Turncoats: Nuclear Homes Arguments

I’m speaking at tonight’s Turncoats an evening of architecture debates. I’ve been asked to talk about the nuclear home so here are my five minutes for and five against.


The nuclear home helps people develop a variety of skills like picking things up when they’re done with them, cook an egg for a loved one, share their pain and sorrows without fear, care for a loved one who has the flu, a mental health issue, or a chronic condition. It helps socialise people from a young age, much like school does, it teaches you how to live, compromise and love others even in trying situations.

They create a sense of place and self. A base to refer to later on in life. An anchor for emotional comfort and identity. ‘I am from Norwich, I am from Liverpool, I am from a small village in Tyneside, I am from Montreal’. When we say this, we have a house in mind, not a city.

It can help us expand physically and economically, as a partner joins us, a friend crashes on our couch. We use the second bedroom to run our Instagram videos before converting it into the baby’s room. Our kid moves away and our mum moves in in her last year. She dies and we Airbnb that room which helps us meet people from around the world. There’s enough space for different things to happen to us and our multiple societal identities to be performed.


It individualises behaviours which could be collective and more ecological.  A laundromat will wash an enormous load in 20 minutes for £3 instead of representing the highest energy load for families (see UK Government report from 2012.)

It isolates people later in life into a sense of comfort which, when they are older can lead to higher NHS costs. Almost 20% of a pensioner’s energy load will be used by their television.

It creates work that needs to get done, areas that need to be kept clean, shelves that need to be filled. That job will often fall to the female partner who will associate a feeling a self-worth with completing those activities. The bulk of FMCG is targeted at women who will continue to spend more time thinking about and managing a household while being paid 30% less than their male counterpart in the workplace. A double taxation system. And let’s not talk about the pink tax.

It creates work for people with zero-hour contracts or even involved in human trafficking through anonymised services addressing those tasks when we don’t want to do them (Deliveroo, TaskRabbit, etc).

It ties people into a very specific sense of family, instead of pushing people to think about their community as a more heterogenous set of people they could help or support.

For more about this, read my book!

Better reading

It’s incredibly hard to read Dominic Cummings’ blog post without wondering what his everyday life must be about. What he reads, who he hangs out with, who he goes surfing/golfing with will help create a world view where Peter Thiel is a reference and machine learning can help civil service keep things ticking along for the rest of us. So the least I could do is offer some better reading suggestions. Something a misfit would do surely. This is what I sent over, with links:

January 3rd 2020

Mr. Cummings,

Here is some suggested reading in light of your recent blog post:

As a citizen of nowhere living and working in our great capital, I wanted to share these references to help you and your team examine the other side of your argument and approach when it comes to bringing technology into public services.

I wish you luck and hope at the very least you can get better biscuits into Downing Street.

Warm regards and Happy New Year!

Low Carbon Design Institute: ideas for a net zero compliant design education

It’s Christmas Eve, I’m reading the introduction to Ezio Manzini’s ‘Design, When Everybody Designs‘ and I just got angry again. Anger, for a 39 year old woman, is an incredibly useful tool. It’s the step that comes before action. Back in October, I wrote a little twitter rant  about the idea of a Low Carbon Design Institute and Ezio Manzini’s introduction is begging me to explain myself.

His introduction includes Herbert Simon’s definition of design from 1982, the year AT&T was divided up by the US government, the first computer virus was developed and the first CD player was sold in Japan. His definition states that design aims to:

‘devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’.

Well. Preferred by whom? Courses of actions created by whom? Put in place by whom?

Traditional industrial and interaction design education (I’m happy to be proved wrong) likes to think of itself as messianic. As always a force for good, for better, for more. It thinks of itself as representing human values and needs in ways that other professions like lawyers, philosophers, poets, artists do not.

But design doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the entire profession and its academic ecology relies on clients. On a market of people whose employees, factories, families, depend on good, better, more products to be produced.

So the client pays the designer, the designer pays their bills by making good, better products that sell more than the last one did. And the designer moves on to the next client.

(You can see where I’m heading with this right?)

What happens now in (soonish) 2020? We are asking people to use less plastic, buy better products, sometimes stop buying products entirely but we don’t present them with ideologies, we present them with metal straws. We’re asking people to use less disposable coffee cups by selling them plastic ones made in Australia. We’re asking people to have an effect on their hyper-local farming communities by importing quinoa from Peru and oat milk from Sweden.

We’re asking companies to reduce their carbon footprint by 2050.  This is so hard, some of those companies are even asking governments to invest in de-carbonising transport because this is the only way they can imagine making less products.

We’re also asking people to be more self-reliant, or local with their energy needs and choices but we have national grids that have to help them charge an increasing number of tiny personal surveillance devices, smart TVs, smart locks, that are almost always on.

How is anyone supposed to teach design in this environment without questioning the socio-economic impact of designing for a continuously new, good, better world?

How are we supposed to support necessary changes in the West, growth in other parts of the world and help others still live and thrive with the effects of flooding and fires on their communities and economies?

Ignoring any part of this complexity as part of a modern design eduction is simply irresponsible and not taking up the challenge of responding to the circumstances. Something the Bauhaus, post WWI, did exceptionally well.

Trouble is, we’ve tried some things before in design education. Victor Papanek had a fantastic curriculum for environmentally-sensitive design in a world of self-sufficiency. Then we had Cradle to Cradle which sounded like architecture was going to get its shit together. But not much happened in the end and the internet came to distract everyone. Papanek and McDonough were eventually reduced to design students being told about recyclability of plastics and material choices like bamboo (also complicated ). And then the heady days of web2.0 distracted everyone into being taught how to make their portfolios, e-commerce sites and eventually use instagram to sell their bamboo furniture. If you went into digital design, you’re concerned about privacy, GDPR, ux, user needs, innovation, more, better, good. Same old, same old.

So what should we be teaching to respond to the circumstances?

  • We should be teaching about the importance of local production and local economies the way the economist E.F. Schumacher might have imagined it.
  • We should be teaching about repairs and re-use the way The Restart Project does.
  • We should teach about algorithmic and graphic communication design to encourage incremental behavioural changes the way it was presented at the Wellcome Collection a few years ago.
  • We should teach the difference between recyclable and recycled by showing students exactly what recycling actually entails. Material and environmental sciences should be accessible and available.
  • We should teach financial self-sufficiency to students so they don’t end up in debt and following predictable career paths because of that debt.
  • We should throw cold water on the technocratic hypes around them. We should introduce them to dissenting voices rather than sales pitches.
  • We should teach creative minds where power lies outside of design & manufacturing: economics, policy-making, debate, discussion, ethics, journalism, writing, psychology, sociology, anthropology.
  • We should be making them ‘eat their own dog food’ as much as possible, living with the things they design instead of demoing or prototyping things to a deadline. The unintended consequences are only apparent then.
  • Finally, we should be teaching them about profound empathy by letting them work with the non-profit organisations in their communities.

All of this and probably a lot more are things I think are worth experimenting with within the confines of education and training. Is it design in the way people understand it today? No. It is design in the way people might understand it soon though. A mess of economics, creativity and environmentalism.

I’m interested in prototyping these ideas as a summer program in 2020 in the UK so if you’d like to get involved by giving a talk, introducing concepts, offering space, offering sponsorship, get in touch at alex (at) designswarm (dot) com or comment below.



The Cargo Cult of Innovation: the toxic habits of corporate innovation

Update August 7th 2019: This will become a book, published by Apress in 2020. Follow #writingabook on @iotwatch on Twitter to hear more as I write it!

NB: I have an idea for a second book about the cargo cult of corporate innovation but I’m not totally sure how I’d get people to contribute to it without getting in trouble. So I’m trying the topic out as a blog post first and there’s an ask at the end. 

My experience of working with large scale clients as a consultant for the past 9 years (and before that running an innovation design studio) means I know horror stories are out there (probably hiding behind a Glassdoor review) about how innovation actually happens in a business.

Why cargo cult?

I think that most large-scale organisations try to enact patterns of innovation created before them by smaller organisations or at a time when those patterns were disruptive. Repeating those patterns without understanding the context that created them amounts to engaging in a cargo cult of innovation. From the cornering of innovation into specific departments, dedicated client-facing innovation spaces, internal maker spaces, exhibition-like showcase spaces, business incubators, mergers and acquisition departments, open plan offices with free food and flat communication structures, the means by which large organisations define and manage innovation are often the same. The by-product of a Silicon Valley led business mono culture, these tropes now pollute almost every large-scale organisation.

Ways to make internal teams more creative and innovative often come down to using a commonly-understood and repetitive set of tools: post-its, brainstorming, design thinking, conferences, training, external consultants.

Furthermore the mechanisms used to talk about the innovation that is developed is often repetitive and meaningless. From tradeshow booths, PR campaigns and social media engagement, most companies use the same approaches to sharing the work they do.

So by using the same mechanisms of innovation, the same ways of extracting innovation and the same means of talking about it, most companies do not, in fact, innovate.

Hiding outside of established time management structures, away from a specific innovation budget, outside of the innovation hubs and relying on more than free lunch meals, I know that some employees eventually fight the systems of innovation to really build new products and solutions. I would love to capture these stories too. 

Here are 5 ways I’ve personally seen corporate innovation culture fail:

1. Setting the conditions
From the way a space is laid out (probably open plan because it’s cheaper), how teams communicate (probably in silence in the open space with Slack open all day), where they sit (probably hot-desking because it’s also cheaper) and how they eat (communal kitchens, free food) these can act as a toxic mixture that imposes ways of working and thinking on teams.

I’ve seen people over-invest in the wrong kind of furniture. I’ve seen offices filled with people with noise cancelling headphones, even emergency sirens and hats when people needed to tell others to keep quiet or not disturb them. I’ve heard of people hiding in parts of a building to make sure they weren’t found. I’ve seen people book themselves fake meetings so their open calendar wasn’t filled by other people and they could go hide in a room on their own to actually do work. I’ve heard of people fighting hot-desking culture. I’ve seen people use post-its for no other reason than others use them too. I’ve seen post-it sessions documented to an inch of that rapporteur’s life only for the results never to be revisited again because the group lead had already made up their mind. Some of this also applies to normal work life in the knowledge economy but when applied to innovation work, they become really counter productive.

2. Job titles and vendors
From ‘Master Inventor’, ‘Head of Labs’, ‘Intra-preneur’, ‘Futurist-in-residence’, ‘gurus’ and others are ways companies use to assign power to people and departments in charge of innovation and segregate them from the rest of the business. This not only shapes how that work happens but also how it is perceived by everyone. Titles can also contribute a culture of youth around innovation and isolate people who have been in the business for a long time. Businesses often punish someone for their loyalty by working with innovation consultants or design agencies outside the business, trusting that the ‘real world’ will bring something to a team that they can’t see for themselves. This ‘real world’ is also drip-fed internally in the form of ‘brown bag lunches’ or sending executives to conferences (TED, Davos, SXSW, etc.) so they can come back enlightened by what others are doing. The people who are chosen to contribute a talk or are sent to Vegas for CES are again isolated, picked out as more innovative or more receptive to new ideas. This, I believe, is dangerous for the social cohesion of a team and collaboration across the business. It creates haves and have-nots emotionally and sometimes even financially. ‘My budget against yours’, ‘my ideas are better than yours’, are unhealthy by-products of these titles and reliance on other people’s ideas.

3. Showing off
Finally innovation isn’t recognised unless it is shared with the world. Many executives treat innovation as a marketing activity rather than the future of their business. Here again the patterns most companies adopt are the same: client-facing dedicated physical spaces with blue LEDs to PR stunts at CES, sponsoring events run by startups, hiring an evangelist, and more. The effectiveness of these efforts is rarely measured because the results would probably be dismal.

Makerspaces/accelerators/hubs/incubators are a cheaper opportunity to network with future employees (via aqui-hires) or competitors without anyone leaving the building. They make for great articles or case studies but these spaces may be rarely used by staff or dropped at the end of a bad quarter. They are fickle because they are not based on an indigenous corporate culture, they are borrowed from other, much more nimble and cash-strapped environments where new ideas are not an option but they are the only way to survive. How these spaces are spun out is also often a failure too with an innovation hub/lab/whatever working in one geography but totally failing in another.

Innovation culture is primarily about permissions, power, and setting the right conditions for new ideas. Finding champions internally, holding on through corporate restructuring exercises, holding on no matter how much money is dedicated to innovation, that’s what makes new ideas come to life, over time, when everybody believes a new idea can thrive. It’s damn hard.

I don’t think many businesses do this right and I’d like to write about your corporate innovation success against the odds or horrible failure if you have any. Please comment anonymously below, the comment will not be published but will go directly to me for moderation. I won’t publish anything or use it in my book without your consent. Thanks!

So you’re about to graduate

(This is a follow-up to my blogpost as I’ve been invited to give one of the keynotes at the Umea Institute of Design’s Degree Show  in Sweden next month.)

So you’re about to graduate from an interaction design degree. Welcome to the rest of your life in the industry of design. Here are some harsh realities you’ll have to face:

  1. Noone has used ‘interaction design’ in about 10 years. Don’t look for interaction design as a job description on job search sites. Noone uses it. Just like information architecture has become ‘UX/UI’ and user-centered design has become ‘UX/UI/CX/service design’. Noone has ever used HCI or physical computing either. The terminology of your academic life doesn’t apply to the rest of your life.

This is a fairly normal byproduct of academia being its own industry. People make a living from using those terms to apply to doctoral positions, post-docs, heads of departments, etc.

So you’re going to be applying for ‘product design’ positions where the word product usually means digital product. The halcyon days of a variety of sizes of companies recruiting multi-disciplinary graduates to work on hardware/software products are mostly over. Why? Because the product/engineering design sector is now servicing the smallest startup to develop a connected product so they don’t have the internal knowledge to train you up across electronics engineering, supply chain management, marketing etc. They don’t have much funding so they need you to already bring deep knowledge to the table which, sadly, your education won’t have provided you (if you’re graduating from an interaction design course).

If you’re pretty good at CAD or coding you might find something sooner than your peers who aren’t. Why? Because ‘hard skills’ are valued more by startups and small companies than the ‘soft skills’ that agencies might value. But it does mean you’ll start your career with mindless technical work. That’s ok, it’s better to start somewhere and build from that, than not to start at all and retrain (many of my B.A. peers did).

The good news if you’re not particularly technical is that the world of design agencies is perfect for you. It has changed and shrunk so you’ll be mostly applying to dull 20-30 year old companies like IDEO, Smart, Frog, Fjord (EY) Seren (EY), Method, Native and the ‘big 4‘ which are the large accounting consulting firms who now offer design services.  These businesses have internship programs and will have structures in place to let you grow within a team, drowning in a flurry of post-its and powerpoint presentations. This may also be a disappointment, but hey, it’ll pay the bills for a few months.

2. You’ll have to work for nothing sometimes The fact is that the most interesting interaction design work is now firmly in the arts. You’ll find endless opportunities to work with artists building fantastic AR/VR/wearable/whatever  with absolutely no budget. This can be a good side hustle to an agency position. You’ll have the power to learn across multiple sectors but no money so you’ll be inspired to do this for the right project or because there’s a technology stack you want to learn about.

3. You may have to keep studying Yes there are plenty of large consumer smart product companies out there but they’ve mostly been absorbed by even larger groups (Google, Philips, Microsoft). Those companies have super interesting research going on but your BA or Master’s might not be enough. Any PhD will open all sorts of strange doors, especially in interaction design work. You also might want to try applying to MIT for eg. which will open further doors when you graduate no matter what you want to do. You’ll find a PhD gets people in Google Creative Lab, Microsoft Research and others very interested. You don’t have to go into a PhD straight away of course, but some topics (ethics in #iot for eg.) are not industries yet. Some topics in interaction design are firmly, still, academic in nature or worse, policy/government-based. A PhD can get you to keep exploring, perhaps do a practice-based PhD if you hate writing, and engage with corporates in very different ways than with your M.A. begging bowl.

4. You’ll definitely have to write, sell yourself on social and generally become entrepreneurial. I know social media doesn’t exactly inspire many young people, but how do you compete with someone who has 10 years of career under their belt? You show your work (dedicated URL so I can find you with search engines), you share your ideas about your work (start blogging on your own site and cross-post to Medium and Linkedin), you share what you value, what you think is interesting, what your opinions are (try twitter with plenty of muted words).

You should try giving talks as soon as possible (I gave my first conference talk 6 months after graduating) perhaps at your local chapter of PechaKucha or TEDx. Try organising a meetup around the design issues you value. Do every bloody thing you can to avoid being another CV someone won’t read (especially if the robots are reading it first).

Start your own business, take small clients who are friends of your family, start wherever you can if you feel like the options above are unpalatable. But keep in mind this is the hardest path. It’s the one with the most psychological ups and downs and rewarding in lots of ways, but incredibly seasonal. But it’ll be different from what most of your peers end up doing. I’ve made a career almost entirely this way.

5. Keep your interests diverse This all sounds quite stressful I realise. Work in design is like work in most industries. It’s full of sexism, ageism, politics, ego, and the odd toxic workplace. What helps is family, friends, sports and hobbies. They will act, collectively, as a safety net against the tides of your work life and make your a more rounded, sane professional. Also, always have enough money in the bank to afford to quit your current job/client and survive for 3 months. That’ll give you lots of inner power.

Good luck and if you have questions, ping me on twitter!

Young people

I’m lucky to have a spare room and for the last few years, I’ve made a case of inviting interesting people younger than myself to stay over if they’re in town.

I meet them when I lecture in universities or speak at conferences. Some have come to visit London for work, a conference, or just for fun. This has put me in the path of Olivia Ireland who is studying gender studies and security in Australia, Katya Krasner who graduated from Goldsmiths, Jolane Schaffner who is a very talented photographer based in Augsburg, and recently Daphne Muller, a young ethics & design graduate from the Netherlands who I hired to intern in Bulb Labs. This has given me some idea of what ‘young people’ are interested in and worried about.

I’ve been working at Bulb since late October and the best thing about it is the exposure to other types of young people, often straight out of a UK university. Most of the company is below the age of 35, including some of the most senior people who have been there since the early days of the company. Outside of Daphne, Bulb Labs isn’t a great representation of the rest of the business. I convinced Claire and Tom, old friends and peers in #iot, to join Labs as contractors. We’re all in our late 30s to early 40s and that 10 year gap with the rest of the business is fascinating. It’s one thing to say ‘young people these days’ and quite another to work with them closely.

On Monday night, a colleague ran an International Women’s Day and I was asked to give a talk. I thought it might be nice to bridge that perceived gap by remembering the most useful thing I was asked to do when I was about 26. Back then, I found myself in Manhattan, staying on the spare bed in Tom Klinkowstein‘s space age apartment for a couple of nights. I had worked on helping Tom, a new media art pioneer, with one of his #iot focused pieces when I was a student in Ivrea and when I came to stay, I was a little lost. In the first years of my first business, I was struggling to see the forest from the trees. I didn’t quite know how to connect was I was working on (selling and promoting the Arduino in the UK) to the rest of my life. He told me to go sit somewhere with a piece of paper and write down everything I wanted to do with my life ‘to the point of embarrassing yourself’.

So I went to the MoMa and sat in their café writing things down. Without being prompted, I wrote things down by decades. And then stood back. What was there was as interesting as what wasn’t there (no mention of children or a boyfriend for eg.). My ambitions included writing a book (tick!), starting a design school (which I’ve shelved in the ‘unconvinced’ pile by now) as well as building my own home (planning & training for it slowly). It felt great, like holding a treasure map with an X in sight. And I’ve come back to this exercise every 5 years or so.

So on Monday, I made a group of mostly 20 somethings working at Bulb do the same. Two of them came back saying they’d gone home and did it with their housemates. I was happy that this was useful to them.

From what I can tell with my house guests and young people at Bulb, it must be hard living in a digitally-mediated information landscape coloured by a western/capitalist illusion of success: a family, a mortgage, nice clothes, the latest phone, endless capital to travel around the world. That’s nice, but it’s flat. It’s not what real life is about, it’s just what will make you more economically productive to the system. It won’t make you kind, resilient, generous, caring, patient, supportive, mentally strong, in short, capable of weathering the storms of life. The more we, as not-quite-so-old people, can help them relax about their own path in life, the better we all are. They deserve their own stories, their own metaphorical forest, their very own trees.

End of Year Review

Thanks to Prof. Dr. Molly Steenson for initiating this habit, this is the 11th year I’ve done these reviews.

1.What did you do in 2018 that you’d never done before?
Got a job.

2. Did you keep your New Years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
What New Year’s Resolutions?

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes. Donovan + Louise, Emily & Gavin, Gareth & Alison.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

5. What countries did you visit?
Mexico, Germany, U.S.A, France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Malaysia, Canada, Scotland, Slovakia, Austria, Netherlands.

6. What would you like to have in 2019 that you lacked in 2018?
A boyfriend would be nice.

7. What date from 2018 will remain etched upon your memory?
Nothing springs to mind.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
My book on smart homes was published.

9. What was your biggest failure?
No big failure I think.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Breakfast plates for my growing collection.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?
Liberal, free women around the world.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
Everyone involved in pushing Brexit forward.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Visits to 40 Maltby Street, yoga at The Shala, museums.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
I wrote a book!

16. What song/album will always remind you of 2018?
I don’t really think about music like that anymore.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
In better physical shape.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Reading. You can never do too much reading.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Travelling, but that’s a common complaint.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
With family in Canada.

21. Who did you spend the most time on the phone with?

22. Did you fall in love in 2018?

23. What was your favourite TV programme?
I don’t watch TV.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

26. What was the best book(s) you read?
Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
No real discoveries this year, just basking in the pleasures of the music I already like.

28. What did you want and get?
To finish writing my book and get it published.

29. What did you want and not get?
Someone to go the museums with.

30. What were your favourite films of this year?
I discovered (rather late) My Own Private Idaho. I don’t think I went to see a film once this year and that’s quite unusual.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
It’s today. I went to a pub lunch with a friend.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
More books.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2018?

34. What kept you sane?
Conversations with C.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
No time for that.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Brexit, obvs.

37. Who did you miss?

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Kate who lives in NYC.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2018.
Everything changes and nothing changes.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year?

Oh, I would rate the future
If I could put a finger on it
But I have no idea
If what I want is better than this

What’s next?

I’m turning 38 and as of 13 contractual days ago, I have a job at Bulb as Head of Labs (new products, new parternships). Bulb is an affordable and green energy company.

So I’m back working in Shoreditch in a co-working space set up by David Cameron’s former digital advisor that looks like something out of The Shining. I’m running a team in a business of 300 employees.

Some of this feels new (where did all these young people come from?), some of this is not (Bagels on Brick Lane). It’s definitely strange though.

Why did I take a job you ask?

Well. It turns out that pioneering in the internet of things space isn’t really what pays the bills anymore. Writing a book doesn’t pay them at all and without sales reports, I’ll only know once a year (if a check comes through the door) how successful that has been. And then there’s Brexit. Many of my friends in #iot consultancies and startups have reported a rather quiet year. Does it feel like the financial crisis did? I don’t know as I had started Tinker in 2007 when I moved to London, aged 26. Since then I’ve managed to do quite a few things:

– sold the first Arduinos in the UK
– hired the best in the country to help me run Arduino, product, innovation workshops
– worked with a variety of companies from adland, traditional press to R&D departments
– ran an open source project on the smart home which is in the permanent collection of the MoMA
– made a smart/dumb button for russell which is also in the permanent collection of the MoMa
– commercialised a 2G version of the Good Night Lamp which is in the permanent collection of the London Design Museum and has been exhibited in the Science Gallery in Dublin, the Steven Lawrence Gallery and is currently in the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford as part of an exhibition on the home and security
– run the first #iot pop-up shop from my office
– curated 2 years of projects and events around the smart home across Europe
– wrote a book about smart homes which was published in September by Apress
– I’ve been running the London internet of things meetup for almost 8 years.
– I’ve given talks about innovation, the internet of things around the world (apart from Africa and South America).
– I’ve offered multi-day training both digitally and in person around the internet of things.
– I’ve been a visiting lecturer in the most prestigious schools across Europe.
– I’ve mentored professionals in search of a career change towards #iot.
– I’ve given feedback to PhD students around the world
– I’ve mentored and made connections for startups
– I’ve worked as an independent consultant for companies in the energy, smart agricultural, FMCG , industrial sectors and more
– I produced the first 2 UK editions of the Mozilla Festival
– I’ve worked with engineers, developers, designers, product managers, marketers and more.
– Two years ago I took 75 flights that year. This year it’s 45.

It’s fair to say I rushed through much of the last 10 years life. As an immigrant keen to ‘make my mark’ I suppose it was inevitable. But as I started to relax into my official new home (and status as a British citizen) I started to look at things a little differently. I don’t consider I’ve been smart for most of my career but I do know I was first to reach a lot of invisible lines in the sand. And for the first time perhaps I’m content in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if nobody knows nor if I slow down a bit.

I’m also willing to learn from working *inside* an organisation and Hayden Wood, the CEO of Bulb, is kind enough to give me that platform. Whether he realises it or not, I’m doing exactly the same thing as I usually do, working with people I like, hiring people I respect, working with organisations and figuring out what the best outcome will be. I’m also surrounded by friends who work in different bits of the business and that’s fun. It’s a scale-up and I’ve never worked in a business at that stage. It reminds me of Inception, the metaphysical furniture and building moving around me. But that’s also the kind of environment I thrive in.

I’m not full time yet as I still have a couple of clients still ticking over, a book to promote and the redesign of the Good Night Lamp for CAT-M networks, but that’s not a lot for me. Slowing down is relative.

If you’re doing some exciting things with green technologies, hit me up at alexds at bulb dot co dot uk .

Smarter Homes: Lessons Learnt

I wrote a book on smart homes which has just been published by the lovely people at Apress in the US. Why did I do that? Well there were no books on smart homes as a technological, sociological and design movement. There are plenty of design and architecture books out there, plenty of books on domesticity, the history of interior design, the history of home architecture and a handful of antiquated books on networking in your home. But a combination of these things? Nothing.

And with the spirit of wanting to write a book I wanted to read (but also that my mother would understand) I sat down intermittedly for a year and a half and learnt a lot. I spent a lot of time in archives and libraries because, no you can’t google your way through most of what I found. You actually have to look at a book. I also bought a lot of books. I already love books but now I have a shelf dedicated to the books I bought for research and it makes for a pretty diverse collection. From books about robots to books about games and early computing to books about some early modernist homes for the rich. I wove a rich tapestry of industries together and I think it makes for a perfectly readable starting point for others to go digging even further and write their own PhDs or books. I uncovered some really lovely stories and people who have been lying dormant on archive.org and in libraries around the world. I also had the pleasure of reading works from archives that aren’t digitised yet for lack of funding. It’s been immensely pleasurable and rewarding to connect worlds that I was always interested and connecting to: the technologies of everyday life. As I tour around Germany, recording content for a podcast I’ll be putting together pretty soon, I’m giving a talk about what I learnt from writing the book and wanted to share it with others in case a blog post is all you’re willing to commit to the topic (don’t worry, most designers would have stopped reading by now).


Lesson 1: The home isn’t a system

The internet of things loves a good systems diagram. When you google iot you find beautiful images of product outlines in circles connected to other circles. Like the internet! Well things aren’t like the internet and people don’t buy things like they click on webpages. The model simply doesn’t apply. But the imagery is so potent its over 100 years old. The idea that scientific models can apply to the home space can be seen in the times of electrification. An electric home was a really big deal for many families who couldn’t afford the retrofitting costs. Companies put together ads, competitions, articles to convince people that an ‘all-electric’ home was something you could puchase and would purchase. In reality, it was a bitty affair. Until the late 1950s most Americans wouldn’t have electricity and General Electric had to lobby hard through the GE Homes (plaques on homes that had invested in the most electric appliances). In the UK, the Electric Association of Women (E.A.W) lobbied women to buy all-electric homes, even running competitions and they always failed. Noone takes the risks they’re asking us to take: change your entire personal and family routine to accomodate a set of new or unknown technologies. People bought into the dream one appliance at a time, starting with the electric iron (not lighbulbs) and then moving on to other things. This idea of a systems view of the home even comes into play  in the late 1980s when the term smart home starts to take a hold. The Smart House LLP is created to rewire the whole home with new data cables and the idea is that someone would pay for a new home with this set of technologies in mind. Even IBM gets involved with Director. And none of it sticks. Or rather a few rich people get some lights that come on when you open a cupboard but its hardly the stuff of 1950s fantasies. Because ultimately the dream of a connected set of daily interactions is at best an industrial dream of automation applied to the home space, the least predictable, most heterogenous space. Imagined issues of interoperability and standards are laughable when you understand that it’s not what prevents people from buying connected products. As a professor once said to me: you’re either selling aspirin or chocolate. And current connected home applications that imaging an ‘if this then that’ scenario aren’t doing any real user testing nor product research worthy of that name. People buy technology one product at a time. Not 10 things at a time.


Lesson 2: Size influences behaviour

The size of the home will have an influence on what technologies are brought and how much interaction takes place with the rest of the city. In the 18th century a fire range with a kettle and an iron did most of what you wanted: heat, a little bit of food prep (people ate out a lot) and ironing your husbands and kids clothes on wash day. Everything else was communal. Obviously because of health standards, that became a problem. So apartments and properties got bigger to accomodate a legally required indoor bathroom. And as countries grew wealthier the homes grew to accomodate the influx of goods made in the city or that were traded at home. Eventually technology like the radio and the phone helped manage the flow of information and people so the home became less prone to random visitors and a ‘private’ space could be more clearly established. But how much space do you need to establish that  private space? Is a capsule hotel enough? Is a Hong Kong high rise enough? Is a mid-western 5 bedroom home enough? We don’t have a clear understanding of what enough is because none of us share the same socio-economic conditions nor personal aspirations. Designers and architects have certainly tried to lead the way starting with the concept of ‘Existenz Minimum’ in the early 1920s which led to lots of ‘decluttering’ hand in hand with more boxy architecture and more industrial materials being used. Purity of form meant purity of spirit and more humble living post-WWI. Well we’re far from that discourse now with East London ‘co-living’ spaces being on par with the size of a UK prison cell. So we have ‘clean living’ and Marie Kondo instead as it’s less affordable for most to decide to buy a designer home or designer furniture. But technology doesn’t contribute to this much as its often about adding things to the home, not taking things away. So there’s a tension there. We have a lot less technologies lying around because of computers (rolodex, calculators, alarm clocks) but we consume more power than the industrial sector and new connected produce experiences are asking us to keep spending on things that use up power. Not really minimal nor clean.


Lesson 3: Inventors come first, noone remembers them.

We don’t talk about invention much anymore but I think that the last 18 years of internet of things development has been invention. Noone remembers the inventor of the telephone (Antonion Meucci) nor the lightbulb (Joseph Swann). So perhaps noone will remember pioneers of the physical computing age in 80 years. It’s already complicated enough to understand the real stories behind the beginnings of Apple, Microsoft and Google, image in 50 years! I sometimes think we know far more about the world before industrialisation than after. Test units, production batches, mass production all make it really difficult to ascertain process, influence and collaboration.  Industrial design history is littered with inaccuracies, ‘circa’ next to production dates in museums, falsehoods which aren’t referenced. It’s a minefield. I just spent a couple of days researching the cantilever chair which was technically invented by a number of people who never made them ‘pretty’ and then Mart Stam, a dutch architect sees a collapsible seat in a car and designs a tubular cantilever chair. People then say he designed the first cantilever chair. He didn’t, he just made it visually iconic. And then Marcel Breuer chimed in and so did Mies Van der Rohe and Eileen Gray. Not the inventors. The advertisers. The myth makers. That discrepancy is important when putting people on pedestals.


Lesson 4: The home and it’s forever servants

Most western nations don’t have servants anymore. But they might have occasional maids, assistants, virtual assistants and voice assistants. We use TaskRabbit, LaundryApp, Deliveroo and Amazon Key. For all intensive purpose, we still have servants who do low-paid jobs that facilitate our home life. If we’re super posh (or in the Middle East, super rich) we have live-in maids whose passports we confiscate. And human trafficking is a real problem. But we still develop interfaces that promote a relationship of power and servitude with our conencted products. I don’t have to yell ‘thank you’ at Alexa and she doesn’t yell back ‘you’re welcome’. I think Jeeves and HAL got treated better than Alexa does. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman? Which brings me to the last point.


Lesson 5: We talk to women as if it was 1957.

Most brand of appliances show happy, smiling parents doing laundry in a washing machine that uses an app with glee. Nobody relates to this. We think ‘oh cool’ and click on Insta/Snapchat/Twitter again for the 10th time in the last minute. We don’t value home interiors and our life at home as we once did as we have almost 50% less people over as we did 10 years ago. We ‘meet’ online, while in our underwear, on our couch, watching Netflix. We don’t need a friend to see our curtain choice, to look at how we laid out our kitchen as a way of signalling how well we’re doing socio-economically. Women in 2018 have other more important societal issues to deal with than buying a connected washing machine. They just about got their partner to do his bit of the house work, now they’re interested in how they might get equal pay. Screw the washing machine. But instead of embracing this change, companies still show us women laughing eating salad. In computing, historically, its the same. Computers were sold to men at work and women in the house to ‘print out shopping lists’ and help kids with their homework. This dates back to 1957 but many of the same language and ideas are still kicking around design schools and R&D departments. 

So all of this makes for a complicated space to design for and in. The book is small, a short read, but an accessible and important one I think for computer scientists, digital designers and product designers alike. Share it far and wide and send it to your institutional library as a suggestion!

Sunday Scraps #3

(Yes I know, not posted on a sunday. Sue me)

Hiroshima / The ugly scandal that cancelled the Nobel Prize / Sugartime / Apollo magazine / Basic Design: a revolution in Art History, the beginning of the Hatton Gallery  / John Pasmore: The Developing process video / This Is Tomorrow (1956) exhibition / Design education: time to reflect (1990) / Euston Road School / White Elephant / Genkan japanese home entrance / Church Going by Philip Larkin  / Quietism / Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate olive cake / Victor Pasmore Gallery / Resurgence magazine / The Theory of the Leisure Class / CNAA art collection of Victor Pasmore / Positive.news / Designs for the Pluriverse / What money can’t buy by Michael Sandel / Automated ethics on Aeon / Open School East in Margate / Moral Psychology Research Lab / Dorothy Parker / London Freud Museum / Matters of Care (book) / On Liberty / Jardins de la Villa de Noailles / Villa Tamaris / Capsule housing plan for low income workers in Spain / Chateau La Coste / Bernar Venet / Darmstadt Artist Colony / Dora Maar / Espace de l’Art Concret / Mougins Museum / Rene Pechere / Beau travail (1999) / Pierre Bonnard / Surrealism, Sex & Sadomasochism / Schindler House / Bokklubben World Library / Peggy Guggenheim / Derwent Museum / Hotel La Serra in Ivrea / Deontological ethics / A translator’s son (I would be a daughter) / explanation for ‘stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus’.