So, before the memories fade completely, a little writeup of this years dConstruct. The sheer volume of content at events I've been to recently (especially Agile2009) has forced me to change my methods of recording talks from complete-transcription to salient-points-only. My wrists are thanking me, I hope this is still useful to anyone reading it and that I've captured the correct essences...

Adam Greenfield, Elements of a Networked Urbanism

Adam Greenfield kicked off the day with his talk "Elements of a networked Urbanism". Where are cities going, what new technology will drive this, and how? Increasing prevalence of sensors, drive towards sustainability, personal empowerment, and ideas of how we present ourselves publicly all feed into the equation. By the end of 2008, half the population of the planet will be urban, but more in the sense of favellas and slums than of client modern cities like London or Paris - a distinction I'd not heard made before. These cities won't be neat, they'll be full of mess: self-organised squalor, chaos and vitality.

By the end of 2012, Gartner are saying that 20% of non-video Internet traffic will be sensors (a nice-sounding stat to hear and repeat, even as my analyst-allergy kicks in and I break out in hives). IPv6 increases our ability for proper networked sensors, and cities theoretically become queryable, scriptable resources. "Everything that is now a constant becomes a variable" - buildings gain the ability to respond dynamically to their environments. Latent data becomes explicit: police reports, utility usage, and so on. Data becomes actionable and useful in a manner that's simultaneously empowering and uncomfortable. "Browse urbanism" becomes "search urbanism", and as raw data is exposed the value of "insider knowledge" diminishes. In exchange for giving up our urban savoir-faire, we gain the ability to contribute to the world more effectively - something younger generations are strongly motivated by. There's no "fresh slate", no "starting over" when historical data is so accessible - so we lose one of the big wins of cities, the ability to reinvent oneself. It becomes hard to wear different masks and we're forced to deal with the world through one consistent identity.

All technologies fail; Adam quotes McLuhan: "every extension is also an amputation". What happens when the ubicomp infrastructure disappears?

Objects become services; we can see early signs of this today in car-sharing services (like the excellent Streetcar), in Spotify or Flickr. This can be driven by technology, or I think by necessity (think of phone-sharing in developing countries). This might be the start of a transition to an open-ended economy, and so the beginnings of post-consumerism. I'm not sure I followed that bit - how is an economy based on leased access to commodities instead of ownership any less consumerist?

Cities have always been about interfacing with the Other - other races, classes, genders. This is afforded by plausible deniability or convenient lack of knowledge about those around you - what happens when we know so much that this vanishes?

To cope with all the problems raised here, we'll need sensitivity, intelligence and tact - which judging from past performance are unlikely to come from the technology sector :)

I really enjoyed this one, Adam's an engaging speaker and whilst I've hoovered up as much of his talking and writing as I've been able, this felt fresh.

I wasn't convinced by the "dynamic environments" future he postulated - to use an analogy from the digital world, we've been promised mass-personalisation of media consumption and entertainment for years now, and it's seemed more technically feasible than actually desired (in fact I can't think of the reference, but I'm fairly sure I've heard of people finding deeply personalised services confusing).

One possible side-effect of exposing all this data about cities is the rise of closed-loop feedback... to use a facile example an area has high crime figures, so people avoid it, so there's less scrutiny of it, so crime rises. I'm sure there are better examples, but it does seem that exposing such data might polarise geographies.

I wonder what strategies we might adopt to recapture the "human element" (sorry) lost as the value of insider knowledge diminishes? Is this something which could be artificially reintroduced, perhaps by a Dopplr-branded (of course) "serendipity corps" rappelling down from black helicopters to deliver enforced randomness into 21st century urban populaces...

Let's See What We Can See, Mike Migurski and Ben Cerveny of Stamen

This felt a bit more "sit back and go oooh" than Adam's piece: some beautiful visualisations and little tricks that I, and no doubt a few other folk present, stole^H^H^H^H^Hwere inspired by:

  • A lovely visualisation of storm data;
  • "Interface as compression of data sets";
  • Lots of physical affordances as interfaces to digital filters;
  • Nice use of generated textual narratives to describe said lovely visualisations. Human-readable narrative text is my guilty pleasure for 2009 I think;
  • Lots of geographic interfaces to non-geographic data, and in general a lot of transplanting of metaphors;
  • Borrowing everywhere;
  • Google Maps as a standard means of map presentation - the slippymap is king;
  • An interface onto SFMOMA as a slippymap, which I struggled to see much useful in at a zoomed-out level - are curatorial decisions really all that interesting?
  • We're moving from using language to describe, to using models to play with; visualisation lets us turn up the complexity of data whilst retaining the ability to understand it all;
  • We're creating small worlds of holistic physics with consistent rule-sets; physical analogies help us explore;

Are visualisations not similar to statistics? Is the choice of mechanism for visualising not a first salvo in deciding how to present the data and what lessons we might want to draw from it?

I found this session enjoyable and illuminating, though not for the first time, found a CervenyTasm hard work, and couldn't help feeling that Ben was expressing some worthwhile ideas in a quite complex fashion. Anyone for "dimensional synaesthesia"?

What's Next? How Mobile is Changing Design, Brian Fling

Brian took us through a very personal journey from the 1970s to the current day, relating this to the journey personal computing has taken from the PC to the mobile phone - or more specifically, iPhone.

I struggled with this one. Brian is a good speaker, and knows his subject matter very well - his talk on iPhone Web Apps at Over The Air last year was excellent, and I'm looking forward to getting my paws on a copy of his book for O'Reilly.

But... this was a talk to a European audience billed as covering mobile in general rather than the iPhone, and some of the US bias made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Did the N95 really "not take off" despite 1.5m handset sales in 3 months? Do 97% of Generation Y really own a computer? I doubt it, if we're talking globally. And there was a moment when a combination of visuals and speech might lead an audience to infer that 2/3 of the world owned iPhones, which I'm sure wasn't the intention.

I found the later section of the talk the most interesting, where Brian touched on metaphors moving from mobile devices back onto PC. I would have liked to have heard more about this, particularly if there are some good examples from outside the Apple ecosystem. It sounds like an interesting observation which I'd not come across before, and worth some more attention.

...And of course, I'm in massive agreement with Brian over the primacy of mobile long-term, and the difficulty of designing for a device with so many contexts of use :)

Lunch followed, and I took the opportunity to vanish back to FPHQ. Bah.

Make it so: Learning from Scifi interfaces, Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessel

The afternoon got off to a sleepy start. I enjoyed watching the (very well presented) talk by Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessel on science fiction and interfaces, but struggled to draw any conclusions from it which might affect my own work. Perhaps the main thing I learned was to pay closer attention to interface-candy in future, I certainly caught myself oohing and aahing during District 9 last weekend.

Loving your player with Juicy Feedback, Robin Hunicke

Robin Hunicke then took to the stage for "Loving your Player with Juicy Feedback". I'd seen Robin speak before at LIFT 2008, and she's definitely got a fantastic handle on, and ability to communicate, a theory of fun which is ripe for being applied outside the world of gaming. Despite showing off the utterly gorgeous-looking Flower game for the PS3 (a video of which reduced me to quivering jelly in my seat, such was its gorgeousness), Robin lost points for dropping in an unnecessary film-spoiler - it turns out that, even when warned about spoilers, I can hear fairly well with fingers jammed into my ears (my fingers, I'd hasten to add). And I would've liked her to provide more concrete examples of the quality she labelled "juicy" or "juciness" (sic) - or even its lack.

Experience and the Emotion Commotion, August de Los Reyes

August de Los Reyes of Microsoft then followed with a talk which segued very nicely on from Robin's, challenging us to consider emotional involvement in designing technology. August was a fantastic speaker who seemed slightly embarrassed to be covering some of the same ground as Robin, who's clearly been an inspiration to him in his work - but I personally appreciated the opportunity to have two good speakers describe similar concepts in different ways. And the final video he showed off, a concept piece done by the Microsoft Office team, even managed to get me excited, despite a Ludovico-type incident involving myself and a suite of 3G concept videos in 2001.

Don't be deceived by the paucity of notes I took from this talk: August was absolutely excellent and I'll jump at the chance to see him speak again.

Materialising and dematerialising a web of data, Russell Davies

Russell rounded off the day beautifully with a pleasantly spiky talk which meandered between throwing Kinder Eggs at the audience, showing off Blue Streak engine trials, calling for the reclamation of interesting printing infrastructures, and riffing on the previous speakers to crack an obscure gag referencing a 1970s David Steel speech. I don't have any notes, and a write-up wouldn't do it justice; I'm just left wondering why I haven't seen him speak before...

Overall, the day had a great feel to it. The venue was excellent as normal, organisationally it appeared to all intents and purposes to have run like clockwork, and Clearleft had once again succeeded in attracting a fantastic range of speakers and attendees from across the globe down to Brighton for the day. I felt that a couple of the talks could have been more practically-minded, but that's likely a reflection of my own bias for stealing nuggets that I can squirrel away and use throughout the rest of the year.

A combination of pre-launch busyness at work and a desire to leave some breathing room meant that I sadly missed the post-event festivities, and therefore a chance for mutual milking of certain brains temporarily in residence by the seaside. A shame, but I'm already looking forward to dConstruct 2010.