All things, connected and considered.

(Talk given at a Telenor event in Oslo on January 10th 2017.)

I’ve just come back from CES in Las Vegas and I can tell you, what can be connected is definitely on its way to being connected.

Cities, homes, cars and much more. But the devil is in the details so I’ll be the devil’s advocate.

Who is paying?

Smart cities is an area where connecting everything sounds like a great idea. Hello Lamp Post is a great, playful example of what we should be able to expect from our city’s infrastructure. The problem is of course that there is almost no such thing as ‘public goods’. The bins are made by a private company (Big Belly  for eg.) and installed by another private company (Veolia). Your water is distributed by a private company, so is your energy. Connecting these various elements to make a citizen’s life easier isn’t actually easy. Cars are very disruptive to a city’s pollution levels but collecting parking fines is an important source of finance for cities. And if a city isn’t collecting much taxes it will avoid spending it on investments where the ROI isn’t important enough. Many connected services also need capital investments that cities can’t afford. To offer smart parking you’d need to strap a camera on every street light or more dramatically dig out the tarmac to put sensors in the ground. Sounds great but if this isn’t financed artificially (EU-funding or other) many cities would prefer pouring their money in waste management, policing and emergency services as they are where financial planning is more predictable. Moving away from the status quo comes at a price for the cities that would benefit the most from connected services simply because the capital investment, to make a real difference, is too large.

Who is buying?

CES was full of connected pet trackers, fridges, ovens and other novel applications of connectivity. There is often a lag between the ability to technically execute a new product offering and when consumers buy into them. The microwave for eg. was patented in 1945  but it wasn’t until the 80s that it became a household item in 90% of American homes. The first mobile phone was developed in 1973 but until the 2000s most people didn’t own one for leisure. An early instance of a connected fridge delivery service was meant to be developed in 2001 by Tesco the british retail giant and Glue, a swedish company has just received funding to do the same last year. But it only works with Scandinavian locks. That’s the type of problems you get when you try to scale and that’s how long ideas can take to be developed and adopted. It’s also rare that entirely new categories are created.

Global vs local scales of development

The world isn’t flat. Even McDonalds makes its product differently for everyone. Nest worked in the US because there you can do whatever you want to your electric system. In the UK however, it’s illegal to play around with your electric setup so you need an approved installer. The scalability of connected solutions always sounds nice on paper but the reality of hardware is different. People’s habits and behaviours are also different around products. People honk in the west to indicate their frustrations but in India, you honk to let someone know you’re behind them. On some American roads speeding is expected and flashing your lights indicates to others there is a police car nearby. Imagine a smart car in these contexts, the same sensors would create a very different map of cities and driving behaviours if you are locally aware. They would not make any sense if you are looking at the data through a machine’s view only.

Connected? Really?

Seamless connectivity is a dream we hold on to for the development of many products. But the reality is our cities, countrysides, rural areas and even our homes make for very different connectivity environments. Recognising that multiple modes of communication are needed at any point is hard, it’s expensive. The chipset prices vary widely so product designers tend to pick one over others and pay the price at some stage. The idea of seamless connectivity is dangerous because it fouls consumers into thinking they should be getting it from the get go. We’re not that lucky and the quicker we can manage expectations or offer alternatives the better. It’s expensive as it means handling returns but it’s the right thing to do.

Data, whose data?

Speaking of the right thing to do, well the internet of things presents us with many opportunities to inform consumers about their data and what rights they have over it. So why don’t we? Most consumers have absolutely no idea what happens to the data they create when using a product. No idea as to when that data is being taken and where it ends up, or even what it is. This will present the industry with ethical and corporate social responsibility problems. I’ve proposed a labelling system which is far from perfect but whoever decides to implement this first will lead the industry in being transparent about the invisible strands between a consumer and the company they are invisible linked to.

Damn pesky people

At the end of the day there is also the dirty secret of connectivity which is that you know precisely when and where someone has stopped using your service or how ineffective it may be. And instead of admitting it, most companies stay mute. Wearables are a perfect example, as they are linked to an unhealthy habit of thinking, every January usually, that you’ll lose weight this year. Most people stop using them within a short period of time and it has very little effect in changing our habits it turns out. Instead of building return/reuse services or a deeper more tailored service, wearable companies take whatever data they can get and move on to the next consumer. What a lost opportunity to change people’s lives for the best.

Common good(s)

Finally if there is an aspect of society which connectivity and telcos like Telenor can help build and invest in well it’s to build solutions to problems no-one wants to address, the problems for which markets are terribly ill-equipped. The elderly care market, personal security devices, smart flood warning systems and others are niche applications that can change people’s lives. The ability to execute small pilot projects to prove to other partners the effectiveness of a solution is key. Only companies like Telenor have the capital to invest in these kinds of solutions, solutions where a little bit of connectivity will go a long way.

The end of design

I just came back from CES (thanks to Here for flying me over to see their work, I’ll write about that soon too) and wanted to write down some thoughts I’ve been having over the past few months which crystallised during this trip. I’ll be giving a talk tomorrow in Oslo at an event organised by Telenor which will touch some of what I’ll write about here too.

I’ve been thinking about product design. Technically I studied industrial design, graduated from a B.A.(Sc) Sp. in 2004. We were never introduced to programming, computer science principles, electronics design or prototyping and the internet was an image search tool for presentations. That was 2004 but I have met people who still constrain their product design career that way. The course I studied has basically not changed while over the past 12 years, product design has been taken away from ‘designers’ to become an extension of computing and the latest technology.

A product has become a physical manifestation of computing capability, with little concern given to the ‘user’ because it is now so cheap to produce something physically, that whether someone finds a product ‘useful’ or not hardly matters. It’s about what the ‘user’ can contribute to the computing power and the technology. The function is almost accidental. A physical product is no longer a tool to solve an actual problem. The design of the product is now simply a process of execution of a technological capability, not the core value. The physical product, just an accidental interface to a land of data to be mined. It is a physical access point to people’s behaviours, language skills and habits in their home, cars and at work.

A bit like Narcissus, looking into the mirror, we want our technical capabilities to mirror us. We are making the mirror.

Robots and assistants at CES were a great examples of design by technologists, of that mirror made physical. I worked for over 2 years for an EU-funded  social robotics project and the computing technology has hardly improved (mostly relying on great copywriters) but the access to design means that simple, clunky technology can be made to look final and believable enough for consumers. Some of the ‘robot companions’ you can find in the CES Robotics Marketplace included Abilix, Koova, Unibot, Furo-i Home, Loobot (don’t ask), Alpha 2, Laundroid (no product pics), Nannybot and i-RobiQ. All a little hopeless, there was also Kuri a gender-confused (copy uses both he and she but not it) home robot launched by Mayfield Robotics. The CTO’s interviewed talks about the technical ability to make robots cost effective, not the fact that there was a great need for them. And that’s the problem in a nutshell.

The expression ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’ will become ‘now that we did, why did we again?’ as user and need-driven design has completely disappeared in the developed world.

Our biggest problems  have nothing to do with connectivity and technology but we’re enjoying the engineering-led distraction.

Environmental responsibility, ridiculous packaging, data ownership are all areas that people have been thinking and writing about for over 70 years and we have done, as designers, almost nothing about them. At least not enough to fill the halls of CES.

So design, as it was once conceived, is no longer the glue between technical capabilities and user needs. It is simply the physicalisation tool of technologists with no real understanding or appetite for real needs as there are better, advertising led ways of making money. Hardware doesn’t make you money anymore.

How did we get here? Well the design industry just went to sleep. It’s star system (Stark, Rashid, Béhar, Mooi, etc) is decades old and young talent distracted by it.

For a product designer to want to learn about technology, he/she would not be going to a traditional design course but then he’d lose out on some of the technical essentials of design. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

There is not yet a space for graduate design education that caters to this new world, that fights back. A world that teaches people that to build great products, a design education isn’t enough, you need financing, marketing, engineering and manufacturing partners. You, actually, need to be a design entrepreneur in order to control the user-need driven vision you are taught in design education.  And that’s hard to tell someone who, at 18 or 19,  just knows that they like to draw.

I’d like to try to build such a design program longer term. If you’d like to talk about that drop me a line at alex at designswarm dot com. Let’s keep calm, but let’s not carry on. There is much work to do.

 

Happy New Year!

So you want an internet of things strategy?

I’ve been giving talks and having lots of meetings with executives across a number of different industries who are interested in the internet of things and aren’t quite sure what to do. Based on the past ten years of my work around this topic, here are some high-level recommendations.

Assumptions: chances are you have a research department or the product arm of your business is changing because your industry is changing. Latching on to the internet of things, AR/VR, cloud and digital is likely to help you solve some problems but not all. Chances are you need a change of culture and a change of senior management. This article is specifically for your business if you’ve decided to commit to #iot as a topic area and are ready to commit to it for a minimum of 3 years.

  1. Think about legacy

Staff turn-around in technical teams can be high (especially if they’re young) and chances are you’ll be recruiting web developers, creative technologists, industrial designers and electronics engineer as part of a good team that can prototype new connected product ideas for your business. These teams, when they work well are self-sufficient and therefore a culture of quick iterative prototypes is developed. This culture clashes with the need for comprehensive documentation of each idea. Successful high resolution prototypes are one thing but the interesting little prototypes that lead you there are just as important. Making sure code, circuitboard diagrams, BoMs and demo videos are available is important to make sure someone in Marketing or the next technical lead can understand a development process.

  1. Know your history and your landscape

You are joining a rich ecology of startups, government programs, tools and standards groups. You’re not doing this on your own so you better get used to collaborating with others that may have competing interests but are much smaller than you and have developed better tools. It takes a particular type of humility but what you’ll get out of it will stand out from what’s being done by your industry. The point of the internet of things is the breakdown of industry silos. The trick here is to grow a circle of ‘care’ so work with people in a way that opens up your abilities and your contacts so they can do the same. That’s why it’s the internet of things and not the intranet of things. People expect APIs for your services and the open mind to go with it.

  1. Help users get literate

In light of the recent splat of press about the internet of things and security we have to work as an industry to give people the tools to know what they should do. We struggle to do this online already and when things are added to the mix of course it complexifies things a lot, but the opportunity here is for a decent amount of time spent with end-users, not just ‘personas’ who are so loved by some design thinkers. There’s nothing like giving people something to live with for a while (be it either at home or at work) to get great feedback and highlight opportunities. It’s not with post-its, it’s not with ideas, it’s with functional high resolution prototypes that you’ll have to invest in fabrication. This means spending months (a long-term trial of the average social robot is 3 months) with customers finding out how your product fits. Only then will you have something that can change people’s lives (at work or at home!) and only then can you help them understand the risks best.

  1. Be patient

Don’t assume you’ll be able to create value for your organisation quickly, getting teams to work together and have good ideas they can prototype and iterate (takes ages to order parts) and then getting something that’s unique enough to showcase once a year at CES means that to get noticed and the right partners on board long term you’ll have to do this for some years. You’ll learn a lot and try to trust your team to work slowly but steadily. It’s difficult when you’re probably tied to whatever you can do within a financial quarter but if you want to change your business, that’s the price to pay. Try not to change innovation managers too often that’s really disruptive to the process and technical teams and jeopardises progress. Also give them a good budget, they have to buy machinery and parts! :)

Good luck!

 

Day 3 of Mozilla OpenIOT DesignSprint

mapsdataexport-2016-06-22Not a particularly productive day (I may be nursing a cold) today but lots of thinking about what we know, what we don’t know and what we choose to ignore.

It turns out for example that there isn’t any regulation on what distance is required for you to be able to use the term ‘local’on your packaging. Waitrose decided on 30 miles. In the US you can go up to 640km to call something ‘local’ or ‘regional’.

This also made me think about the distance itself. Where a cow is raised for example isn’t where it will be killed but will probably be where it will be butchered. When the farm gets the pieces back it isn’t even sure that it comes from the animals that were sent in. Often the labour is cheap and untrained so bits like the pigs cheeks don’t ever come back to the farmer even if they are highly desirable by cooks in local kitchens. The meat will then travel to the consumer. So is the food mile considering that whole trip? I’m not sure.

I also thought I’d map out the UK’s official slaughterhouses that deal with cows, pigs, horses and deer (ungulates). Not many around London obviously. But also not many period considering we’re feeding over 65M people.

I was also reminded of the BBC Radio 4 show on EL Shumacher an economics thinker and philosopher in the 70s. There’s a college in the UK that takes his philosophy into practice and there’s a lovely sounding sustainable food workshop next month. I wish I could attend.

I think for this Friday I’d like to think about what we’d do if we knew how far away things had to travel to get to us. Would we be surprised about it? Would we spend more / less? Would it make any difference?

This may take the shape of a little ‘low carbon market’.

New Creatives

I recently gave a talk at the closing event of an EU-funded program to support the creative industries around Coventry and it gave me an opportunity to think about my ‘practice’.

This is a word people in the creative industries like. It sounds like ‘craft’ but with more intent, more direction. I don’t think of what I do as a practice, I don’t have a studio space anymore, and I don’t work with other people in that studio space.

However, I do know plenty of people who have studios and even more people (who I’m calling New Creatives as an hommage to James’ New Aesthetic) who add to those studios in ways I find compelling & admire.

I wanted to share what New Creatives are for me if only to shine a light on new ways of working in the creative industries, ways which the government does not acknowledge when it defines these industries but ways which lead to innovation across a number of disciplines.

A definition

If I had to define a New Creative, I would say it is:

 

A flexible professional who uses their knowledge of programming to lead the early stage of client projects in the arts and/or product design.

What I’m implying in this definition:

  • That person usually works as a freelancer (with their own registered company) or as part of a micro-SME (less than 5 employees).
  • They have a deep knowledge of programming because they studied computer science or they are self-taught programmers.
  • They work for clients.
  • They may not be fussed about working with people who will publicly recognise their contribution.
  • They can act as both a creative lead and a technical lead.
  • They are often involved in the early stages of a client project, rarely staying for more than 2 years and often moving on after a few months.
  • They have developed skills in product design and manufacturing through education platforms like the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi and others.
  • New Creatives understand and adapt to product design and software development processes and timelines.

What’s new?

In New Media Arts and now the internet of things, clients are turning to these New Creatives to integrate a creative and technological conversation which would traditionally have taken a whole team often working in silos. The external state of the New Creative allows him/her to work in isolation to business processes that might be blocking innovation as well. This doesn’t mean the work done by the New Creative always fundamentally disrupts a business completely, but simply that their broad skillset allows them to have an impact more quickly. In that sense, the traditional tension between a designer and an engineer is removed because the New Creative is both.

You could see this as a threat to the design industry, but it’s not quite the case. A New Creative simply allows their clients to move away from traditional design values & processes (strong sense of authorship, long-lasting impact, expensive market research and mass production) by replacing it with a variant of software design processes (iterative prototyping, proof of concept and design fiction as a tool for communication) and assessing the results in different ways.

Their engagement though is ephemeral and they quickly move on from organisations, so their value needs to ultimately be internalised by the client in the form of changing HR practices or restructuring whole business processes. Easier said than done. But the New Creative doesn’t care, because he/she has already found work elsewhere.

They are highly autonomous and well paid which allows them plenty of time to keep learning about other design processes whether that’s electronics design, CAD, sewing, photography, film whatever will get them to contextualise and examine the impact of software in new ways.

Where do they come from?

Most of the New Creatives I’ve had the pleasure of encountering did Computer Science at university but with an interest or minor in humanities. Some came to CS later on in life.

This means that our art and design schools are terrible at creating the type of real multi-disciplinarity which our societies need to come up with innovative ideas based on complexity.

Why should you care?

Not unlike a unicorn, these New Creatives are a great way to see the future marriage of technology and creative industries. Too often funded differently, with separate conferences and separate trade-shows, New Creatives point to a more integrated education, workplace and future ideas. Catch em while you can!

 

 

What does it do? A proposal for connected product labelling.

iot_standard_visual_license

 

 

 

 

 

The problem with connected products is (among other things) that they have a life beyond our actual use of them. Data is collected by manufacturers about how we use our lightbulbs, wristbands, thermostats and more. That data is collected at a particular rate and we often don’t have access to it.

So what can we do about it? Well very little for now because most consumers don’t know this is happening at all. Once the packaging thrown out, we sortof forget what’s going on.

Standards around recyclability of an object and safety means companies are forced to print a little logo or CE and UL marks but there is yet to be any such tools forcing manufacturers to share information with consumers about their use of our data with a connected physical product.

I think this should change and have shared a first stab at what this should look like.

Broadly I think companies should be sharing information on a basic level such as whether data is being sent to the cloud and collected or not. At what rate that data is being sent and using what type of communications technology.

Additionally I think we should all have access to the data we share with companies in a human-readable format. We can then decide to archive the data elsewhere or delete it. This is regardless of our technology literacy and mobile phone access. You should be able to pick up an object and see things about it online that relate to you.

This may be something we can use the .iot domain for for example (if ICANN wants to act in this space).

There are lots of things to figure out with this idea (security of access to archive and delete functions for eg.) but I think we need to start somewhere.

Ten years of the internet of things through the eyes of Gartner

The end of the summer marks the return to school and a time to digest our favorite summer publication: the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies Chart. Every year I feel a bit confused about this graph. Folks in B2B sectors swear by it and have pointed out that in the last two years the internet of things reached the dangerous ‘peak of inflated expectations’.

Keen to dispel this largely constructed myth, I wanted to map out the last 10 years of this chart, analyse how the internet of things discourse is ongoing and show that this yearly report is nothing more than a snapshot of anxieties and aspirations in the technology sector as well as a reflection of what technologists really wish would pick up regardless of reality.

If you decide not to read on and just click on the pretty picture:

  • In yellow: topics which I connect to the internet of things 
  • In orange: topics related to 3D printing
  • In blue: random topics which Gartner don’t seem to want to kill off when many other come and go.

designswarm_10yearsofiot_gartner

In the beginning there was nothing

So let’s go back to 2005. I was still in Ivrea and the Arduino had just made its first batch.  What does anyone know about the internet of things? Well judging by that year’s chart nothing. Nevermind that Kevin Ashton had coined the term back in 2001 and that Nabaztag and Ambient Devices were going strong. There is nothing but RFID and mesh network love for the 2005-2009 charts. And because we’re in the throngs of Second Life love-in, augmented reality and virtual worlds start to make an appearance and basically never leave the chart. The only virtual reality headset I’ve seen in the wild is in the BBC R&D’s North Lab over a year ago. Just saying.

Smart health

The 2009 chart sees the first appearance of Home Health Monitoring. It reappears again in 2012 but doesn’t come back again. Why? Well noone likes to think about death, not designers, not technologists, even if there’s a huge amount of money there. It’s also an area massively regulated making it difficult for startups to get involved in but certainly not possible (just ask GlowcapsKemuri or Lively). You don’t need to look very deeply to see that the health sector and families dealing with chronic illness and palliative care could do with innovative services but somehow these existing companies don’t help this term make a reappearance in its own right. Robots (first described as mobile then smart) on the other hand have been moving up and down the beginning of the chart since 2007. Having worked on a social robots project in the past I think the chart also reflects the amount of press particular areas receive.

Late on the 3D printing game?

The path of 3D printing is the proof of this. I studied industrial design from 200-2004 and 3D printing was an integral part of our education with resources available and cost for prototyping rather low for one offs but it doesn’t make it onto the chart until 2007, the year a commercial printer is available below $10K. The Makerbot, which offered open-source 3D printing for a lot less, launched in 2009  but it isn’t till 2013 that the chart separates ‘Consumer’ from ‘Entreprise’ 3D printing. They were also mapped  at very different levels, but considering Makerbot’s acquisition and recent layoffs in 2014, I’m not sure how long ‘Consumer’ 3D printing will stay on this list at all.

Aspirational thinking

Topics and technologies tend to either linger on or come and go on the chart. Lots of blogging then micro-blogging between 2005-2011 until they simply dissappear. Tele conferencing and Virtual assistants come and go to disappear in 2010. Virtual worlds and augmented reality never leave the chart and one has to wonder why the insistence. Knowing a little about how Gartner does their research, this could be down to simply lobbying. This isn’t a scientific view after all even if industry treats it as so.

Multiplying endlessly.

So back to the internet of things, well as a separate item, it only appears in 2011, almost as NFC takes over from RFID (basically the same technology) meaning that the term is important enough to be considered on its own even of it’s not a technology at all. It’s an aggregate of technologies. So weak is the definition of the internet of things in the context of this chart that the subsequent years see the random appearance of topics which I’d have included under it: wearables, smart workplaces, smart homes, connected homes, human augmentation, biochips. etc. It feels like this year, the map was really just playing internet of things vocabulary bingo. The disappearance of ‘M2M technologies’ and the oddly named ‘consumer telematics’ is odd as well as the consumer and industry sides of the internet of things are often wrongly confused.

The even weirder ‘People-Literate technology’ points to a general trend in recognising the role of user-centered design, but that’s not a technology and I’m sure all technology providers have realised this at some point in their development.

But you know, still robots and virtual reality.

So why should anyone care about this chart? Well I think when presented in aggregate it speaks volumes about what we aspire to develop over time regardless of industry reality and what we too easily dismiss.

For internet of things developers, we should take comfort in seeing that #iot has been growing and that even if the terminology is getting muddled, it’s been here to stay for some time wherever it sits on the chart, because its position doesn’t matter, it’s the fact that it’s there at all, in multiple guises, its success and growth hiding in plain sight.

Making ourselves happy

I just got off recording a podcast which was focused on AI and sci-fi. Not my favorite topics. Reminded me of a moment in the excellent Déclin de l’Empire Américain (1986).

Ce qui veut dire qu’un mariage réussi n’a rien à voir avec le bonheur personnel de deux individus mariés ensemble. À la limite, la question ne se pose même pas. Comme si une société en développement se préoccupait davantage du bien collectif ou d’un bonheur hypothétique futur plutôt que de satisfactions individuelles immédiates. […] Et je pose la question paradoxale : cette volonté exacerbée de bonheur individuel que nous observons maintenant dans nos sociétés n’est-elle pas, en fin de compte, historiquement liée au déclin de l’empire américain que nous avons commencé à vivre ?

I’ll attempt a translation.

‘ This means that marriage has nothing to do with the personal happiness of the two married individuals. Actually it’s as if the question doesn’t even come up. As if a developing society is more concerned with collective happiness or a hypothetical future happiness than immediate individual  satisfactions […] And I ask the paradoxical question: isn’t this focus on individual happiness that we now observe in our society today, in the end, historically linked to the decline of the american empire which we have started to experience?’

It came to me as we discussed progress, innovation and ways of making our individual lives more effective, efficient, full of personal happiness and fulfilment. It’s harder to care about others, what we have to engage with collectively. Easier to shave off seconds from cooking or booking experience. So we have more time to check Facebook perhaps.

How to get people to make things for you

We’re a week away from the deadline for the Smart Oxford Challenge and I was asked if this was a hackathon. That expression and the format it has come to represent gives me the heeby-jeebies so I wanted to share why, and what makes the Challenge different.  This is coming from ten years of organising events around the internet of things (up to 60 attendees on average) as well as being a producer for the Mozilla Festival during it’s first 2 years in London (600-800 attendees).

What is a hackathon?

Generally speaking this is the format of a “classic” hackathon (obviously there are variations):

  • A company sets a theme
  • Developers are invited to take a day or two (often on a weekend) of their time to address that theme and build prototypes
  • Pizza is dished out
  • A judging panel arrives at the end of the event and teams pitch
  • There may be a prize at the end of it for the “winner”

What’s good about this?

  • This might give developers some dedicated time to work on something they’ve been interested in and not had the time to work on because of other work commitments.
  • This acts as an easy networking opportunity for developers.
  • On a good day, they may take the work they’ve done during the hackathon and quit their day job and work the idea into a company.

What’s wrong with this?

  • The theme is there because the business has a problem it could probably address by hiring a small number of the right experts.
  • If the problem is artificial, then it’s a marketing exercise. As long as its clear to attendees and the business that’s fine, but it’s rarely clear.
  • Developers are highly paid professionals who care about the work they do. Asking them to spend unpaid time on someone else’s problem is hard especially if the event is on the weekend and they have a family.  This may work if they are young and looking for freelance work but the good freelance developers I know would run a mile.
  • There isn’t usually a clear IP situation. Who owns the work done?  If this isn’t clear you can be sure that the best idea will not be developed on the day and will be squirrelled away by the developer to work on independently.
  • The food is terrible, and usually doesn’t cater to allergies and intolerances. This puts everyone in a bad mood. Productivity and happiness will always be affected by food, unless you’re on Soylent (barf).
  • Offering a prize is tacky and problematic if it’s a low cash prize or an iPad. It’s a weak symbol of your appreciation. If anything, something more interesting (box tickets for a sports event or a trip somewhere) would go a long way.

So how do you do this differently?

There are in my experience two routes to the development of good ideas by smart people: pay smart people to look at what you’re doing and tell you what they think / build alternatives or support smart people in developing their existing ideas.

1. Pay smart people to look at what you’re doing and tell you what they think

No this isn’t about getting a management consultant in. This is about exposing a small but diverse group of people (less than 15 ideally) to what you’re doing as a business and work in teams (2-3 no more) to work out better ways of doing it. The duration of the exercise depends what kinds of results you want. The higher the resolution of the response (functional prototypes etc), the more time and materials you’ll need. I wouldn’t push beyond a week though. They’ll have other things to do with their time :) But everyone is paid and happy to be there and they meet and work with people they’ve not worked with before. This group of people can come outside the business or all over your business. As long as they are all coming at the problem from different spaces this will work. I’ve worked like this with clients like EDF, American Express and the British Standards Institute.

2. Support smart people in developing their existing ideas

There are so many startups who need help at various levels especially when it comes to #iot. I started thinking about how to really help them as I was encountering all sorts of problems with Good Night Lamp and finding it difficult to get expert advice for little money. I started by organising a showcase for British Gas two years ago where over 60 startups were able to show their products to the British Gas venture team and management. There were some cash prizes for the top 3 but that wasn’t really the point. The startups were able to meet others like them who shared similar challenges in the tricky business of energy-based #iot solutions. Last year, I helped the Digital Catapult scope the best ways to help #iot startups and ended up running a pilot event called Boost.    Ten experts were invited to offer 30 minute clinics to startups and discuss their problems. We ended the day with nibbles and a showcase. This was a great event but I thought I’d missed a trick.

The Smart Oxford Challenge borrows heavily from that model and will see selected smart cities teams and individuals come and spend time with experts on topics which they have identified and at the end of the day, they will get to meet city officials and pitch their idea. This is really to not only support and help but help champion and open doors for startups. Building a community around what a business does has to be about opening doors over a short period of time (the event is one day) with no strings attached (the event is free and no equity or IP is at play). Only then can it start to understand what are the challenges of startups and how they can help best. And for clients with R&D departments interested in new areas like the internet of things, this is useful model to gauge where your research should lead you if you try to productise it.

#yearnotes

It’s been a hell of a year, peppered with great work with many clients as our consulting activities ramped up.

This year we’ve done many things:

– Helped finalise the outreach activities of Eyehub, a government funded internet of things demonstrator project

– Wrote a report (pdf) on what connected products businesses needed in the UK for the Digital Catapult. We then helped them test some of those findings by designing and running the Boost event last October.

– Wrote two research papers for Nominet R&D on various verticals of the internet of things.

– Helped a client of the Arduino group understand the types of maker projects that could influence the homes of the future

– Helped support the research efforts of trends and market researchers like Future Foundation, the Future Laboratory, Advantage research, The Futures Company, Sturm und Drang.

– Helped government departments like the Danish Ministry of Rural Affairs understand what makes the UK a great place for the internet of things

– Took part in design and research workshops run across the country and gave talks around the world.

– Gave a freely accessible webinar on the internet of things for RS Components after we helped them with content for their new design centre.

– Ran a paper wearables workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum to feed into Connected, a quarterly paper publication we launched at Thingscon.

– Spent the summer with BBC R&D North Lab and Adrian Woolard‘s team looking at how they approach #iot

– Helped support Tech City UK and the Technology Strategy Board’s promotion of a funding call for internet of things startups. We designed and ran a day of engagement for London startups to meet other potential partners and hear about the details of the competition.

– Just spent two weeks with Wintec Research, an applied research centre in Hamilton New Zealand who offer various technical and research capabilities which are very #iot focused. I’m happy to say we will be helping them grow a UK & European presence in the new year. More to come on that.

– Designed and ran a Demo Day to show off Intel® ‘s new maker-friendly platform Edison to a community of developers. If you’d like to meet the workshop attendees, join us for drinks next week in Shoreditch. We’ll have a tab behind the bar :)

– Ran our first Master Class for investors to understand the internet of things. The next one is up on December 16th.

– And finally this week, after 10 years of slow development, the production of the first batch of Good Night Lamp’s has started. There are still a few on sale, so buy now.

So what’s next? Back in May, I decided to give up our office on Scrutton Street. Shoreditch was getting really expensive and I realised that with all the client work we had, I was only really in the office a day a week. I wanted to experiment with working remotely with Ana and for months we both worked from home. It’s time to experiment with being located somewhere again and as of next week I will be starting a six month residency at the Digital Catapult’s Centre.

This is exciting as it will allow me to test out an idea I’ve been mulling over for the past month. What does a centre of expertise on the internet of things look like? Is it a member’s club? Is it a gallery? Is it a school? These are all models I’m interested in experimenting with and the Centre with great people like Marko Balabanovic and Maurizio Pilu is the perfect place to start to have those conversations. I hope you’ll come say hi and if you’d like to have conversations about these models, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime I hope you’ll join me over startups, mulled wine and mince pies at the Christmas edition of the London Internet of things meetup on the 16th. It’s a showcase event and I’ve designed a little treat for attendees. If i don’t see you then, happy holidays!