This week saw a something of a meeting of minds in the South Yorkshire region as UnSheffield played host to a collective of thinkers and makers involved in the world of technology and its applications. For those who aren’t familiar with this kind of gathering, UnSheffield comprised of a weekend of relatively informal seminars and chats in which people look at the world of technology and share innovations and ideas with presentations and free form discussions.

The setting for the event was The Showroom which makes an ideal venue with a number of conference rooms and open spaces that allow people to select a topic of interest and go off and participate.

One of the most interesting topics of conversation for me this weekend was the concept of ‘Swap Shops’ with a presentation by Helen Milner. ‘Swap Shops’ are a concept that truly have the potential to take advantage of our current economic climate and provide assistance for communities and property landlords who are faced with the prospect of buildings standing empty and unused.

The idea being to create spaces where people can exchange skills and knowledge for the betterment of their local community. So for example one person might be able to provide others with his or her knowledge of writing CV’s which in itself would prove beneficial to those seeking work. In return someone else could use the space as a means to provide classes on using a particular software package. The ideas don’t have to necessarily be centered around technology based learning either. One of the suggestions touted as a possibility was the concept of yoga classes while another was getting the local arts community involved with music and craft workshops.

But what does the landlord gain from these endeavors? Well if you walk around the city of Sheffield, you will see no shortage of unoccupied premises. Some of which have been empty for considerable periods of time. In terms of buildings it doesn’t do them any good to stand unoccupied. Unsupervised properties often fall prey to vandalism and the general consequences of neglect.

The prospect of a building being occupied (even on the short term) means that it will be less subject to these factors and if the landlord managed to find someone to buy or lease their building the concept of these swap shops is that they leave no lasting impressions (structural alterations etc) on a property and those involved can vacate quickly.

Another idea behind swaps shops is to keep the monetization aspect to a minimum where possible. However wherever there are public gatherings of people, there is always going to be the possibility that some form of insurance (public liability or otherwise) is going to be needed. As a consequence of this there was some discussion about obtaining small amounts of donated income from people who could afford it in other to cover such costs.

While the concept of skill sharing is not necessarily a new one, in today’s economic climate where the prospect of mid to long term recession is a strong possibility making use of existing resources and properties in the ways outlined above has become one of considerable importance.

Elsewhere there was discussion regarding the recycling of old technology, every year massive amounts of equipment are discarded in many cases for no other reason other than they are considered obsolete. Of course many manufacturers these days build in a degree of obsolescence but there is nothing to stop the right minded individuals taking an existing piece of technology and bending it to function outside its existing remit. Once again this was an idea that tuned into the economic climate and the concept of reusing rather than buying new again.

The premise of online social networking has remained a pretty hot topic with discussions asking “what will be the next Facebook be like?” and how will the new provider learn from the mistakes of their forebears. Also the issue of managing our online identities was addressed courtesy of the creative team behind With so many of us maintaining so many different online accounts the prospect of keeping our relevant data up to date has the possibility of become something of a chore (of course we could always lighten our load and not necessarily have so many identities).

An area of particular interest to me was the discussion on the current state of play between the music industry and the web. Now that the traditional model of the recording industry has been dealt a succession of body blows courtesy of events that date back to Napster, its time to for everyone to start thinking of cohesive models which will bring the music industry into the 21st Century. Although in the time allotted there was never going to be any concrete solutions to the problems faced we did manage to look at some of the alternative models on display. Donation based systems were explored (a la Radiohead) as one possibility and the concept of try before you buy music were prevalent themes.

I am of course only skimming the surface of the event here and it would take a considerably larger article to cover all the great aspects of the UnSheffield event (sadly deadlines and commitments don’t allow this right now). For those who haven’t attended an event like this before it really is something worth considering. While there is no question that the technological content of the seminars can be pretty high, there are always people on hand to explain any concepts you might not be familiar with. However one of the most interesting aspects of these events is the fact that you are potentially witnessing ideas that given the right amount of time to germinate could be the “next big thing”.