PICNIC 2009The final day of PICNIC’s three day conference was themed “Rebuild” and focused on world-changing developments and the visionary people behind them. The day started with Start Breathing, a short presentation by independent writer and consultant Linda Stone. Stone told us about the importance of breathing and the dangers of a phenomenon called “E-mail apnea.” 

E-mail apnea refers to when people hold their breath while reading and writing e-mails or text messages. Stone put a lot of research into this common condition, and was told by several medical specialists that irregular breathing can contribute heavily to stress-related diseases. Stone suggests that we do not suffer from information overload, but rather from information overconsumption. If you want to know more, check out her op-ed on the subject for the Huffington Post.

Next, Nicholas Negroponte delivered his keynote speech, which served as the highlight of the third day and possibly even of the entire conference. Negroponte is co-founder of the MIT Medialab and spearheads the One Laptop Per Child program. He’s considered a true visionary and, especially with OLPC, has been working on projects that literally change the world. Although it has been over 15 years since Negroponte asserted “computing is no longer about computers, it is about life,” the sentiment remains highly relevant today.

He started by talking about the reasons for founding MIT Media-lab. While photography was invented by photographers, television was created by engineers. And yet, creativity has always been expected from the creative users instead of the scientists behind the medium. Media-lab brings together scientists, artists and other creative minds to help push the medium forward by innovation and creative use. For instance, while newspapers may be dead in their paper incarnation, innovation and creativity can still keep the medium alive.

He went on to explain that at some point in his life he started believing that his role is to do what normal market forces cannot or will not do. One day, he asked himself “am I actually doing something that market forces are not?” and had to answer no. This is when he came up with the idea for the OLPC program. What is the market doing, in this case? To compensate for projected drops in sales, the market keeps adding features and gadgets. This also keeps the price of laptops up.

Meanwhile, in an average village in India, children often work for a meager salary of $45 a year instead of going to school. Negroponte believes that children in third-world countries don’t stop going to school because they have to work, but because school is mostly boring. Providing them with the right tools to make education interesting would help encourage them to continue their schooling.

When he explained his idea for a $100 laptop, everyone told him it wasn’t possible. Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Craig Barrett all laughed at him for thinking he could pull it off. At this point in his presentation, Negroponte casually took out an OLPC laptop. After throwing it onto the stage, he casually tossed it around, and asked the audience “…can their products do this? I don’t think so!”

When designing the OLPC laptop, Negroponte recognized that it had to have some unique properties making it suitable for use in third-world countries…properties that mainstream laptops did not have. For example, the OLPC needed to be able to operate in low-power environments, so it had a crank that can be used to generate power by hand. It also needed to be sturdy enough to survive being an object of play, so it was built tough enough to withstand Negroponte’s dramatic demonstration.

Another great aspect of the OLPC is its ability to store one hundred books, enabling the shipment books into Indian villages without incurring the expense of shipping so many physical copies. When they rolled out the program in India, not only did they fit every laptop with 100 books, they fit each laptop with 100 different books. Negroponte pointed out that not many people in the conference room had 10,000 books available to them when they attended school. Thanks to the OLPC program, children in Africa and India now have that access.

The next speaker was Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University and author of a book called The Time Paradox. To explain what The Time Paradox is all about, Zimbardo showed a video of the “marshmallow temptation study.”

The study demonstrates how people react in situations when delayed gratification provides rewards. It also shows that there’s a basic difference between orientation on the present or on the future. Zimbardo, through many underlying studies, found that everyone has their own personal time orientation, and that this influences everyday decisions. He considers the single most important thing you can teach your kids to be the concept of delayed gratification, noting that people who are more future oriented are generally more successful and social than people who are not. According to his conceptual time orientation model, people are categorized into different classes based on their behavior: these classes are then linked to behavioral patterns such as criminal behavior.

The reception of Zimbardo’s speech was overwhelmingly positive. And while I thought Zimbardo conveyed a number of interesting notions, at times the presentation sounded like it was primarily an advertisement for his book. While this detracted from the presentation, I would love to read more about the subject, particularly the scientific underpinnings.

The conference continued with the award ceremony for the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, a competition encouraging people to come up with ideas that help the environment by awarding $500,000 to help the winner execute their idea. This section was introduced by Niklas Zennström, the founder of KaZaa, Joost and Skype. Zennström briefly discussed the subject entrepreneurship with social impac by providing a summary of his own career, pointing out the choices he made along the way. Englishman Dean Gregory won the Green Challenge Award for his proposal of small, low-cost rooftop wind turbines

The final part of the conference schedule was reserved for Ben Ceverny, a strategist and advisor with Stamen Design who presented a series of speakers discussing The City as Interaction Platform. The premise of this central theme is that 21st century cities will be built collaboratively, which will require an “operating system” for the built environment. Cities are becoming social objects, as the examples that followed demonstrated.

Take the example presented by Greg Sibiski who works for Sense Networks, a company specializing in processing location data. Their approach to cities is from an individual point of view: how can it be made relevant for its users? They developed Citysense, an application that projects where people go in downtown San Francisco on a map based on GSM/GPS data. It shows where people are arriving and departing, providing up-to-date information on current hotspots. Another interesting application of the technology involves plotting data of when people in the financial district leave from work against the level of the Dow. 

The application allows users to divide the city into different districts based on the hour of the day: for instance, there is no financial district over the weekend, and there is no clubbing scene on Wednesday morning. Not only can you divide the city using these datasets, you can also divide its inhabitants into different groups, or tribes, by putting together a ‘lifestyle matrix.’ This way, you can predict where a person is likely to be at a particular time based on his geographic behavior.

Finally, conference host Matt Costello invited PICNIC co-founder Marleen Stikker on stage for some closing comments. As part of the the closing comments, the two briefly discussed some of the post-it notes that were left scattered around the conference area on whiteboards asking people what they would like to see for next year’s PICNIC. I was rather thrilled that my note was one of five picked to be read on stage: “Tell us more about narrative!”

A lot of the presentations this year were focused on means of entertaining and engaging people, and even means of propagating narration, but personally I’d love to hear more about actual narratives and the brilliant creative minds putting them out there. So here’s a short elaboration on my post-it note intended for the PICNIC people: please take heed of people like Steve Peters, Jan Libby, Andrea Phillips, Elan Lee and Sean Stewart as they would be amazing additions to the PICNIC program. Congratulations to all the organizers and speakers on an impressive PICNIC, and see you in 2010!