ous source of enjoy­ment.

And like that, just when we were get­ting set­tled and had got­ten into a rou­tine of sorts and start­ed to feel at home it was time to go back to the Nether­lands. (But not before spend­ing a cou­ple of weeks explor­ing Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia. More great food and gor­geous sights.)

Crash two.

It is weird to have cul­ture shock in a town you’ve spent most of your life in but that was what it felt like for about the first month back in Utrecht. Sep­tem­ber felt very sim­i­lar to Jan­u­ary. I had no work and was net­work­ing like a mad­man and just play­ing the num­bers game. Hop­ing I would bump into some­thing. And of course, as it always does even­tu­al­ly, things worked out.

I con­sid­er myself blessed to be able to take these risks and more or less trust things will turn out okay. I know that if they don’t there are always peo­ple around me who will sup­port me if worse comes to worse.

2017 looks to be a year of more sta­bil­i­ty although one can nev­er be sure. World events as well as occur­rences in my per­son­al cir­cles this year have shown me once again there are no guar­an­tees in life.

But I plan to build on what I’ve start­ed these past few months and see where it takes me. It is time to shift from ori­ent­ing to decid­ing and act­ing. And for the fore­see­able future I plan to keep the cur­rent ‘sys­tem’ run­ning.

So no more crash­es for the time being. Although I am sure there will come a time when the need for it aris­es again.

Waiting for the smart city

Nowa­days when we talk about the smart city we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly talk about smart­ness or cities.

I feel like when the term is used it often obscures more than it reveals.

Here a few rea­sons why.

To begin with, the term sug­gests some­thing that is yet to arrive. Some kind of tech-enabled utopia. But actu­al­ly, cur­rent day cities are already smart to a greater or less­er degree depend­ing on where and how you look.

This is impor­tant because too often we post­pone action as we wait for the smart city to arrive. We don’t have to wait. We can act to improve things right now.

Fur­ther­more, ‘smart city’ sug­gests some­thing mono­lith­ic that can be designed as a whole. But a smart city, like any city, is a huge mess of inter­con­nect­ed things. It resists top­down design.

His­to­ry is lit­tered with failed attempts at author­i­tar­i­an high-mod­ernist city design. Just stop it.

Smart­ness should not be an end but a means.

I read ‘smart’ as a short­hand for ‘tech­no­log­i­cal­ly aug­ment­ed’. A smart city is a city eat­en by soft­ware. All cities are being eat­en (or have been eat­en) by soft­ware to a greater or less­er extent. Uber and Airbnb are obvi­ous exam­ples. Small­er more sub­tle ones abound.

The ques­tion is, smart to what end? Effi­cien­cy? Leg­i­bil­i­ty? Con­trol­la­bil­i­ty? Anti-fragili­ty? Playa­bil­i­ty? Live­abil­i­ty? Sus­tain­abil­i­ty? The answer depends on your out­look.

These are ways in which the smart city label obscures. It obscures agency. It obscures net­works. It obscures intent.

I’m not say­ing don’t ever use it. But in many cas­es you can get by with­out it. You can talk about spe­cif­ic parts that make up the whole of a city, spe­cif­ic tech­nolo­gies and spe­cif­ic aims.

Post­script 1

We can do the same exer­cise with the ‘city’ part of the meme.

The same process that is mak­ing cities smart (soft­ware eat­ing the world) is also mak­ing every­thing else smart. Smart towns. Smart coun­try­sides. The ends are dif­fer­ent. The net­works are dif­fer­ent. The process­es play out in dif­fer­ent ways.

It’s okay to think about cities but don’t think they have a monop­oly on ‘dis­rup­tion’.

Post­script 2

Some of this inspired by clever things I heard Sebas­t­ian Quack say at Play­ful Design for Smart Cities and Usman Haque at ThingsCon Ams­ter­dam.