A PICNIC in Amsterdam

Once a year Amsterdam plays host to the creators of urban design, technology, art, and science for the annual 3-day PICNIC festival. I just returned from this amazing festival.

A few months ago Bonnie from  iStrategy Labs invited  me to speak at PICNIC, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was excited. It would be my first time attending the festival, and my first time in Amsterdam. I’d heard rave reviews from former festival-goers — it was the most exciting conference they’d ever gone to — so I knew I would be in for a treat.

My introduction to the festival-goers began in the shuttle ride from Schiphol to the hotel where we all would be staying. On my shuttle was Jeff Hull, a situational designer and founder of Nonchalance, and Aaron Wolf Baum, a physicist growing algae for NASA. Off-hand it didn’t seem like there would be much overlap between our work worlds, but when I attended their panels I realized that we all held the mutual goal of solving the long-term problems that plague our planet. Though the methods we choose to go about it, and the nuances we focus our efforts on vary drastically the end result remains the same: do important work.

Jeff Hull’s panel, We Tell Stories By Any Means Necessary, discussed aspects of storytelling through individual’s interactions with cities and city governments. This, of course, falls right in-line with the we’re doing at Code for America.

On Jeff’s panel was Euro Beinat, a professor of location and context awareness, who presented real-time data visualizations of people interacting with their cities via tweets, Facebook updates, and transit rides.

Euro believes the challenge cities have utilizing data is due to the cities lack of a value system. Without an established value system, cities aren’t able to respond or process the new information. We’re seeing this on a wide-scale as cities attempt to make outdated data-driven decisions instead of prioritizing the practical usage of new data for citizen benefit.

How then do we revamp value systems for our cities? Enter storytelling. Euro argues that value systems are created through emotional responses and we must tell our stories to create emotional responses to the new information. I love this!

The work of the other panelists like Jeff, is exactly what we need to tell the stories that create and sustain up-to-date value systems for our cities.

Redesigning the Biology of Cities was a panel facilitated by Aaron Wolf Baum about the use of polyculture, algae, and other biology to make our cities sustainable. Aaron’s working with NASA in an attempt figure out how in 30 plus years from now, when we (hopefully) aren’t as reliant on fossil fuels, to use algae as jet fuel. I was impressed by Aaron’s work, not only because it has the potential to positively impact our environment, but because it’s a forward-thinking plan with a trajectory beyond 2040.

The panel I spoke on, Community Outsourcing, was a conversation about how to empower and engage residents in their communities; in turn making our communities better. We talked a lot about CityCamp and the importance of addressing local issues with local residents and government. CityCamp is a great example of bringing together a pretty diverse group of people, that have common goals, together to talk, plan and act.

In the spirit of outsourcing, we invited the audience to participate in our panel, and were joined by Kim Li Ti Oeij, who’s created an online site for addicts and homeless to access services in Amsterdam. Kim is an example of community outsourcing at its best. He takes information from various government sites and puts it in one place for easy and comprehensive access. Later we were joined by Frank Kresin who added that to be successful with community outsourcing we need to stay local, at the city level.

Some of the words that were repeated throughout the festival that I think are worth remembering: Action, Make, Now, Generation, Open, Storytelling, and Experiment.

Check out PICNIC 2011 photos on flickr. All photos included in this blog post provided by PICNIC Network.

About alissa

Alissa is the Government Relations Director at Code for America. Through its fellowship program, Code for America recruits passionate technologists into public service to help governments become more open and efficient. Alissa has extensive experience in technology and local government, most recently leading the Open311 effort with the City of San Francisco, and she holds a Masters in Urban Planning from NYU.

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