The why of the internet of things

(Writeup of a talk given at the IOT Summit in Dublin on June 22nd 2017 instead of slides)

Good morning,

Thank you for inviting me to share my perspectives on the internet of things.

I wanted to talk about the why of the internet of things. As an industrial designer, I’ve always been fascinated with the limits of the physical world and how the internet might extend them. Naively when I got started 13 years ago, I thought that the challenges we might face related to issues of semantics and transparency of use. If a chair was connected, how would we be able to tell, as a consumer that it was connected? When the act of using different things is different every time and the context for using them is different every time, how can we think of creating a mesh of use that makes sense to anyone else. I can eat with a spoon but I can also measure medicine to feed it to my child or use it to open a difficult piece of packaging. Products are also laden with cultural meaning and social and collective meaning. When we decide to connect them we decide to play with that meaning, with the expectations that were built in because of it’s original use and the culture surrounding it.

To work in the internet of things now is no longer a quest for better technological advancement but an academic, political and economic act to overhaul, refine, and play with the last 150 years of industrial development and decline.

It’s no longer enough to have sold something to someone now, we must know who they are, how often they use it and what they do with it. We believe that this is how we will make better decisions.

Except we don’t make those decisions. Just as we are unwilling to disclose how many ‘active’ users a site has versus ‘passive’ or spam bots, we are also unwilling to talk in real terms about the longevity of people’s relationships with the physical world. We are also unwilling to recognise that technology needs politics but not necessarily the other way around.

Most wearable devices will stay in a drawer after 6 months, most activity tracking will be inaccurate, all connectivity will be patchy at some point, most connected powertools will still only be used for 8 minutes in their whole lives, most diesel cars will need to be taken off the roads to reduce pollution, most packaging will need to be decreased, most e-waste managed by the manufacturers, most people will need to use less energy in their homes and will will all of us need to eat more vegetables and less meat.

Some problems we already know the solutions to and I sometimes feel that we use the excuse of ‘data’ to delay the inevitable political decision-making.

We’ve also trained our investment community to be addicted to 7 year cycles of investments which are frankly tailored to software companies. Most startups in #iot will face what I like to call the £150K problem. Receiving anything less will be a waste of time, and anything more and they’ll be forced to grow too quickly to really understand their product and their customers.

I’ve been running the internet of things meetup in London for 6 years now and I see good, meaningful startups that will help solve good meaningful problems die on the vine or hobble , underfunded.

Startups like Flood Network which builds sensors for bridges so you can tell the height of the water in a river and you can track flooding near your home in real time. Flooding is one of those areas where government is lazy and takes a ‘last minute, politically glorious’ approach. Building good lasting flood defenses always seems less important than looking good in wellies on television. (See Katrina for a similar although less successful scenario of politics first, people later.) So noone does anything and noone wants to invest in the opportunity to help homeowners help themselves and respond way in advance of an actual flood to protect their household goods.

I won’t even talk of Grenfell in London 2 weeks ago and what a ‘smart building’ could have done in that environment, the capital intense process of smart building management is simply too expensive for most social housing. With data and with connected things, there will be the haves and the have nots. This is a deeply political issue we cannot ignore.
We have dragged over business models that work in software into a world of capital intensive hardware-based experiences and think it’s the same. There are problems with this of course, data security, keeping people safe, making people trust a complex set of systems they have no way of understanding. We are far away from everyone knowing how to code and we have past the point where things are repairable, so we have to build trust but we also have to do the right thing.

Last week in London, I co-organised an event to build an internet of things certification mark. We need, as a community of practitioners, to think about how to build things people will want to buy and not be scared of using. We cannot hide behind the idea of selling data off without any respect for the consumers who are paying in the first place or any care for how we build a connected product they might rely on in their daily lives. GDPR (you have a session on this this afternoon) has very tangible impacts on how we build these products and 2 days ago in London I invited a technology law firm to talk to people about this at the meetup. The certification mark goes even further than this and I’d love your thoughts on this (iotmark.org) today if you’d like to speak to me about it.

So how can Dublin and other cities around Ireland respond to this landscape? Build up an environment for small but meaningful applications and startups to grow in. I’m not sure what has happened to your lovely local community but there hasn’t been a meetup in 2 years. You probably need to help them out there with a space and some support. Again think of how you might give startups £150K to get going. Encourage startups that don’t concentrate on people’s personal data, GDPR will really affect that model. Instead think of all the other things you could be monitoring and helping consumers make good decisions around: the weather, farming, infrastructure, city services. The future of the internet of things is in the words of E.F. Shumacher in ‘small and peaceful technology’. I would add ‘useful and transparent’ too.

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iotwatch

Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London.