Future hopes for the internet of things

It’s the start of a new year and someone asked me to come in and talk about the internet of things. This has happened countless times but the beginning of the year and the sight of discarded Christmas trees pushed me to take some time to reflect on the last 8 years of work. (I consider it as important to make as it is to write about why I make.)

I won’t go into the details of the full presentation but it seemed that pre-2007 (launch year of Twitter and the iPhone) the market was full of strange and smart exciting products. Not platforms, not hacks, but proper things you could by on a shelf on the high street. Pleo, Aibo, Nabaztag, the Ambiant Orb & Umbrella and the promise of the Hug Shirt. Most of these products failed, were discontinued, or were never developed past the trademark stage. The hacker community took over and the commercial game became about platforms. Arduino spawned endless compatible shields, kits and competing products sold through the likes of Sparkfun or Make Magazine. The community created a design culture of one-offs.

In the last 2 years it’s been about building web platforms for the internet of things. Started by Pachube, the marketplace then filled with companies whose existing business models fit the new mould. We have to do better than that.

As CES is under way and initial reports of the latest dancing robots flood the internet, I think the UK design scene has a tremendous opportunity and can’t afford not to get involved. Most of the people who have pushed the field forward have been hackers, producing on-off products that need support to get to the shelves of the high street.

In the midst of quite a lot of angst around manufacturing in the UK this is an opportunity the UK can’t afford to miss. Bridging links between hackers and manufacturers is an opportunity that won’t suffer from misplaced nostalgia, and will create new business opportunities. In the same way the north of Italy supported most of the manufacturing boom of the 1960s, using the UK’s expertise in manufacturing should enable it to become quickly THE place to get your internet of things devices ready for mass production and onto the high street. That’s something the government should help with and maybe that’s what Tech City should be about…

If anything, 2012 is the time for crazy bold entrepreneurship and enthusism in this stale consumer product space. Austerity periods are often a wonderful time for creativity and we need that boost. The failure in the take-up of smart energy meters have proved that we have to go beyond pure utility to make the internet of things part of our daily lives, and really tap into people’s desires for whimsy and fun (see Homesense if you don’t believe me). People didn’t buy an iPhone because it could make better calls. This is the time to really do something different and make connections that didn’t exist before. Onwards and forward and Happy New Year everyone!

I make things: mapping the creative industries

I had the great pleasure of attending the V&A’s Power of Making symposium last month and chaired a panel with Bre Pettris, Adrian Bowyer, and Marloes Ten Bhomer. The whole day was fascinating and I think I might ask the panel more questions and publish them here.

One thing that really gnawed at me during my holiday was the way in which people used the word “make” at the event. There was an agreed use of language in the art world that didn’t seem to mean the same in the hacker community. Also, somehow, everyone thought that an artist was the most noble of every kind of creator. This is interesting. If we have found a common language in the word “making”, noone seemed to agree on how noble we consider the output of the “making” itself. Someone with the 40 year skills in engraving a gun, was considered less interesting than a designer who produced rough sketches and had them made by others. There’s a perceived value in not getting your hands too dirty, as if ignorance was bliss, or technical knowledge in itself was an incomprehensible elite (a woman in the audience complained that as an artist, she’d need to learn CAD to make something). My panel was viewed with a mixture of sniggering and fear in such a place. Most of the establishment was ready to rule it off as being for “geeks”. I think what differentiates the two communities is a mixture of curiosity and humility. It takes humility to admit that you can learn new tools and that those tools might make you a different and better designers/ artist. That probably comes from the meritocratic environment of the internet and not the traditional hierarchy of academia. This will have to be addressed in the design and art schools of the future as it’s an important barrier to collaboration.

As I work my way through my notes on the event, I also wanted to start to unpick who was using the word “make” and what they were making. This is a first stab and not really about creating collaborative connections yet. I might also be missing some things, do let me know. In this, I think we can see where the “creative industries” overlap and therefore where skill sets overlap. This also proves perhaps that one should be quite careful with using any one term. Designer, artists, engineer…when you look close enough, can become one and the same.