Ai Weiwei, Innovating Africa and Political Memes: A Look Back at re:publica 13

By David Knight |

With only a few weeks to go until re:publica 14, we’re taking a look back at the highlights of last year’s event.

An analysis of the then-current situation of open data and open government in Germany from Lorenz Matzat of OpenDataCity and how Africa is innovating from the viewpoint of Erik Hersman, the founder of iHub and Ushahidi who was raised in both Sudan and Kenya: It was quite a start to re:publica 13 at Station Berlin once the official opening was over.

Thousands of people would go on to enjoy the three days of the event in some glorious sunshine, listening to talks, discussions, workshops and action sessions, and doing some serious neworking.

The themes of the digital festival – which had the motto IN/SIDE/OUT – were wide-ranging and thought-provoking. Elsewhere on the first day alone, there was how effective the Internet is as a machine for learning, an Icelandic MP describing how her country passed up the opportunity to create the first-ever truly crowdsourced constitution, a discussion of how children interact with the Web involving people who actually help shape how kids use the Internet, and much more.

Photo: Gregor Fischer/re:publica 2013

Yoani Sanchez. Photo: Gregor Fischer/re:publica 2013

The talk which perhaps sticks most in the mind was that of Yoani Sanchez. A blogger and activist from Cuba, she told a raptured audience about her experiences battling the Communist authorities on the Caribbean island. I wrote about it afterwards, and those paragraphs told a remarkable story:

In November 2009, Yoani Sanchez was walking down the street in Havana with two other bloggers. Renowned for their anti-government stance, what happened next was not entirely unexpected. In fact, one of the group had, as a precaution, pre-written an SMS stating that they had been arrested by the state security forces. When the unmarked cars duly pulled up and forced Yoani and her companions inside, the woman had just enough time to press send.

Only the SMS didn’t merely go to one other person. Texting is how Cubans, so lacking in access to the Internet, post to Twitter, where millions around the world follow what the dissidents have to say about the oppressive Communist regime in which they live.

In the car, Yoani found herself being held down with a knee pressing against her chest so hard that she was having trouble breathing. But then the driver received a phone call. He turned to the man who was holding her and said: “Don’t press too much because everybody already knows.”

And that was how one tweet saved Yoani from what was potentially a very serious situation.

While on the subject of censorship, there was also a workshop on the Iranian Internet experience – a mixture of the not-so-sublime and the very-much-ridiculous.

Held by a London-based non-profit called Small Media, which specialises in research and tech solutions for closed societies like that in Iran, it was an interactive session – including a game of ‘guess if the photo has been altered by the Iranians for propaganda purposes’, some of which were laugh-out-loud funny.

Continuing along the theme of comedy, there was a look at whether political memes were silly jokes or game changers – featuring a live international comparison – and a talk of how humour became integral to the culture and language of Egypt’s changing identity through digital tools and social media.

Photo: Gregor Fischer/re:publica 2013

Graham Linehan. Photo: Gregor Fischer/re:publica 2013

That’s not forgetting a conversation with Graham Linehan, creator of some of Ireland’s and the UK’s favourite sitcoms including Father Ted, Black Books and the IT Crowd.

Sport blogging, South East Asia’s startup scenes, Internet geographies and YouTube – and all that on the first day.

By the time re:publica 13 finished two days later, we had heard about robot ethics, the six degrees of Wikipedia, space science as a creative commons, 21st century skills, 3D printing, Europe vs. Facebook, open APIs for local politics and the myths of the open Internet.

Given what has happened since, with the revelations sparked by Edward Snowden’s dramatic trip and NSA revelations, that last one will proved rather prescient. With a motto of Into The Wild, you can be sure that this year’s edition of re:publica – taking place form May 6-8, also at Station Berlin – will feature a lot of that discussion on privacy and security online.

re:publica 13 comes to an end. Photo: Tony Sojka/re:publica 2013

re:publica 13 comes to an end. Photo: Tony Sojka/re:publica 2013

It was the thorny issue of censorship and political oppression which brought re:publica 13 to a close, with a pre-recorded interview with Chinese artist and political campaigner Ai Weiwei, who is unable to leave China, the last content on-stage. An astonishing interview, it was quite a coup for the organisers, as he spoke about his Twitter activity – which he has since stopped – and how he responded to the close surveillance of his year of house arrest through his art.

Expect more top content and insight next month.

To book your tickets for re:publica 14, click here.