PICNIC 01Not your ordinary PICNIC:  that’s the tagline I found plastered all over the Westergasfabriek terrain during PINIC ’09. And PICNIC indeed is something quite out of the ordinary. 

I arrived Wednesday around 11:00am, a few hours before the official opening of the conference part of PICNIC, which meant that I could take some time to explore the impressive central area of the festival, the PICNIC club. A place to meet, to eat, to tweet (there was a Twitter tree set up in the main area, with UTP cables hanging down its branches) and to look at all the interesting stuff that PICNIC’s official partners, including UPC and Microsoft, were showing off.

The area was brimming with activity. During the morning, several sessions of PICNIC Young had already started, which is a collection of workshops and seminars for teachers and students, exploring technology and creativity and their possible adaptation to school programs. PICNIC Young is only one of many “tracks” running alongside the main conference schedule of PICNIC, and if you wanted to cover all of it, you would need at least 5 or 6 people on the ground.

Other interesting events were also already going on at the various PICNIC Labs that were scattered among the conference area, like the Digital City Special, or the Augmented City Lab, exploring present and near-future adaptation of various mobile augmented reality technologies. I did not attend any of these sessions, but if you’re interested in what augmented reality can do today, check out the iPhone 3GS app that the folks at Layar have launched at PICNIC.

The main conference has a different theme for each of its three days. The first day’s theme was “Turning Points”, focusing on social changes that have their impact on society and social media, and kicked off with a familiar face: Israeli conductor Itay Talgam. I had heard Talgam speak at PICNIC last year and his ideas on leadership really stuck with me. The one-liner he kicked his talk off with this year: “In these times of insecurity and crisis, people are sick of leaders. It’s about communities now.”

This time around, Talgam did not talk to us about leadership, but about communities and building creativity. He did so by showing a series of short movies, first of two people communicating using Konnakol, and also of world-renowned musician Yo Yo Ma visiting a small village in Nepal and having a conversation with one of the village elders about music, without either of them speaking each other’s language.

Both movies illustrated Talgam’s point that you don’t need a shared language and you don’t necessarily need someone to lead: dialogues develop even by simply following each other’s example and building from there. Talgam’s talk ended with a live example of creative collaboration: a musical performance by Israeli musician Ariel Qassis who performed classic Turkish music on a Qanun, accompanied by a Dutch saxophonist playing stylish blues. How much more diverse can you get?

The next section of the program was heavily tied into the “Turning Points” theme and gave the audience a multi-faceted take on the current financial and economic crisis under the heading “Never Waste a Good Crisis”. Introduced and moderated by cultural anthropoligist Anthony Citrano, four different speakers explored the challenges this crisis poses, and the changes we could or maybe even should make to meet them.

Citrano kicked off by giving a short introduction. The crisis has changed the way we interact and transact and who we trust. The people do not longer have the unquestionable faith that financial institutions will not do dumb things, and even the value of money itself might come into question, as money is, according to Citrano, subject to the Tinkerbell Effect, meaning that it only has value as long we keep believing it does.

If we look at the future, one of the central questions will become “Are fiat currencies strong enough to be bailed out?” It might be a good thing if alternatives for fiat currency (official, legal tender) became available. Serious reevaluation of how our systems work might bring serious solutions to these problems and will hopefully inject social interaction. The four speakers that are part of this panel all have their separate take on this quandry.

First off was Henk van Arkel, who is CEO of the Social Trade Organisation (STRO), working on reforming financing of projects and small business in Latin America and Bernard Lietaer, who is head of the ACCESS foundation and a research fellow at Berkely.

Lietaer showed us an impressive (almost depressing) series of data on the current crisis and why we should not believe it is anything near being over. We are, as Lietaer puts it, in the eye of the storm which is why it looks relatively tranquil right now. He makes a rather elaborate case for an economy where complementary currencies would provide a systemic solution to the cause of our current problems. The analysis is too in-depth to properly explore here, but if you’re at all interested, Lietaer has a lot of literature and a white paper up on his website.

Van Arkel makes a jump from theory to practice by demonstrating how this actually works very well in Uruguay, where STRO has been doing a lot of work. They introduced something called “Tradable Commercial Credit (TCC)” which businesses can use to pay their suppliers free of banking costs (interest, fees, etc.) or choose to convert to conventional currency at a cost. The application of this complementary currency has been a success and the Government of Uruguay recently started accepting TCC as legal payment for taxes.

The next speaker to shine a light on the subject was Oliver Dudok van Heel, a strategy-consultant-turned-environmentalist working on various aspects of the rapidly growing concept of transition towns, which are self-sufficent communities focused on low emissions and reduced oile dependency. One of these towns is Lewes in East-Sussex, England. In Lewes, Dudok van Heel was one of the people behind the introduction of the Lewes Pound, an alternative, local currency meant to stimulate the local economy.

PICNIC LewesThe idea behind this local currency is that money spent locally stimulates the local economy, thereby building economic resilience and strengthening the relationship between the community and local shopkeepers. There’s an added environmental effect, because there’s less need for transportation, thus reducing the region’s carbon footprint.

The final speaker in this section, British artist and designer Christian Nold, worked on a similar project in the South East Amsterdam neighborhood of Bijlmer (sometimes called the “Dutch Bronx”), building on the transition town concept. Over one hundred different nationalities and communities live in the Bijlmer, making identity, often along ethnic lines, an important factor. Nold is working on the Bijlmer Euro project, introducing a local currency for the Bijlmer to examine how local trust networks function. The Bijlmer Euro isn’t a separate currency from the Euro, but rather consists of regular Euro bills with a recycled RFID tag stuck to them. The upside of this approach is that there are no startup costs for printing money, nor any trust issues with the currency itself.

PICNIC BijlmerIf you buy something at one of the 10 currently participating shops in the Bijlmer, you can choose if you want your change in regular money, or a Bijlmer Euro. Paying with these Euros can get you a discount in some stores. If you acquire a Bijlmer Euro, you can then scan it at one of several public terminals to see it’s entire transaction history. This allows you to visualize the local social network of stores and their customers and could provide a powerful way to understand and change social dynamics and local trust.

What’s in it for the shopkeepers, you might ask? From the point of view of the community, people want to be part of a local network. In economic terms, local business can benefit from marketing the idea and being part of a network that offers some sort of exclusivity. Nold’s ultimate goal is to extend the system to Surinam, where the roots of a lot of Bijlmer inhabitants lie, to see if it would work alongside something like the money transfer system of Western Union. The Bijlmer Euro exemplifies a very interesting concept and is something worth “tracking” during its current rollout phase.

Stay tuned for further updates on PICNIC 2009.