Think-About! – a tech conference unique in concept and execution

Sebastian Greger

A tech conference focusing not only on technology and design, but on social impact and responsibility – when I first heard about the new Think-About! conference, the ticket was an almost instant purchase. And the event turned out to even exceed my already high expectations. This is hands down my new favourite conference.

Think-About! takes place again in 2020: Cinenova Cologne, 4/5 JuneFind out moreThink-About! is a conference organised by a small team of three with high ambitions, a clear vision, and humble expectations, taking place in Cologne for the first time this year:

Think About! is a tech conference which focuses not only on technology but also on design and their social impact. It creates a safe and inspirational space for everyone, and we really mean everyone.
Our belief is that society needs diversity in order to continue a healthy and critical dialogue. For this reason, we want to bring together diverse individuals and enable them to challenge themselves and each other.

The front desk of the conference
The atmosphere and interior design of Think-About! 2019 felt very welcoming.

I first heard about the event through two of the keynote speakers they had secured: Laura Kalbag and Aral Balkan tweeted about this event and I was sold: the event’s concept bridges the three areas of my professional interests – the web, design practice, as well as social impact and responsibility.

One of the most inclusive events I’ve ever attended

But it was not only the topics and speakers that appealed. The conference was aiming very high in every aspect. Diversity, inclusiveness, a friendly atmosphere – all these goals were reflected by a comprehensive code of conduct and in many of the details: from vegan-first lunches to the ethical principles in regards to personal data, a lot of thought had obviously gone into creating this concept. Last but not least, I was genuinely impressed by the openness in regards to the operational side of the event.

And from all that I’ve seen, it truly worked. Many attendees I talked to agreed: it is hard to believe the team managed to achieve their goals to this degree as first-timers. They created an event that was not just defined to be open and inclusive, but that actually felt like it. Not least because an event like this obviously attracts a certain crowd (and everybody had agreed to the code of conduct in advancee), this was a space to feel safe, meet friendly people and get inspired by an impressive line-up of speakers. Ultimately, the fact that it all took place in a cinema with comfortable seats and bottomless popcorn was just the cherry on top.

An old camping trailer in the yard, marked as
The “silent space”, a nice touch for some and a necessity for others – just one of the many inclusive features at Think-About!

Along with gender-neutral bathrooms, a “silent space” camping trailer in the sunny back yard, and many other details, one of my favourite ideas were the pre-arranged “dinner dates” with some of the speakers. And as two of them turned out to be particularly popular, the dinners were spontaneously merged into one – this is how lived inclusiveness looks like. And it turned into a very nice evening at a local Asian restaurant.

A note inviting attendees to sign up for dinner with the speakers
I hadn’t seen this on other conferences before; lovely idea!

Not your usual tech conference line-up

Yet, all the organisational details aside, what made the biggest impression was the selection of talks. And talking about inclusiveness: the diversity of the speakers – in terms of gender, age, background, experience, and many other aspects – was nothing short of impressive.

I am not generally a friend of multi-track conferences, but with three thematic tracks (Tech-Design-Society) in two theatres, this worked surprisingly well; as a matter of fact, I believe this was the ideal format for this conference. The schedule was carefully designed to avoid overlap of thematically similar talks and to always provide at least one talk in English. For me, choosing the right talks did not cause a big headache.

Chrissi and Jakob Holderbaum on stage
The organizers and hosts of the event, Chrissi and Jakob, in their opening session.

Here is a brief summary of the talks I attended (the complete coverage, incl. videos of most talks, is available online).

Linda Rising

“Start off with a bang”, they say, and I could not have thought of a better person to do that than Linda Rising. As Laura Kalbag writes: “I’ve been in the wrong circles because I hadn’t heard of her work.” Same here, but I am glad I have now – and have been recommending this talk to many people since.

I loved Linda’s humble way of presenting her impressive career, and her constant reminder to e-mail her to get the slides and give this talk ourselves. “The Power of an agile mindset” is a call to maintain a flexible mindset, allow failure and above all ensure granting this flexibility to the young generation. This talk truly set the tone for the entire conference.

Sebastian Golasch

“Intranet of things”, Sebastian’s talk on the Tech track was a great example of the fusion at this conference: while ostensibly about his cloudless smart home hacking, this talk had so much social critique and reflection. Following a narrative from “we are all cheap products in someone else’s notebook” to “build products that value our ethics”, he showed how a centralised cloud is by no means an inevitable element in creating smart technology.

Aly Blenkin

Aly’s talk “Understanding the consequences of our design choices” was full of examples on (sometimes unintended) consequences of design, and strategies to bake ethical reflection into processes. No point in trying to summarize this talk in one paragraph, but definitely a recommendation to watch must-see for anybody working in design or tech.

Wilhelm Rinke

Presenting in German, Wilhelm from Berliner Ideenlabor gave an interesting presentation about speculative design. I yet have to revisit this one and dive deeper into their publication on the topic, but his framing of speculative design “not as a form of art but as an experimental approach to design” stuck with me. Also, using the term “future” in plural (“Zukünfte”, i.e. futures) is something worth adopting: no matter how much the tech industry wants to make believe, there is never just one future we are desgining for.

Jenz Mau

“Highway to the Dangerzone – Wieso es notwendig ist die Comfortzone zu verlassen” is one of the talks that showed the value of an unconventional understanding of a “tech conference”. A first-time speaker, with an incredibly personal and individual story that was neither about coding nor about designing but about personal growth, Jenz captured the audience in this theatre for 45 minutes in an inspiring and relatable way. I wish ever more tech conferences will gain the courage to give a stage to such unconventional talks.

Eriol Fox

I’ve written about this talk before, as Eriol had presented it at IxDA Berlin earlier. Still one of my favourite talks this year.

Laura Kalbag and Aral Balkan

Hallway with door to a theatre, indicating the next talks on a digital display
There’s something special about a conference in a cinema; having the talks indicated above the door like movies makes for a very nice touch.

Day two, too, started with a bang; and one that did not have to hide behind Linda’s opening the morning before. “Small tech” combined a critical assessment of the state of privacy in tech today (Laura again had some wonderful examples to illustrate just how messed up these things are) with their ongoing work on “small tech” as an alternative to the big tech monopolists.

I deeply appreciate Laura and Aral’s work, so this was not a hard sell, but I very much liked the format of the keynote as it not only framed the problem, but aimed at proposing (and even demoing) a solution. Just complaining is not enough, we need to prototype alternative futures – I believe this was a very fitting message for the second day of Think-About! 2019.

Emma Arfelt

In “Privacy in software: How to design and implement privacy by default” Emma shared insight from teaching young adults and reframed the “digital natives” as “digital naïves”. The latter half of the talk contained a range of very concrete takeaways on how to design for privacy – rooted in her earlier summary of how people encounter technology. (Note to self: I still should summarize these in a separate post.)

Eileen Wagner

After another delicious lunch break in the sun, Eileen’s talk was an almost seamless continuation of the theme before, looking at concrete design questions. In “Designing for security”, she presented the often poor UX of security-related interfaces and investigated why that is the case. Most importantly, though, she delivered a range of hands-on means to improve on making security easier to understand and maintain by users.

Gerri Buchegger

The late second afternoon of a two-day conference is a tough spot, with brains already overloaded with ideas and information and ever more attendees taking a time-out in the yard. Still, Gerri Buchegger’s “Produkte gegen die eigene Moral – Über Kognitive Dissonanz im Produktdesign” managed to capture the audience with an intriguing and well-researched talk, presented with an Austrian touch that I deeply enjoyed.

Building a bridge from the psychological concept of “cognitive dissonance” to design decisions, Gerri highlighted the “incredible ethical responsibility” of the designer, and presented strategies to recognize and overcome this inner conflict: by changing realities ourselves, by changing our environment and by stopping to use excuses.

Vimla Appadoo

There would have been no better closing keynote speaker for this conference than Vimla Appadoo. Again a very personal and at times touching story of her own journey, “Design, Diversity and Tech – How to use your power”, Vimla’s keynote stood out with her key message:

We so often focus on what we do that we forget who we are.

Once again, I think this is a special trait of this conference. It is not just about doing, but in bringing together talks about technology, design, and society, the true dialog it wants to stir is to enable reflections on the role of the individual and their actions in this triptych. The final keynote tied this together with her thoughts on diversity and privilege.

Vimla Appadoo on stage
“Have the courage to be disliked” is probably one of the most valuable pieces of advice in our times.

What I took home

I had to run to the station before the final words of the organisers, but once I was seated for my four-hour train ride back, I felt euphorical. This conference tickled my brain in so many ways, and in a much more pleasant way than other conferences have. I believe it was the significant amount of speculative work, of small steps rather than great success stories, of cricital and often self-critical assessments of what designers and technologists have created, and the space to discuss these in a safe and diverse environment. And a refreshing absence of marketing speak and sales bs – this was about substance, not selling.

“Mind utterly blown”, I stated under my photo posted from the train, and even weeks later this still holds true. I can’t wait for the second edition in 2020, and look forward to once again have my mind blown in such a pleasant environment. Sarah, Laura and many others seem to agree.