Report from the PICNIC Festival 2011: Smart Cities, Open Data and Urban Futures

Last week the annual PICNIC Festival took place in Amsterdam. During three days, people from a wide range of backgrounds came together to talk about urban future scenarios, and discuss how our cities can adopt to the challenges that lie ahead. How can we prepare for a future world where the majority of its habitants will be living in urban environments? How can cities become smarter, and more sustainable through technological and social innovations? How can we involve citizens in these processes? This year there was a special focus on the key themes: Infrastructure, Sustainability, Society, Design, and Media.

As put forward by the organisers, PICNIC is more than a conference, it is a festival where all participants are active contributors, and expected to bring something to put on the table. Or, as expressed by the conference host Pep Rosenfeld from Boom Chicago: “PICNIC is just like Burning Man except everybody wears a suit”. Watch highlight videos and photos from the three days, plus a time lapse of the build-up of the temporary conference site, the PICNIC city located in Amsterdam’s northern harbour.

MEDEA at the Living Lab Day
What MEDEA “brought to the table” was a presentation given at the special event Living Networks, Urban Labs organised by the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), and Amsterdam Living Lab. Living labs experiences and initiatives from all over the world were presented with a specific focus on city-based challenges, such as sustainability, energy efficiency, eHealth and eMobility. Among other things discussed was the belief that our future cities can not be created from an ivory tower by a single decision-maker. As the eHealth keynote speaker Peter Roelofsma at University Amsterdam, phrased it “if you want to move fast you move alone, if you want to move far you move together”. All citizens needs to be involved in co-creating future solutions, and the living labs methodologies may be a way to deal with this challenging task.

The MEDEA talk “Co-designing Fabriken – the making on an open maker-space” presented the initial steps in building up our living lab Fabriken at STPLN. Co-design strategies behind the establishment were presented, as well as experiences gained, and lessons learned from this dynamic design process. A long list of representatives from other living labs also presented their visions, missions and projects (see the full program). One example was Rene Parker at RLABS working in socially problematic areas in Cape Town. She described their work as a social revolution, applying living labs methodologies to develop partnerships between stakeholders, support grassroots empowerment, and create environments for growth. Never underestimate people, and celebrate (“We celebrate everything!”) were her concluding messages.

Smart cities and Open data
Another speaker at the Living Lab Day, Euro Beinat, University of Salzburg discussed aspects of open data in relation to smart cities and data analytics. We are starting to get a glimpse of what we can do with data analytics. By collecting data on economy, environment, governance, lifestyle, transportation etc. we may reconstruct behaviours of entire cities, and through that potentially create smarter cities.

Using and developing technologies such as pervasive networks, Internet of things, social networks, big data methods flows of actions can be modelled, and human activities measured. In a process of sensing, understanding, changing, and implementing, we may change and evolve city structures to become more efficient and sustainable. “Open data open content enables us to do so much” to quote Rufus Pollock at the Open knowledge Foundation which is an organisation promoting open knowledge common because of its potential to deliver far-reaching societal benefits. The question is how to make sense of raw data, and understand what the potentials and limitations of data visualization are, which was a subject of discussion brought up by Liz Turner at Iconomical.

Newly released Dutch open database
An interesting initiative in relation to the suggested potentials of open data, is that the Dutch government at PICNIC (on the International Day of Democracy, Sept. 15) announced the release of the Dutch Open Data Portal, which is an open database making public data available. The belief is that entrepreneurs will use this open data source for designing applications that can lead to social and technological innovations, and economic growth.

Alvaro Oliveria, president of European Network of Living Labs, closed the Living Lab Day, again stating that our cities are facing big challenges, and living lab methodologies based on co-creation, inclusion, and bottom up initiatives might be a way to meet these challenges. Today there are 274 living labs in the ENoLL network, 236 in Europe, and 38 outside of Europe. Oliveria finished his talk by referring to EU Smart Cities Innovation policies putting an emphasize on the potentials of bringing future Internet technologies together with living labs methodologies, and social innovations practices.

PICNIC keynote speakers on Urban Futures
Besides all the inspiring talks at the Living Lab Day there was also a comprehensive program, consisting of well-known speakers representing many different areas: business, design, infrastructure, media, society, sustainability. A selection of talks can be watched at the PICNIC web site.

An inspiring speaker especially worth mentioning is Saskia Sassen at Colombia University. In her talk “Urbanzining Technology: when the city talks back” she argued that since more and more technologies are going to be placed and stored in cities we need to put even more effort into carefully exploring how to urbanize technologies. As put forward by Sassen, we need to “hack” them in order to bridge the gap between cities and technologies.

Basically, the city transforms technologies. Take the car as example, the city hacks it, diminishes its capabilities and transforms it into something it is not (cumbersome, stucked in impassable passages, slow). A car is not an urbanised technology, it does not fit into the structure of most cities, and can thus not reach its fully potential. Such technologies is by Sassen described as obsolescent technologies – non urbanised technologies. The car is only one of many examples. In Sassen’s research, she explores issues on how to actually urbanize technologies, we cannot just “plop” them down, the city hacks them. Watch Sassen’s talk in the video embedded below or on Vimeo.

Another very inspiring speaker is Scott Snibbe who presented the visions behind Björk’s recently released app album Biophilia. He talked about how the emergence of music apps can take us back to what music was before – back to music as an interactive phenomena. Snibbe means that tools such as iPads give musicians the power to re-claim the experience of the interactive qualities of music. Watch Snibbs’ talk embedded below or on Vimeo.

A third speaker, out of many inspiring speakers worth mentioning, is William McDonough, co-creator of the Cradle to Cradle® approach to design, and co-author to the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. In his speech he was calling for a revolution. He said “being less bad is not being good, it is just less bad”. We have to turn around, claim revolution. It not just about re-ducing, re-cycling, it is about re-thinking, re-doing, re-valuing, re-measuring things. It is time that we start designing for 10 billions of people. So how to do that? How to remake the way we make things? McDonough presented a set of business cases, from building houses made out of trees that return to the forest when they become uninhabited, to industrial areas that are being transformed into green yards. Revolution in small steps. It is not what you can do, it is about what you are in fact doing.

The PICNIC community
This report of course only gives a small picture of everything that happened during the festival. For further stories and insights, have a look at the PICNIC web site, or join the PICNIC club.

Image credit: phishtitz CC:BY-NC-SA