Meet the “Mayor” of this dam digital city, Marleen Stikker is the Director and CEO of the Waag Society, godmother to the PICNIC network and founder of the Amsterdam Media Guild, to mention just a few of her accomplishments. She is, quite simply, an integral piece of the creative spirit that permeates the city we like to call home. AmsterDO wanted to dig a little deeper and to discover what the future may hold for Marleen, with her many (many, many…) associated initiatives, projects and digital disruptions, and were fortunate enough to catch up with her at Waag HQ shortly after the 7th Annual PICNIC festival hosted at the Eye film museum during September.
The Waag Society emerged from an informal collective of media enthusiasts and technology hackers, originally identifiable as the “Society for New and Old Media”, but rebranded upon their successful bid to move into the Waag building on the Nieuwmarkt. The Waag, translated to English, means “the weighing house”, and seemed to metaphorically encapsulate the collective identity of its new inhabitants, so they adopted the name and kept the Society. Now it functions as a cultural research and innovation hub that develops media applications in various domains of society; including health care, culture and education, with the crosspollination of new and old media still very much intertwined within the DNA of the Waag Society and Marleen herself.
She is keen to promote the history of the building itself, which has, at various times functioned as a guildhall, museum, fire station and anatomical theater, with the latter allowing the general public to purchase tickets in order to witness operations and dissections. To bear witness to such ‘displays’ was, in the 17th century, to be standing on the frontiers of science and technology, and to be participating in the development of new knowledge and critical thinking… a philosophy that the Waag Society continues to promote and nurture today.
“What we do is always in a public environment, it’s always participation of people, and not a lab positioned outside of society… it’s inside society”
Upon being quizzed on her motivations for initiating the PICNIC network in 2006, it seems there are obvious parallels with the emergent nature of her previous initiatives, combined with a keen eye for spotting trends (as well as talents), and a confidence to follow her intuitions. Back then, people were only just beginning to recognise that Amsterdam was a fertile plane for technologies as well as content, but Marleen and co-PICNIC founder Bas Verhart (Media Republic) saw that in the combination of these lay a breeding ground for creative technological solutions to current events and the major questions and concerns that face a modern society.
“We thought it would be good to stage an event that would give an identity to this international group of new media enthusiasts. Profiling and organising this field within Amsterdam itself, and taking it to the international scene.”
By bringing a new dimension to the traditional tech conference, PICNIC attracts a complete mash-up of backgrounds
from technology addicts and engineers to content creators, hence the original title of cross media week, and continues to provide a platform for bringing together established academics and businesses with NGO’s, researchers and even a sprinkling of internet guru and celebrity. It truly is a cross industry event, with technology very much at the core of the broad range of themes that span across medical, defence, education, culture, aerospace and engineering… (pssst… don’t forget printed media!). From the very first days it’s been an overwhelming success, solidifying the realisation and experience of having common interests and similar motivations to your peers when attending a PICNIC. The theme and two keywords of this year have been: New Ownership, the very essence of what is occurring in the world around us right now. The event sold out on both days at the Eye film museum and housed twice as many participants than PICNIC’s previous home at NDSM wharf. The fantastic architecture and unique character of Amsterdam’s newest attraction really amplified the PICNIC vibe, coupled with a picturesque location overlooking the IJ harbour. By the end, PICNIC attendees had only one shared concern, in that there were simply too many inspirational and provocative speakers, workshops and exhibitions to see everything… oh well, it’s a good job that most of the talks and lectures were recorded and archived, check out some here with Layar.
“It’s a real PICNIC – everybody brings something… and gets something out of it”
The Waag Society is best described as an ecosystem, complete with its component parts, including a research foundation, incubator and the PICNIC platform itself. All these three things are independent entities with their own specific mission and governance, but (co)operate as a single machine. More specifically, the incubator acts as a platform to nurture seedling companies, many of which began life as an idea, researched and developed within the Waag research foundation, in collaboration with third parties… and Fablab. It seems complicated, but in reality it’s a very pragmatic, efficient and effective model, in that the Waag Society can support and promote these initiatives in-house throughout their entire conception and development. For the Waag the mission is to empower people and help society to organise their lives. Sometimes technologies do not help, so it matters how we design, and that it’s for real people, seeking real solutions to significant problems. Now that technology is in the hands of the masses and
networked (internet connected), people can start companies and initiate social enterprises that rethink government, rethink industry or even rethink factories. For example, the 3D printing movement is, in a way, distributed factories; everything changes from that perspective, and the world needs to adapt to this, and even rethink its own reality, existence and purpose.
“The disruptive factor, which helps us reorganise and take this new ownership, and make it realistic… it’s not just a wish, it’s really happening.”
We, that’s myself and the Chief (…editor!), had a very proactive workshop with 7 Scenes, (a mobile storytelling platform) which really got the creative juices flowing early at the Monday morning kick-off, and has proven useful as we are in the process of designing the AmsterDO app. Platforms like this aid us in incorporating educational value and provide a usable testbed for rapid prototyping. So it was equally nice to bump into Ronald Lenz at Waag HQ. As we later found out, 7 scenes is one of the very start ups being supported by the Waag ecosystem, and a living, breathing case study of what the infrastructure that the Waag Society have worked so hard to build can, and has achieved.
“Trade, in a sense of knowledge and exchange of values, of course… not only of information and ideas, but to also make it practical, just to act, so we can act now, not tomorrow… NOW!”
So what does the future hold for Marleen and her co creators? Apart from taking PICNIC to New York, Brazil and Hong Kong, of course. Marleen wishes for our city of Amsterdam to BE the PICNIC platform… and continue to be the leading digital city in terms of content, technology and creativity. This year saw the city host (mostly free) OFF PICNIC events on the previous Sunday at venues including Nemo, ARCAM, Waag, Toren Overhoeks, NIMk, DUS Architecten and the OBA Library, so that everyone can bring something to the feast and take something valuable away with them. There are still lots of hidden treasures to be found in this city, an observation echoed by us here at AmsterDO, so we hope that we can work together to reveal not only the popular cultural places but also insights into the creative spaces and talents of our beloved city.
This year saw Marleen achieve one of her lifetime goals, in having a socratic dialogue with one of her heroes Tim O’Reilly. Back in 1993, Marleen read one of Tim’s books, on the technologies, languages and infrastructure that went on to describe and create the internet… the rest, we can say, is history. This particular session preceded the encore of the PICNIC festival, and was completely experimental, which worked out even better than predicted (or should I say intended?), and what Marleen now affectionately refers to as the sculptural dialogue.
It has been an honour and a privilege to share a coffee and conversation with one of Amsterdam’s very own heroes, and
we hope that there are many more stories to be written, and objectives to be achieved for Marleen…
So, as the mayor of this dam digital city… we salute you, and
wish you the very best success in the future.
For the latest events and information from The Waag Society see: www.waag.org/events