"Commit: Update system" — Prototype Fund demo day #6

“Commit — Update system” was the motto for round six of the Prototype Fund, Germany’s funding scheme for open source technology. The February 2020 demo day showcased the projects, framed in an inspirational narrative around changing society through responsible and open innovation.

I’ve written about the Prototype Fund demo day before — hard to believe that was 2.5 years ago — and my second visit was equally pleasant. The theme of the funding period it concluded could not be more current: “Commit” was all about responses to cultural, ecological and economical challenges at hand as we embark into a decade likely to be of existential importance.

Two keynotes on sustainable technology

Rather than 16 project presentations in a row, the day was structured by mixing various formats (presentations, panels, a demo floor) and thematically framed by two powerful keynotes.

Michelle Thorne kicked off the event with a brief, but topical keynote on the quest for a carbon-neutral internet. The vision of a sustainable and inclusive internet was best summarized in her quoting Toni Cade Bambara: “Make the revolution irresistible”; to commit to change, it is crucial to create a vision for future technology that is so attractive that people want to use it.

Michelle Thorne on stage with a slide showing the miniature model of the “Museum of the Fossilized Internet”.

The most memorable vehicle for the talk’s message was the presentation of a recent art project, the “Museum of the Fossilized Internet” by a team around Gabi Ivens: how would a museum exhibition in 2050 present how the people of 2020 used the internet? Essentially “burning coal to watch kitten videos on YouTube”, as Michelle put it, just before sharing the stunning fact that the five billion YouTube views of the “Despacito” music video alone are estimated to have burnt 850,000 barrels of oil. The museum, a miniature model, is a brilliant piece, featuring items such as a bitcoin mining rack or a bookshelf with a library of actual mini books containing all the 8724 pages of code from 1307 scripts required to purchase a single book of Amazon.

In the second keynote, Juliane Krüger from the “Bits & Bäume” movement for digitalization and sustainability, dissected the motto of “Commit — Update system” in a call for technology that not only will but shall change society. Walking through various aspects of sustainability, the talk framed the moral imperative that technologists have to “commit” to the common good — not just committing code to repositories but change to society.

16 very different projects

Despite each round of the Prototype Fund having a theme, the sponsored projects are always a wide range within and beyond that topic. All sixteen projects are documented on their website and I did not have the chance to familiarize myself with all of them, but if I were forced to make a subjective selection of three, the following tickled my brain the most:

Supporting community farmers

Talking about systemic change, “Growing Futures”, a platform for managing co-op farming is an outstanding example. Community-supported agriculture aims to establish sustainable modes of local farming and this open-source software’s potential from facilitating the decision-making (e.g. what to grow and how to distribute the harvest) became very obvious in the presentation. This truly is technology that can achieve societal and systemic change.

Multimodal routing

As an avid cyclist and passionate multimodal commuter, the “Multimodal Routing Engine for wheelchair users and cycle logistics” hit a nerve: the team aims to improve routing based on map data to better take into account the variety of needs different users may have and by combining different modes of transportation — wheelchair users just as much as parents with prams or companies relying on cargo bicycles. This links back to the keynote’s call for “making the revolution irresistable”: building more livable cities by replacing cars with alternative modes of transport can only succeed when (digital) infrastructure is built on inclusivity.

Solar-powered mesh networks

I barely know how to hold a soldering iron, but hacky hardware projects always inspire me. Presented on a demo table and later on stage, I was very impressed by the ingenuity of “ESP Independent Solar Energy Mesh Node Firmware”, a project creating open-sourced hardware to build an affordable and completely independent network access point. For under 100€, this solar-powered device can provide network access over geographical obstacles. Bringing connectivity to places forgotten by commercial providers and creating infrastructure that still works when external resources assumed as a given may fail — this is yet another angle on the topic of “updating the system”.

…and more

The programme of the day spread over four pages, as all 16 projects were presented at the Demo Day.

On the activist and environmental side, there were a project to foster citizen collaboration in urban development, a citizen science project on counting insects, an API to climate emissions data, a tool to assess the sustainability of electronic components, a framework for managing climate-neutral power for festivals, a tool for Wordpress admins to reduce their sites’ CO2 footprint, an additional interface layer for OpenSenseMap, an initiative to connect Luftdaten emission sensor projects.

Projects related to hardware or technical infrastructure dealt with adding encryption to Linux in sleep mode, recovering access keys with the help of a social network, enabling the new JMAP protocol in open-source e-mail app K-9 (which I happen to be a big fan of), an open API for the European banking system under the PSD2 directive, and a new approach to licensing music.

One more time!

I really enjoyed the event, the friendly conversations and — this is worth a special mention — the food provided. This once again brought tangible inspiration to keep working on an alternate technological future; always good to see how many people are active in this field.

If you are up for it, there is another chance to apply to the Prototype Fund (announced earlier as the last round, though apparently the programme will be extended for another four years): the final call for of applications is open until end of March. I have one idea on the backburner that has been in development for a while and may well sit down one of these weekends to put in an application myself.