The Great Southern Unconference 2018

Daniel McClure
Oct 30, 2018 · 10 min read

Te Hui Nui o te Tai Tonga

I was recently invited to attend The Great Southern Unconference 2018 (#GSUC) on behalf of InternetNZ. An event advertised as “A weekend for Canterbury’s thinkers, problem solvers, doers and makers.” In reaity it drew in people living all over New Zealand. This year it was hosted in The Great Hall at The Arts Centre in Christchurch.

Unconference: WTF?

If you’ve never been to an unconference before (I hadn’t), the concept is fairly open ended. Essentially you invite a bunch of, hopefully, interesting people from multiple disciplines into a room, let them set the agenda and then send them off to learn, discuss, and share.

It sounds like it might be chaos but somehow it isn’t. The organisers do some level of curation by collecting everyones ideas for talks and combining them into shared threads and posting them into an agenda that ends up looking a little something like this.

The first night opened with speech from Andrew Turner, the deputy mayor, and a few prepared presentations to get the intellectual juices flowing. There were a series of three lightning talks; a presentation of 20 slides, with 20 seconds for each. So without further ado, let’s dive in…

Opening Night: Lightning Talks

Lightning Talk #1: Kindness in Science

The first presentation was by Tammy Steeves (@testeeves) and introduced the concept of Kindness in Science. There was a whirlwind of things covered, but the key messages were that science should practice:

  • Being Kind
  • Doing Kindness
  • Vision Mātauranaga (Māori Knowledge Innovation)
  • Smarter use of self declarations
  • Kinder Metrics
  • Tackling Racial Bias

I think this talk was best summed up in the following slide/tweet:

Lightning Talk #2: What is an avocado?

The presenter, Steven Moe (@nzstevenmoe) challenged us to say what we saw whilst holding up an avocado. He argued that our perceptions can shape reality and while one might see a “tasty snack” in reality there is also a seed within, that can be grown into a tree and in turn create a whole new generation of avocados and seeds.

This metaphor was then applied to social enterprise, to challenge perceptions of exactly what they might be and mean in different circumstances. He also introduced the Seeds podcast casting light on people and projects challenging preconceptions in the Christchurch region.

A quote that really stood out from this presentation was from a biography of the poet, Allen Curnow, which I’ve re-shared below…

Lightning Talk #3: The Naked Arts

The third and final presentation as part of the lightning talks was from Audrey Baldwin, an artist attempting to connect Christchurch artists with each other and the wider community. She covered several initiatives that she had introduced or worked on such as The Social and First Thursdays.

The challenge was laid down in this presentation for the audience to help her develop a “What’s in it for me?” argument for connecting the arts with the world of business. Something that would come up again in later discussions throughout the weekend.

The Unconference Agenda

There were five session slots and four tracks throughout the conference so you could choose your own adventure. This means I can only really comment on the sessions that I attended below. Due to their unstructured initiation I applied my own titles in my notes interpreting the opening introductions for some of these sessions. The official schedule was posted alongside the topic suggestion notes online and I’ve listed these as well.

Social Enterprise & Cross-Sector Relationships

Critically examining social enterprise & entrepreneurship / Cross-section relationships

The first session began with a roundtable of everybody introducing themselves and describing their interest in the topic. There was a mixed attendance including; those involved with social enterprise, some “escaping” the corporate world, a laywer or two, and multiple others simply interested in the topic in relation to their domain.

One of the key discussions involved the value metrics behind social good, or lack there of. Many expressed frustration communicating the success of social initiatives with traditional private sector enterprises and defining a common ROI (return on investment). One avenue put forward for exploration was sROI or Social ROI. Additionally it was suggested that true alignment between organisations with shared goals and values might negate the need for certain KPIs.

Another key theme was an attempt to define what a Social Enterprise actually is. Where is the line between “giving back” and an organisation that has social good built into its very purpose? Does there even need to be a line? When it comes to both fundraising and grant allocation it seems that there might need to be at the moment. Although ultimately many hoped for a world where socially good business practice, was simply good business practice.

The key concepts and frameworks discussed at a higher level were:

How Do You Build Community?

Building thriving communities / How to get involved in community building

This session consisted of a mixture of people working within communities attempting to bring them together, and those aiming to serve and support a specific community even if they weren’t necessarily part of that community. As a point of interest it was also the first session where I noticed a gender imbalance, with a primarily female audience.

After some discussion I attempted to group the common concepts into a shared definition that appeared to be accepted by the group and I’ve re-shared below…

Many shared personal stories about community and what it meant for them or had enabled them to do and be. It was generally agreed that building a community takes a significant time and resource investment. There was a clear sense that most communities grew through self-selected key ambassadors that stood up for the community interests at large. These people were key to growth but not necessarily the only person for the job, it was more that they were the right person at the right time.

It was suggested multiple times that; how you speak and how you dress can make a large impact on how you are received, both by a community and also by those outside of the community. This can either work for or against you depending on the situation.

Building on this discussion it was noted that social media has begun to break down some of the barriers of a personal and professional concept of self. In some cases the differences in these personas can cause tension but authentic self-expression across both has the power to amplify your message.

Data Sharing: The Good & The Bad

Thank you for your data — what does ‘social licence’ mean? / Who is sharing my data

The majority of the attendees in this session seemed to have a technical background. It was initially positioned with two opposing leaders providing a positive or negative angle to the concept of data sharing, mostly in the context of local and national government.

One of the discussion points was that enforcing restrictions on the amount of data that is collected and its intended purpose is important. Often technically speaking it can be very easy to collect more than was intended, so your guidelines can practically be the only thing standing in the way of data collection and subsequent sharing.

It was noted that New Zealand doesn’t currently have a national ID system and that was contrasted with the Estonian eResident and citizen platforms. A big discussion point was the global level of trust towards governments, and how we are potentially seeing a large decline of trust. There was also some discussion of the trust that governments were putting in private corporations. This led to some enthusiastic discussion on both sides of the equation.

One of the key factors discussed in relation to trust were existing failures in de-anonymisation of data used for research purposes. The mechanics of providing consent for data collection and possible unintended consequences were also touched upon.

When the above was paired with the risk of malicious hackers breaching databases, the linking of data sets, and the presumed inadequate security levels of certain institutions, it was generally accepted that the expectation for any given data set should be, that more will leak than expected.

Interestingly the third session also swung the gender imbalance noticed in the previous session in the opposite direction. This session primarily drew a male audience.

Immersive Tech: Accessibility & Application in Education

Immersive tech in education / Accessibility and inclusion

This was one of the smaller sessions that I attended throughout the day, but there was still a healthy discussion of the current capabilities of virtual reality and mixed reality.

One of the primary concerns expressed in this discussion was that of social exclusion due to the high costs of current VR hardware and software. It was argued that this wasn’t necessarily a problem as the costs are falling rapidly. It was also put forward that not every educational experience requires hyper-realism which is what can push up the hardware price.

It was argued that in many cases, an area that requires specific attention will be minimal enough that even hobbyists could create impactful immersive experiences on cheap hardware. Some examples were shared of both high and low fidelity experiences.

There was a lot of discussion on the potential that virtual reality in particular has for therapeutic applications for people of all ages. Phobias, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Sensory Perceptual Issues were all areas that appeared to have huge potential upsides.

The key concern for those implementing immersive tech in education were less about the technology and more about the surrounding realities. A few issues that were mentioned include; training the individuals supervising the usage of immersive technology, preventing addiction & reliance, and the quirks of corporate sponsorship as the basis for tech distribution.

The Death of Democracy

Technology seems to be fueling social dynamics that are destroying democracy. What do we do? / How to build widespread engagement with political democracy amongst the young and others

I may have titled this session for dramatic effect but the topics discussed have wide ranging implications for society as a whole. Many of the threads seemed to converge on a discussion of old vs new and quite literally old vs young. Many seemed to share the opinion that politics was a cycle of the young attempting to bring in a new order with the older generation attempting to hold on to the status quo.

One argument put forward was that the introduction of modern technology to politics was creating change at such a rapid pace, that the historical cycle of generation vs generation was being sidestepped completely, leading to rapid unchecked change.

The concept of Participatory Democracy with more frequent engagement on specific issues was one of the most discussed alternatives to the current system. This was likened to the democratic system in Switzerland but also discussed more generally in an attempt to define how it might look in a modern New Zealand.

Whilst discussing technological forces, it was also suggested that there were several large corporations who potentially wield more money and power than certain nation states. It was also suggested that some of these companies may benefit financially from increased uncertainty in politics.

On the subject of uncertainty, a common worry amongst attendees seemed to be an apparent rise in mob mentality facilitated by the internet. Open data in government and financial transparency were some tools suggested at the national level to gain trust and demonstrate accountability.

As the discussion moved to how technology might empower citizens to become more directly involved with politics, the Precautionary Principle was introduced for consideration when suggesting radical or even experimental changes.

Several technologists went even further as to suggest extreme caution when it comes to e-voting systems. It also was highlighted that users should always come first when deciding mechanisms (i.e. What do we want? vs What can we do?) and it was agreed that direct internet access shouldn’t be considered a requirement for participating in democracy.

Food for Thought

The discussions in just the sessions that I attended were enough to keep one thinking and conducting further research for weeks on end. When you consider that there were four different tracks at all times we definitely covered a lot of ground.

That is why I have to take a moment to thank the team for keeping us all full of energy by providing one of the most considerate and comprehensive catering services that I’ve seen at an event of this scale. It almost seemed as if every permutation of dietary requirement was catered for and on top of that it all tasted amazing!

Closing Thoughts

There is a time for thought and there is a time for action. After spending the weekend discussing big ideas, it was humbling to take a few moments reviewing some of the big names and collectives that have shaped our shared history, now memorialised on the walls of The Great Hall. I wonder how many thoughts formed over the weekend will persist, which of these will lead to action, and ultimately what unlikely chain of events might have been sparked in that very room.

There was such a wealth of ideas and a maze of opinions that it would be impossible for me to do it justice in a single blog post. I’ve done my best to formalise and share my notes, but no doubt I’ve missed points or interpreted certain aspects in my own way.

If you didn’t make it to this one then I’d strongly suggest you connect with the people publishing online through the #GSUC hashtag. And if you get the opportunity to attend in future I’d strongly suggest that you do so. It was an awesome experience and it was great to connect with so many knowledgable people happy to share outside of their usual network.

Until next time — Kia ora!

Originally published at Daniel McClure.

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