Engineering an ‘Effective Political Narrative’

I’m writing this because I am concerned. I am concerned that after Brexit and after Trump, the Netherlands is going to be next in line for a populist victory. And after that we still have France and Germany to worry about. In the face of this prospect I am not so much concerned about the minute differences in between the programs that the center parties want to carry out. I do worry about the polls and about being caught in our own echo-chamber and filter bubble because we’ve already been fooled twice. And I don’t blame any of the voters. Even the non-voters I sympathize with, because I understand how you can fall out of love with politics. But you should vote! This affects you and your engagement matters!

Francis Bacon once said “knowledge is power”. And in politics this is not so much knowledge of the facts but rather knowledge about what moves people. Truth, if there is such an absolute, doesn’t matter as much as world view. This is hard to digest for an engineer or other people schooled in exact sciences. They themselves like to reason and thus expect other people to act based on the facts (the rational actor model). Fact: Oil is running out. Fact: The climate changes because we burn fossil fuels. But voters don’t vote based on facts, they vote their beliefs and values. I talked to a friend even yesterday who acknowledged the fact that he would vote for a party that had proposals that were against his self-interest (the kilometer tax on cars) but fit his more social view of the world. Thus, in politics, not knowledge but the story that best fits voters’ world view is power. I am sad that for this reason, very smart people like engineer Anne-Wil Lucas are leaving politics disillusioned. I want to help the engineers that are still IN politics.

I read George Lakoff’s ‘Metaphors we live by’ and ‘The all new Don’t Think of an Elephant’ in which he explains how our world view is shaped by frames and metaphors. With that knowledge I’ve already started tearing away at how we do business in my previous blogs, because we frame business with the concept of a battle in which there is but one winner. I got interested in professor Lakoff after seeing him appear on the Disruptive Innovation Festival by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (re-watch here) I was interested because as an engineer I feel the need to systematically understand what is happening with the rise of populism. As a circular entrepreneur I have to understand how politicians can still deny climate change and get votes. And that is what prof Lakoff explains.

Climate change is a complex phenomenon that overall leads to the earth getting hotter but locally means that the weather gets more extreme. More extreme colds and rainfall are also within that scope. Simple cause and effect relations don’t cut it at this point. It’s not something you can immediately point at and say: “Look, that’s climate change!”. This is a problem because the natural way we’ve learned to understand the world while growing up is by simple cause and effect relationships and this is embedded in our brain. Even people with a scientific education do not immediately think beyond these simple structures when they are presented with an issue in daily life. It takes time to understand a complex phenomenon. So to make decisions when people are presented with issues to complex to understand they revert to how it fits within their world view.

Professor Lakoff mostly talks about conservatives and progressives and how different kinds of family models (the strict father and the nurturant parent) represent the concepts on which these two sides base their world view. But what are the concepts that the Dutch base their values and beliefs on? (loosely translated to Dutch: normen en waarden) The important thing is to focus in on what all Dutch share in common and then frame the issues, like climate change and immigration, to positively correlate with those views.

Here is a list of a few things that the Dutch believe in and how they translate into values and behaviors.

  • Respect and Tolerance. All cultures are welcome if they agree to play along to our rules. We also tolerate weed and prostitution.
  • Equality and Humility. The Dutch prime minister makes an effort to go to to work on the bike. Women can pick up the check as well. If you act normal, you’re acting crazy enough.
  • Freedom and Honesty. We have the right to say what we want. Being direct is being honest. But don’t tell us what we can or cannot do. Then we’ll start an argument about our rights.
  • Hospitality. We give people coffee and maybe cookies when they visit but don’t expect them to stay for dinner.

And perhaps less universal but quite defining for the Dutch:

  • Moderation and Drudgery. From Calvinism. We’re smart to save up or save on expenses. We earn our money. Governments or banks take our money? That’s when we start protesting.
  • Chumminess. We like consensus. As a small country we have had to negotiate and adopt different positions to become wealthy. We’re a traders nation.

These beliefs are also the reason why it was very hard to accept for Dutch people that the Sinterklaas holiday is a racist tradition. It did not fit with their views of themselves being tolerant. The facts were not intentionally ignored but systematically; a kind of cognitive dissonance.

Of course immigration and integration is a hugely important issue that needs to be discussed. We need to help people in need. But the way that the right and populists have framed it has become the dominant point of discussion. The right says: “They are coming here to profit from our social system. They don’t work.” or paradoxically “They are coming to take our jobs. They don’t follow our rules.” The reaction of the left and the socials has been mostly to ridicule the party leaders instead of what they should have been doing: Framing the issue positively in their own language. By merely negating the other side’s points you are reinforcing their frame. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Geert Wilders knew this when he asked whether people wanted “less or more Moroccans in the Netherlands” and all the outrage it caused. Ridicule only strengthens him more.

Recently, our prime minister sent out an open letter in which he asks people to “act normal”. The tone of voice was very noticeably like the one that Geert Wilders has been using. It plays into the displeased and fearful sentiments in a populist way.


He has appeared on live TV in front of an audience of inquisitive politicology students and  from 11:40 onwards reacts to this. At 19:50 he reacts to a question about “normalcy” and doesn’t give quite a coherent answer but starts listing democratic values. Then at 26:30 once more he’s tackled quite fiercely. From about 40:00 I am personally happy that the students raise the plastic issue. In 1:00:40 he even argues that there is such a thing as “good populism” and even makes in my opinion a valid point about listening to the disillusioned who vote for the PVV.

But what doesn’t happen is positive framing. For example what other cultures BRING us. I think we can learn a lot from the much more hospitable Islamic cultures. Do we even want just coffee and cookies (no dinner) to be the way we receive each other? Also, from the Islam, people learn that bread should not be wasted and therefore bakers feed their leftovers to the birds. Again, unfortunately, people do not see the systemic effects; that it causes proliferation of rats and such in the city. But the principle of not wasting resources is good in itself. That’s why collaboration with small scale initiatives that make bread to gas machines is a good spin on this. Another systemic effect that we mostly ignore is that the displacement of people happens because climate change is the driver for conflict. Are we not all responsible then to receive them?

In the end the elections will unfortunately not be won on topics of climate, energy and other technical topics like information security so it’s not that strange that De Ingenieur concluded that on these topics there is a consensus throughout the parties. The PVV did not even react to their inquiry. Bu these technological subjects ARE drivers for what happens in the world. They create better economies or cause displacement of people. So besides political engagement with our own positively formulated frames, us engineers just have to continue to work on world-bettering technologies and lobby for their implementation.

On the 15th of March, the day of the elections, I will be discussing this once more with a group of fellow interested learners of human communication. Please comment and let me know if you would like to attend on the 15th, because it is a private meetup. And don’t forget: political engagement is not only something to do just before the elections, it’s something we need to do consistently.

3D printing products for ‘the inbetweeners’

I think the simplest and most basic products can be the most wonderful and beautiful because in fact, it is easy to make things complicated but it required a lot of effort and perseverance to make simple things that just work. When people are displaced and have to deal with extreme situations those basic products become really important. Therefore, looking at the core relief items provided by the UNHCR, I wonder about the design process and the choices that were made by the product designers of these items. Lucky for me I was able to speak to the product manager at Alpinter, one of the suppliers, during our Core Relief workshop in Lesvos.

A summarizing video of our workshop on Lesvos.

Obviously, one of the crucial things, and one that both the UNHCR and Alpinter have seemed to solve, is to be able to supply these products in time and to the key stops on the routes that the displaced take, hoping to get asylum in Europe. Considering the large number of people, to be able to respond within the critical 72 hours of an emergency with hundreds if not thousands of items is nothing short of impressive. This was in fact, recently needed as one of the camps on Lesvos was ravaged by a fire. I might have been invited as a workshop coach an additive manufacturing (3d printing) expert to the Core Relief workshop but I’m also an industrial designer who appreciates the effectiveness of mass manufacturing.


Brainstorm: What would you take with you if you suddenly had to flee your home, and how long would it last?

Having visited the hospitality camp of Kara Tepe in Lesvos, we realized that the needs of people, once they are beyond the emergency situation, are not just basic anymore. Lots of different situations and behaviors occur just like in normal communal life, except that, because the visitors are basically living in the state of the UN, the rules and regulations are stricter. The one-year warrantee of the shelter unit implies that people will be there only for a short while. But actually, since Europe is not letting people in that easily, people are using it far beyond its warrantee. Needing also shade in the summer, the visitors damage the housing units in their attempts to attach nets and tarpaulins, at the same time creating a fire hazard. For this, the participants came up with the idea for a hook that can be attached at the same points where the screws attached the walls of the unit.


Early model of the idea for a hook for attaching nets and tarpaulins to the Better Shelter housing unit. Find the files on our thingiverse.

One of the goals we set out for ourselves was to extend the functionalities of the basic items in order to meet these not-so-basic needs. And what better way to customize and hack things than with a 3d-printer? With it, we could quickly create adapters for both the (flexible) jerrycan and the shelter unit that allowed these products to better meet the needs of the users- of ‘the inbetweeners’- and the problems that the implementing partners, like Samaritan’s Purse, of these products face. I really encouraged our participants to get into the minds of their users, imagine scenarios, and even though we could not do research with the actual users themselves, we did have an expert who had gone through the journey himself.


Our expert Aws Idris of UNRWA being tested upon with the flexible jerrycan which, with a 3d printed adapter, can now be used as a breather device. Find the files on our thingiverse.

Being the appointed expert on additive manufacturing, I know almost all the different techniques and possibilities but the cost and access to these techniques, also in preparation to the workshop still prove difficult beyond the oh-so affordable desktop FDM machines. Even though 3d printing is taking off in urban metropoles and Athens is no exception, the availability of printers or to share in production capacity, like the 3dhubs website allows for, is still not up to par with other sharing economy initiatives. I am happy that 2 FDM printers are now with Aris of LATRA Design on Lesvos with the goal of humanitarian aid. And, as I said, aid is not only basic needs. I gave a workshop 3d printing to 6 Syrian teenagers who were bored out of their minds because their status did not allow them to do any work on the island.


Picking out things to print from Thingiverse with the Syrian teenagers.

The printers right now, in the innovation lab at Kara Tepe, are still playing the role of a prototyping machine at the beginning and reiteration of the product development and innovation process. They basically allow our group of dedicated professionals to learn about humanitarian aid and what it takes to make simple things that just work. I am confident though, that in even more low-resource settings these printers can also become manufacturing machines. Or, as printing technology advances, they actually become mass manufacturing/customization tools like the Carbon3D attempts to. In any case, the fact that we share our findings and designs online will allow other people and professionals to appropriate them to their needs. I am confident that it can inspire their designers and implementers to continue to innovate in products for the displaced and the inbetweeners.

See also my presentation on Slideshare: an introduction to the state of the art in 3d printing for the participants of the workshop. (slightly edited for the general public)

Let’s redefine what matters!

Sustainability is dead, long live sustainability

‘Sustainability’ for established enterprises has become little more than ‘compliance’ in the face of environmental regulations that are very slowly being implemented by only the most progressive governments- because we all know that the climate agreements aren’t binding. When the economy takes a downturn, say because of loss of industry because of resource depletion, policies are paradoxically instead aimed at making people consume more because our economic model only works when there’s growth in GDP. Although it seems that the media is full of attention for the environmental crisis it is probably my #echo-chamber because the numbers show that the environmentally conscious consumer is still outnumbered. That means that the (targeted) marketing budget only has to be spent on keeping people like me thinking everything is going the right way. But I know the price of a product is still the most important factor most of the time and by choosing only cheap products the true costs thereof are externalized and will be paid for in the future. And I don’t blame the consumer. I own mostly second hand stuff that I repair when needed and I get my energy from local producers but I just can’t make all the right choices when I’m in the supermarket and need an app for every product I buy to check if it’s sustainable.

The word ‘sustainability’ itself does not fit the situation we find ourselves in because not only will we not be able to keep up business as usual, we’re going to face huge challenges even if we decide to change. Read Josh Kearns’ post post so I don’t need to repeat it. The Brundtland definition that dates back to 1987 (meeting our current needs without compromising the future generation’s needs) has been torn apart by philosopher / professor Harro van Lente in his inaugural speech in 2010. He states that needs, or rather ‘wants’, are created by an interplay of governments, enterprises and researchers. Technological advancements like the smartphone with 24/7 internet access is now the thing that people being displaced by the conflict in Syria most ‘need’ to get across borders. Millennials like me (1985) however don’t ‘need’ to own a car anymore as a status thing because we can share them. Rather it’s the pics and vids of the experiences we are able to show on our social media profiles that define our status. And we would like to sustain these experiences, like flights to exotic destinations that are still dependent on fossil fuels. When we see the next big displacements it will be people seeking refuge from climate disaster that come from said exotic destinations, there will be a lot more of them and we will have to act more humanely than we do now.

Kosi Floods - IndiaAccessed 17 October on

Circular economy is the new black

There is a new word for sustainability and it’s ‘circular economy’. Though not a new concept, it has been successfully revived in 2010 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, including as well the school of thought of Cradle to Cradle (2002). And businesses are getting on board as we can see from the growing list of partners on the foundation’s website, because the circular economy is finally a lot clearer on how to meet the company’s bottom line: people, planet, profit. McKinsey calculated in September 2015 that Europe could have a net benefit of 1.8 Trillion EUR by 2030 from transitioning to circular economy practices so the EU followed up with its slightly unambitious Circular Economy package in which it promised 650 million from the Horizon 2020 program and 5.5 billion from “structural funds for waste management”. Personally, I think the reasons businesses and especially multinationals- but then again who doesn’t have a global supply chain- are so interested is mostly the threat of scarcity of resources in the light of geopolitical instability; it will be safer and cheaper to source your stuff locally; mining it from the landfills or extracting valuable metals from bottom ash from incinerators. It seems more like a risk management strategy than stewardship of nature or a plan for social equality. I’m all for quantifying the economic benefits because that is what gets people moving but unfortunately we’re still not measuring the right units. When I think of the e-waste dumped in Ghana and the people living on mountains of plastic in India, I state that: we would not have any waste if there was no social inequality and disregard for the environment in the countries where we make and/or discard our stuff.

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Data is the new Oil

An interesting remark from Jeremy Rifkin in ‘the zero marginal cost society’ is that “there are no examples in history where people have created markets before they created a culture”. Culture is thus a prerequisite for an economy. Jaron Lanier prophesied that people living under the poverty line could earn more than their daily income just by being a user on the web. Sounded utopian when I first heard it. Just the things a person does online is worth that much per day. It is one reason why Silicon Valley VC’s are investing astronomical amounts in their next would-be ‘unicorn’, pardon my use of jargon. Then came Facebook who wanted to offer “free” internet to the people of India, but thankfully the government knew “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. At the end of the day, the large tech monopolies whether they’re offering social media or sharing-economy services have to answer to their shareholders and their bottom line is profit. If Shell is depriving people of their nature then Facebook is commodifying their culture. Sharing economy platforms like Airbnb and Snappcar are great but would be much better if they were a organized as a cooperative in which the people using the platform actually had a ‘share’.
And it happens at smaller scales as well. I did a small experiment of which I already had a pretty strong guess of the outcome. Albert Heijn keeps track of my purchases through a promotional program (offering discounts) so they can bombard me with advertisements but I’m not allowed to have insight into my own data so I can manage my expenditures. See below.


Change the game, not the player

We need to fundamentally change the way we do business with respect for each other and for nature. ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu (China, 500 BC) was an inspiration for business strategists and is still being taught in business schools. By using this conceptual metaphor (read George Lakoff), reasoning in terms of fighting a battle- winning a game- a mutually beneficial outcome is implicitly excluded. Why should only one side profit? We are too often not aware of how we have built knowledge on top of other knowledge, how traditions have shaped our language, and how this shapes our thinking and way of doing business. Joris Luyendijk concluded in his book “Dit kan niet waar zijn” (“This can’t be true”), an in-depth investigation in ‘the City’ in London and the cause of the financial crash, that not all bankers are greedy but that the incentives in the banking system are perverse- you could call them “bugs”. I think it is a failure of describing the criteria for a system to reflect our current-day actual values, rather basing them on ancient ones, thus we are programming in moral and ethical assumptions into the systems that govern our digital (thus also financial) world. And because us consumers simply need these services we do not read the long and ambiguous terms of use and blindly agree to play along.
But imagine if I could automatically have insight into everything I bought at Albert Heijn and not only that, I would directly pay the producer (farmer), could see what the origin of the product was, check it’s environmental rating and be able to do this without needing an account with one of today’s main banks. Blockchain is the game-changing technology that will make this possible. Although it must be said that also banks are for long experimenting with it and there are still some hurdles to be taken while trying to implement it (see picture), it does offer the opportunity to build up systems from the ground up and in a collaborative, peer-to-peer way like Rifkin and also Bauwens imagine.

1cjvvbAdvanced reading into the hurdles for blockchains (specifically Ethereum and the DAO):,
Also see my mention of blockchain in one of my previous posts on the sustainability of computing.

Don’t just recycle. Redefine and then Redesign!

Like with computer systems, the unwanted effects of products (let’s say waste) are best attributed to a design fault and are the result of not taking into account the full scope of scenarios that can occur. Victor Papanek would agree. My first projects as an entrepreneur, like the Perpetual Plastic Project, were very much based on starting to see where materials would be unnecessarily lost, like plastic coffee cups being thrown into the mixed waste bins and sent to the incinerator, and thinking how to make an intervention by remaking something from them. Abbie Hoffman in 1967 called this “F’ing the System”. In his pamflet and later in his book “Steal this book” he described how to live of the waste- basically free stuff- in New York city like, for example, eating leftover fruit from the market that would otherwise be thrown away. That saves you and the waste management money and replaces the need for new fruit. It’s basically shifting resources out of an area of lower value into one of higher yield which is Peter Drucker’s definition of an entrepreneur. But with the staggering amounts of the ubiquitous PET bottle that are being produced, projects like WOOF&WOW make clever use of freely available material and put the process and profit in the hands of the people but are a bandaid on the wound when it comes to the environmental problem. The fault lies in the fact that the bottle has been designed to last forever while it’s only used for a short while and there is no way to make certain that it doesn’t end up in nature. The industry should really be producing plant bottles that enrich the soil or marine environment they end up in, rather then destroy it. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative is great for aligning the industry but it needs redesigns like this to fill in the blanks.

Let’s stop buying into sustainable myths like the brown paper bag or bamboo phone cases and consider things from a system level. Let’s be respectful yet critical towards old institutions and demand our fair share of data and insight from the new elite in silicon valley. Let’s learn to love all the things climate can’t change (Josh Fox, 2016). Let’s be bold and be the change we want to see in the world because we’ve never been more connected and empowered than now. Let’s redefine what matters!

What the industry should be making.