I spent the latter half of last week in the Peak District, participating in the rather wonderful Laptops and Looms conference. Russell Davies, Dan Hill and Toby Barnes pulled together an amazing selection of people and persuaded them all to congregate in an old mill in the village of Cromford just on the strength of spending three days exploring how to turn making into manufacturing.
For such a loosely defined event, we managed to cram in so many thing that I'm still trying to unpack it all four days after the event drew to a close. I'm going to try to provide some of the background and raw facts of the conference in this blog post, and leave the more thoughtful stuff to emerge in subsequent thinking and blog posts as it filters through my brain.
Checking back through some of the emails sent before the event, it turns out I was wrong to refer to it as a conference. Russell says "This isn't a conference, it's a conversation." And he's right, that's a much better description, even if it's rather cryptic for anyone who didn't attend.
The agenda was deliberately loosely defined - the introduction to the themes was Russell's August column for Wired UK, and the organising principle was to get a bunch of interesting people, stick them into (one of) the world's first factory and see what happened.
It was an event which addressed a lot of the problems that I outlined in my long conference post. The mornings were the nearest to a traditional conference, with a number of presentations acting as scene-setters or almost provocation pieces, but they often veered off into group discussions on the topics raised.
The afternoons had flexible and varied activities which saw us taking a tour of Masson Mill; a kickabout on the nearby park; a train excursion to Derby to visit the Derby Silk Mill (which argues that it is the oldest factory); and rounding off the three days with an afternoon of cricket at Chatsworth House.
The evenings saw us exploring the delights of Matlock Bath, chatting over a communal meal, or just reflecting on the day in the pub.
All of which meant that there was ample opportunity to discuss things and get to know each other. I think I probably had at least a five minute chat with something like 90% of the people there, which was fantastic.
So what did we talk about?
Digital fabrication techniques, how well they do and don't work. Mass personalisation, with Alice Taylor from Makielab giving an open and inspiring talk about how they're aiming to make everything in the country where it's sold. Matt Cottam made everyone (I think, he definitely did me) jealous of how he's got funding to let him run an awesome new project. Toby played devil's advocate about the drive for shedloads of growth, and asked whether there's a way that the oft-derided "lifestyle" businesses could be the answer. Matt Ward took a stab at defining some of the terms we were using and some of the conditions which fed into the debate (hopefully he, along with everyone else, will publish his slides somewhere). We talked about what's stopping more makers from turning interesting hacks into real products, and wondered how we can more easily replicate Newspaper Club's winkling out of printers in other areas of expertise. We noticed that we don't build our tools any more (coincidentally something that came up in a recent item about HP losing its way) and asked if that fed into the decline in manufacturing. Dan did an excellent job of setting things in a wider context, looking at the decline of the British manufacturing industry, and the rise of China, whilst showing that Germany had managed to cope with the changing world without losing its industrial base. At one point he challenged us to define "what is the point of the West?" How do we engage with the "dark matter" of policy and government so that we end up with a society more attuned to our ideals and values, and less towards finance or call centres. The Makielab guys were helped to build a Makerbot. We talked about ways to collaborate and new ways of working, and I talked a bit about DoES Liverpool. And we debated what is stopping the network of makers from becoming a new wave of industrialists?
There are people whose presentations I've missed, and hundreds of other topics that I wasn't aware that were discussed, because I was busy involved in a similarly interesting conversation elsewhere.
In his closing comments, Russell asked us what we wanted to do next. He didn't have any grand vision or plan, he'd just had a hunch that interesting things might happen if he got us together.
He was right. I'm hoping that the discussions and connections continue to ripple out in the coming months. It looks like there'll be another event held in the future, which is excellent news, because I can't state how awesome those three days were.
Tom Taylor said that he hoped that it would spark a raft of good blog posts. I want to echo that hope, and this is the first of my contributions to the pool (and hopefully it won't dilute the quality too much).
There's very little that I'd change if it were run again. That said, I expect that the themes will be a little better defined after we've had a year to continue the conversation.
I think it might be useful to replace some of the industrial heritage sections with trips to some of the local "supply chain" sized firms. Rather than a tour of an 18th Century mill, visit a working injection-moulding factory or similar. See if we can unearth some of the remaining industry to give talks about how they work, so we can see how to use them and also look for new possibilities a la Newspaper Club.
What about having a "gallery" area, and encourage attendees to bring something along to show off. There was so much creativity in the room, and there won't be time for everyone to give a talk about what they do, so fill the area where people get coffee with objects or posters showing what the other attendees do. If you could find someone to staff it, you could even open it up to the public in the times when the attendees are out on some other activity...
I'll be revisiting some of the themes thrown up by the conference in the coming days (/weeks..?) and will add them here. I'm also going to try to collect any other writing spawned by the conference from others, and will include links to them too (and I've not read any of them yet - I wanted to get my thoughts down first before diving into the thoughts of others...).
The event happened last month, but I wanted to follow up on my earlier post about the council starting to pay attention to me - mainly because it was a typically wonderful bit of work from The Macula, and through the wonders of the web, I can give you a taste of what it was like...
The projection on the Liver Building itself was first...
...and was followed by one on the new Museum of Liverpool building (which had opened its doors a couple of days earlier). I felt this one did a better job of incorporating the architecture of the building into the projection...
Finally, if you'd like to know a bit more about it, here's a good interview with the Macula where they talk about the Liverpool event.
One of the outcomes of the public disorder from the past few days has been a huge supply of analysis and thinking around society and related issues.
I've not been reading very much of it (I've got a rather fractured relationship with things like Twitter, and 24-hour news, at the moment - hopefully I'll find the time and the way to unpack some of that into a blog post soon) but these are some of the things that I have read which have seemed the most interesting, or the most thought-provoking.
I don't agree with everything that they all say, but they seem to provide some use in giving me different ways to explore my take on events...
Far too busy with this, working on this, and getting this up and running, but wanted to share a couple of things in the hope that writing a paragraph about each of them would help get my brain processing them.
Wicked Problems. A really interesting post, and given a similarly interesting discussion I had last night (which I'm afraid I'm not going to write up here, sorry), wonderfully timely. The universe as serendipity engine in full flow.
Google+. Have been on it for a week or so, and I'm not really seeing how it's different/better than Facebook or Twitter. And I'm getting a little disillusioned with both of those two (though I was never really illusioned with Facebook...). Pete Ashton covers lots of the problems over here. Lots of good stuff in that blog post - owning where important stuff of mine is stored is important; advertising-funded models aren't good; blogging as a useful tool for the writer, rather than the reader... That last point is what I get most out of my blog, and something that's been lost as an explanation in the professionalising of blogging.
I think Google have taken the wrong direction with their more recent approaches to helping people cope with the amount of information out there. They're sticking the filter at the wrong end - it's happening with search, where we'll end up in little echo chambers based on our social network, and Google+ has it built in. Filtering at the source is good for privacy, but a bad solution to information overload.
It feels like we're experiencing an enclosing of the Internet. Facebook turning off RSS feeds; Twitter restricting client apps... Maybe it's Apple's fault, they've shown how nice closed systems can be, and closed systems are definitely easier to build. But it stifles innovation, and locks people into one platform. Good for the companies who "win", bad for society.
I think Schroeder is right (at the end of the Wicked Problems post), that open source hasn't lived up to its potential. It could be building the tools that we need to cope with the modern world, and instead it seems to be driven by people who want to build a free version of whatever the latest cool commercial app is.
Finally, there are murmurings of another Barcamp Liverpool, and so I'm starting to ponder what a follow-up talk to this one would be. I wonder if I could persuade Dan to do some bigger-picture thinking and give a talk challenging the open source movement to look to a higher purpose. That'd be a superb talk.