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 ( 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.

Designers of what, when and why?

I’m taking part in this one day event hosted by Domus Academy and they asked me to think about these questions for a video they are filming. I thought I’d document my (longer) responses here.

1. Concerning the what of design. Sixty-five years ago, Ernesto Rogers said that the role of design extended “from the spoon to the city”. What should be the focus of tomorrow’s designer?

I think we have a consciously-constructed view of what design is and what a designer’s role is. We have built ourselves blinkers away from the new forms of human action and invention. Architecture, urban design, product design have always had a belated interest in technological progress. We like to think of ourselves as pioneers, but the pioneers are the marketers, sociologists and engineers that come before there is anything to design. They are the ones to construct the monetary framework for work to take place. Design comes after when someone else has made the capital investment, someone else has taken the risk, someone has failed. Christine Frederick, a home economist, and the wife of a business data publisher, took Frederick Taylor’s engineering work in automotive factories to propose a framework for a more effecient home design and how planned obsolescence was necessary for economic growth. Right there, you could say that all of product design’s current concerns, worries and general society’s sustainable woes were built on this woman’s work. Not a designer. An architect in Germany read her book when it was translated in German several years later and made it real. And the rest is history.

I think we have to get design out of this box of ‘response’. I think we ought to be in the ‘discovery’ and ‘testing’ phase a lot more than we are. We wait, we’re complacent in the global economic systems that destroy nature, we wait for a client, we wait for a need to be badly adressed by someone else. We wait.

We can’t wait anymore, we are needed, we need to collaborate with scientists, ecologists, economists. We need to run businesses, we need to get involved in the whole process of bringing a design to life and to sometimes be involved in the process of killing it.

We need to work with programmers, UX designers, people with skillsets we don’t undersand, because it makes us better at being what we should have been all along: the champion for better decision-making, not just a better looking decision.

2. Concerning the where of design: what should be local, and what should be global?

That’s an important political question. E.F. Shumacher, the philosopher and economist, wrote that making simple, non-violent machines was the way to local economic growth. A baker is such an example. Baking doesn’t scale well, and it provides high quality produce for a local economy.

We have to learn to scale down design, making plastics, metals, electronics components locally if we want to build in economic growth in rural areas.

Small, quiet, non-war driven industry. That’s all hard. High-end affordable, service-based contracts have made consumers expect design to be cheap. To be successful is to sell, to sell world-wide, with free shipping. It makes it impossible to make locally this way, because the pressure is on everyone to be able to afford it.

We have to respond to this and also to the appetite we create. We create appetite for things on the other side of the planet, so even if they are made locally, they are wanted somewhere else.

Last year, I went to Japan and found this really lovely tray in a small village in the Japan Alps. My friend found the same tray in Paris last week. We have accepted that this is success. We may need to change our minds about that but find ways to talk about this without sounding anti-commerce and anti-growth because this is what design drives. Growth and success.

3. Concerning the when of design: should designers focus on the creation of future utopias? Or should designers pay more attention to qualities of the past – and the present?

Designers I think could do with less future gazing and more present fixing. We still have poverty, hunger, air pollution, unemployment in the world. These are all challenges that design should accept and embrace. Designers should be working with UNESCO, Amnesty, the WTO. Design needs to be part of an economic and political conversation that is happening now.

4. Concerning the why of design: many people say that designers need to develop empathy with people in order to understand their needs. Or is empathy a brake on creativity? and what about empathy for the biosphere?

There’s been much written about when empathy means control in the design act. I like the idea of looking at compassion instead. Walking in someone’s shoes is something that should be done more often, but also shouldn’t be limited to the ‘consumer’. Designers should be interested in everyone involved in their practice, their colleagues, their suppliers, their sub-contractors. Everyone benefits or suffers from an act of design in a global economy.

5. If you were to start a Domus Academy masters today, what would be its subject?

I’d love to start a masters in Design, economics and philosophy. I don’t think these fields interact enough and I think technology is presenting us with so many problems (security of employment, social cohesion in the gig economy, UBI, etc) that a broader and more economically-engaged conversation about design is needed. There’s a reason most politicians haven’t studied design but have studied economics, law, history or philosophy. If design wants to become a real agent of change, it needs to get political in an active way and that starts with education.

What a 15 year old girl taught me about tech.

Last year I decided to work with so called ‘young people’. At 36, I realised most of my peers and collaborators were in their late twenties or my age and although many friends were much much older, not many of them were much much younger. So I went to work, taking on 20 something year old Katya as an intern and mentored 19 year old Jolane for a few months. Then last December, my friend who is a teacher at the secondary in front of my house asked me if I knew anyone who could offer a work placement for a talented 15 year old named Lian. She was simultaneously much younger than anyone I had interacted and much older than my nieces. What’s more, I can still remember being 15. So I offered to take her on for a week but instead of getting her to help me with the Good Night Lamp, I thought I’d help her to project herself in the future.

I organised a week of morning study periods, introducing her to graphic design principles, 3D drawing through Tinkercad, presentation skills and blogging. In the afternoons we went to visit friends of mine who works across technology and creativity: Alice Bartlett,Claire Selby, Ling Tan, Becky Stewart, Avril O’Neal and Nat Buckley. This turned out to be really exhausting for her, but she seemed to enjoy herself. By the end of the week she was confident enough to ask questions we hadn’t rehearsed and was taking notes on her own without my prompting. But really I learnt a lot more from this experience than I think she might imagine.

Human experience trumps theory
What made the time we spent with our hosts fantastic was to hear about what led them to where they are now. They spoke about learning, sometimes by accident, about computing. Sometimes they talked about what made them give it up for a while before returning to it later on. They talked about their parents, their teachers, their partners, their experiences travelling, their university course, their first jobs. All this gave me, as their friend, such an amazing insight into their work experience I hadn’t gotten from being a peer. It also put some real humanity into ‘tech’ as a field of practice. Coding wasn’t simply an academic choice, it was one of many these professionals could and sometimes did develop if they wanted to but it wasn’t always necessary.

ICT, IT, Computing, Coding.
A point I had to make to my young friend during our week together is the difference between ICT and well everything else. It’s not really self-evident that these different terms relate to different aspects of the ‘technology’ space and are not interchangeable. This is a real problem as language is culture and if in academia you aren’t using the same words industry is, then young people think you’re talking about something completely different. And of course they might be put off on that basis.

Seeing is believing
We had a lot of fun going *to* our hosts and seeing their environments. Some worked in large businesses with security guards at the door, others had making facilities and co-working spaces, others had small studio spaces in Shoreditch. That variety really puts a face on what the work is like. What it’s like to live a life working in ‘tech’ and creativity. This is very hard to bring to the classroom environment. We also went to see the new Robots exhibition at the Science Museum which brings to life robotics research. She hadn’t been to the museum since she was little. Bringing 15 year olds to technical museums is as valid as bringing smaller kids and perhaps even the parents need to be reminded of this. Seeing is believing.

Having a voice
Finally to hear a professional talking about their work, their career their path is very empowering. It’s a personal story told in an intimate context of their work. It’s powerful and it’s profound. At least it was for me. It made me realise how strong we are and I could remember how guarded I was when I was younger. It made me very proud to know all these people, to call some of them friends even. I hope that meeting them opened up the desire in Lian to have a voice to, to learn to speak and share in such a powerful way. The tech sector needs it so.

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!


Five minutes on smart cities

Introduction given at ESOF16 on July 25th in Manchester.

I’ve been working with Nominet R&D for the past year looking at the progress of over 140 global smart city projects and I wanted to take advantage of my five minutes here to talk talk about what I see are the future challenges of smart cities in a rapidly degrading economic and political global landscape.

Most smart city projects have usually taken a technology-first approach and relied heavily on government and EU funding. After a panel debate I organised last week on Brexit at the meetup, it’s safe to assume we will lose large parts of that funding as EU money disappears and the UK government aims to patch that up with existing funds.

With this, we, strangely, may return to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ message: we will have to get a lot of things done ourselves and own up, as citizens to not only our rights, but our responsibilities in building a future society which is becoming technologically more literate (thanks to Facebook, Pokemon Go and other accessible, comprehensive platforms) but cash-poor. We, I think, owe it to help groups of people find their voice in a world of global market economics.

I’ve been working on a project called Made Near You to help food producers across the UK build a minimal viable digital presence, make themselves findable by tourists and newcomers who move to the country from big cities when they have kids.

It’s not that it’s addressing a complex city problem, but it may help small businesses around the country to participate in these data-laden economies they perhaps haven’t connected to previously.

I’m also interested in championing bottom-up projects such as the Air Quality Egg, the Smart Citizen kit, Buffalo Grid and the Oxford Flood Network. Projects which have very small teams who are under-funded because they address complex problems associated with climate change. But we will not be able to rely on our national and local governments to do ‘the right thing’.

The answer for some, may lie in distancing themselves from the problems of local economies, that is the privilege of the few however.

For the rest of us will have to support these products ourselves. That will become the new normal, the new meaning of smart citizenship, whatever country we may be citizen of on paper.

Open letter to AIGA


Sorry for reaching out unexpectedly, but I’d like to bring something to your attention. I am not a member of AIGA but a professional product and interaction designer and I have been working for over 10 years under as both my company’s URL, digital presence on social media of all sorts, talks internationally, works displayed in museums (MoMa, V&A) and galleries.
So it’s with great disappointment that I see your organisation didn’t bother to do a simple google search to check whether the use of designswarm (for your design swarm events)  would create a conflict with any other companies. The fact that I am a designer makes it doubly insulting. The fact that I reached out on social media to both the organisation’s main account and Seattle accounts with no response whatsoever is even worse.
In any case one would have thought a creative organisation such as yours would have at least reached out to ask, or you know, come up with something different.
I hope you understand my frustration and hope to hear from you soon on this matter. I can be reached at alex at designswarm dot com

Made Near You: making local food businesses shareable & transparent


So to conclude (rather dramatically) last week, here are some notes on what I ended up showcasing at the end of the Mozilla Open IOT Design Sprint in Anstruther, Scotland.

Made Near You (MaNY) is a service which allows food producers who want to encourage local communities and tourists to eat and buy local.

A form allows a food producer (farmer, chocolatier, condiment producer, they all count) would put in their details and link to their e-commerce shop if they have one.


This would allow hotels to print out a map of local food businesses for visitors or local people to look up a post code and see what is around them.


This may lead down the line (this is a bit more of a stretch) to more visual and transparent conversations about the origins of food. Many packages already include where meat is being slaughtered but they are not obliged to share the city, so it ends up saying ‘UK’ which is hardly useful. A more visual map-based way of labelling makes people think about building facilities near them and create business opportunities everywhere.



Finally this is obviously a service that is easy to internationalise and offer local versions for while keeping translation front of mind. It’s usually when we travel abroad and use our money to help other people’s economies that we are most keen to buy locally. We are, regardless of the brexit vote, one world.

Hopefully an idea is interesting enough to move forward, and if you’re interested in a conversation, do get in touch at alex at designswarm dot com





On the potential

(Talk given on March 11th in India at the BusinessWorld IOT Expo.)

I’ve had a lot of friends join large organisations as employees. One of the reasons they cite is often ‘there’s so much potential’ because the brand / business is large, important or global. I always grin.

Since the world of business and technology started taking the internet of things seriously (the Google acquisition of Nest in Jan 2014) it’s very easy to get excited but also complacent about ‘the potential’. We think we can see the potential by extrapolating how we have worked in the past, a convenient future for ourselves.

We think the internet of things sounds like a good idea because in the world of business and technology, we know things (industrial assets, infrastructure, consumer goods) and we also know the internet (infrastructure & services). So we think that the internet of things sounds like a mashup of the two. Like all you have to do is stick the internet on ‘it’. Whatever ‘it’ might be. Indiscriminately and immediately. Bring the two worlds together seamlessly.

I think the reality is far more difficult, and the so-called ’potential’ very different than what we might initially imagine.

Just as a single employee has to reconcile eventually that whatever the potential of their specific role is, they are one of a great many moving pieces, that they may have competing interests to their team and that their team is controlled by budgets that they don’t have control over. So for the internet of things. Noone is an island in the internet of things. Noone has control of the whole equation and furthermore the dependancies are different than the ones we’re used to. Here are some things we will need to get used to when we think about the potential:

Working across industries, divisions and size.

I just co-curated the Bosch ConnectedExperience which took place this week. An event almost 8 months in the making, this was the opportunity for a smaller division of Bosch namely Bosch Software Innovations to bring people across their entire business to the internet of things table. I helped organise a conference track exposing attendees to the wide landscape of the internet of things and different business units offered free and confidential clinics to attendees no matter what their industry, product or idea. Then 4 business units (cars, power tools, sensors and manufacturing divisions) offered a first taste of their developer-facing tools to a group of attendees. No NDAs, open, sometimes even open source. I would have liked to see more business units get involved across the Bosch business, but it was a strong start. A team formed of a UK-based academic and independant software engineers from Switzerland and Germany who had never worked together and only met that day, within a half a day, figured out how to address a small screen on an industrial screwdriver, a component that Bosch buys from outside the business and didn’t have much information on. Suddenly this small screen became a platform for communication to workers as they perform their task. This is the perfect example of what I call ‘lateral work’. It is about a business having the humility to admit that the best ideas in a world of connected experiences may come from an ad-hoc group of people who don’t even work for them. This is hard, and requires an open and collaborative approach to innovation. It requires a business and its stakeholder to have the humility to seek relationships with a world-wide developer community that won’t want to interact with a large business in traditional ways. That’s the potential.

21st century citizenship and city management

When we talk about the potential of the internet of things, the word things often points the imagination towards consumer goods. Things we have in our homes. But the potential sometimes sits with things that are perhaps a little outside of our homes, things that may bring about the city services of the future. A radical change to public utility and what public good looks like. A new sense of citizenship. Bridges that let us know if there’s a flood coming,  an outdoor air quality sensor we might attach to our balcony, a connected geiger counter we might wear, the ability to charge and access the web from a box that has a solar panel, ordering a tractor on demand, these are all products proposed by startups around the world which challenge the way our city officials engage with us and technology contracts. The potential lies, for India perhaps, in being able to take advantage of its historical independant and entrepreneurial spirit to allow a new relationship with its citizens to grow, using new technologies to educate city stakeholders and locally manufacturing the hardware for eg. India can be a model for the world. That’s the potential.

Making the internet of things for everyone

I hate the word niche, it often implies “not middle class white 20 year old men living in California’. That leaves behind a lot of people. Niche can be great for the internet of things. Starting a small company that sells to thousands of customers is what the world is filled with, it’s called the high street and the markets of our cities. Wouldn’t it be terrific to imagine what the internet of things can do for those high street vendors? How many interesting products could be created because they help solve a hyper-local problem with cheap hardware and cheap-ish connectivity?

The Arduino and Raspberry Pi, 2 open source education platforms, have helped people make 1 to 10 of something, but making even just 500 a quarter of something is still very difficult in some parts of the world and incredibly costly. Many incbuators and accelerators immediately think of China when looking to manufacture products but the minimum orders are so high and the linguisitic barrier discourages many. This could clearly be a win for India if its industry is alined and ready to cater to hundreds of something being made for startups worldwide.

The hidden potential of open source

In September 2012 I helped organise the Open IOT Assembly in London. Attendees from all over the world came up with a series of principles which still now feel aspirational. It was called the Open Internet of Things Definition. I don’t know what the state of conversation around openess in India but we can’t talk about standards and interoperability without wondering if we’re not replicating old industrial conversations. Openess as a general principle can allow lots of interesting interactions between companies and their customers. Openess also implies taking responsability and being transparent about how complex systems are built and in an era where we’re not entirely sure where the meat we eat at the local mcdonalds comes from, well there’s a lot of work still to do. We also can’t shy away from wondering what happens to the hardware we deploy when it breaks down or sits there unused. I’m sure Fitbit know exactly how many of us have stopped exercising. Others are taking these principles of openness on around the world and the closed systems of sensor networks and infrastructure are bound to keep an eye on these new initiaties and look for success stories. That’s the potential again, the ability for someone more nimble to change the mind of someone who isn’t. And that, ultimately is exciting for everyone. Big or small. In India or in Indiana.

Anybody Home? Where did design dissapear off to?

Here is the transcript for my talk at IXDA in Helsinki on March 2nd.

Il faut confronter les idées vagues avec des images claires. – Jean-Luc Godard

I want to talk about the areas that were abandoned by design and designers and why they are worth rediscovering.

Hello. On good days I describe myself an industrial designer & an interaction designer. This is what I was trained as and that’s what my degree certificates would say for all the world to see if I ever bothered to frame and hang them. On bad days I say that I’m an internet of things designer. This means nothing to most of the people, I say it because it feels clearer to me than what industrial or interaction design stands for within the internet of things community that has grown worldwide over the last five years.

Making not Designing

Between 2007 and 2010 I was CEO and Co-Founder of later renamed Tinker London, the first UK distributor of the Arduino boards. At the time I was fresh off an interaction design course where I had come up with the Good Night Lamp. Gillian Crampton Smith who is sitting in the room is responsible for this and I would like to thank her for that. We helped promote the use of the Arduino to computer science students. flash developers, web developers, jewellerers, graphic designers and researchers. We ran workshops around the world for the public and for clients. People never thought of the Arduino as supporting a design effort, but it should have been. It should have been the tool that industrial designers would learn about and design higher resolution prototypes so they could own more of the design pie in a project. So that they could stop complaining that people came to them at the last minute with crappy products people just wanted to pretty up. So that they could quit their day jobs and start product companies everywhere. But that wasn’t to be. The Arduino became about other things, about ’making’, about open source, about empowerment, about knowledge barriers were being broken. Not about design. It featured the story of a web developer who had grown a little tired of screens could pick up some electronics skills easily and ‘make something’. Making and designing became separate activities.

A growing community of non-designers designing 

Our workshops always attracted more technically savvy  people than industrial designers, architects, graphic designers or UX designers. The timing was terrible of course, as the Arduino came out the iPhone was launched so UX designers left the table and went to distract themselves with smaller screens. And the industrial designers didn’t engage much at all, preferring to design things for others however frustrating that was than to spend a bit of time understanding how to code and engage with designing electronics. Knowing how to prototype electronics is still not as prevalent as knowing how to draw 10 years on, because we still see more value in someone being able to draw us a scenario of someone using a connected object than build us a prototype to figure out how an interaction feels with the constraints of connectivity and technology. Because oh my god are there constraints. And if you’d prototyped with the technology you’d end up really understanding that making lights switch on and off from around the world seems easy but turns out to be incredibly difficult.

Technical founders, not designers

So between the iPhone and Nest being acquired in early 2014, the internet of things grew slowly and with minimal design community engagement. It’s almost as if designers were waiting to be called up to the table. Design courses might run one or two introductory Arduino classes but nothing that stuck to a designer’s head and more importantly to their fingers. In London, the founders of internet-connected startups have continued to come from technically-savvy professions or graduate program: engineering, electronics engineering, computer science, industrial automation, military applications, sometimes (rarely) advertising. All of them were told about designing for users and user-centric design, but they were not told how. They weren’t even told that design and user-centered research are one and the same. I co-ran a workshop with Dott studio yesterday in London where we invited internet of things startups to come and share their process from coming up with an idea to whatever stage they were at. They were all able to articulate their process and the reasoning behind business decisions, but design was almost completely absent in the first 6 months of development. It was all about the prototyping and testing. No questioning of the ‘why’ not paper prototyping, not user interviews, no personas, nothing.  At best agile software development processes were attempted inside of a mashup of other processes. Forget the double diamond, this was more like the spaghetti plate. And these are the bravest people, they quit their day job, are wrestling to find funding, join incubators, spend a LOT of time on their ideas, but don’t work with designers from the word go. This is crazy when you consider that in London we now have 11 iot meetups and that cities like Prague attracted hundreds of people at its first iot meetup a few months ago.

Screens that hide a world of design opportunities

So if designers aren’t working with startups, maybe they’re working with corporations. But then it’s 2016 and Samsung have released a smart fridge which they call the Home Hub. I had to check my watch to make sure I hadn’t been sent back to the 1950s. Home. Hub. Who spends enough time in the kitchen to think that it is the be all and end all of their home life? 1950s housewives. Noone else. I don’t know a single woman who would have the money to buy this fridge and would spend any time at all in her kitchen. Maybe out of guilt of buying a Home Hub for a while. Where were the designers when this was manufacturered?

Designers go around the world and talk about user-centered design with anger because we don’t understand why people could create such horrors. But that’s because they never showed  in the first place. They didn’t want to become middle managers, then proper managers, they wanted to stay close to the craft of design. So that’s what happens when you dissapear inside a company, when you stop inspiring people about what you do and what values you bring. People design fridges with screens on them because we never told them not to. Designers weren’t important enough, the technologists were.

Designers were given the job of designing the screen’s user experience. Noone stepped up and said: maybe we should rethinking shopping interactions, not the fucking fridge. Not the end point of interaction. But that’s the trouble of the internet of things, there are too many touch points that need designing so we start with the easiest: the screen.

Exciting, shiny screens! Nevermind the systems and the injustice they enable. Screens can be designed! Interactions can be designed. Some interactions.  People’s micro-interactions can be observed without building a physical object, without seeing how quickly they throw your product in the bin or stop using it. Big data up to a point.

Changes can be made on the fly (sortof). Oh the flexibility, oh the addictiveness. Oh the design possibilities. But not for the dying or the bed-ridden. For the middle class who watched a bit too much Downton Abbey. For people who would never want to have an au pair or a cleaner full time living at home, but still want access to those ‘services’. So we designed the glossy touch point of the so-called the sharing economy. The economy of job insecurity, exploitation, property bubble, car-obsession and people who are always hungry but can’t cook. We buy crappy furniture off eBay, we leave the seal on our mobile phones so we can sell them on eBay. We get delivery from our favorite restaurants, we stopped going to hotels, we started renting out our apartment to pay for our retirement or our holidays. We went from designing interiors like they really mattered, like people were going to judge us if our napkins didn’t match our plates, to designing our digital wallpapers. Design now allows us to create social value elsewhere, so why bother with interiors and communities.  So we engage less with our local community or our local councils. We become the high class citizens of nowhere in particular. High-class migrants with an addiction to television shows, craft hamburgers, expensive coffee and personality-less interiors on instagram.

But what about all this stuff we’re designing?

So how can we even start to think about an industrial revolution which would require us to care about our homes and interiors again? Most of the internet of things is about ‘smart home’ or ‘smart city’ service product experiences that feature someone stable, in the 1950s, who will always live in their home.  Someone who knows their neighbours, and organises PTA meetings. Someone uses that fridge’s screen to check the weather and the news. Someone who doesn’t have flatmates because they are too poor to live on their own. Someone who is going to care about the napkins matching the plates. Someone who is going to buy fabric napkins in the first place. Someone who doesn’t exist anymore.

Even Ikea’s Steve Howard says we’ve reached peak stuff, peak home furnishings. Because those things have lost their appeal for us. We’re bored of them, things are much more important online even if that’s not true, it feels true.

Where can design go now?

It’s not true because where we have peaked is in the pointless stuff. We have yet to design the stuff that matters actually. The stuff that is going to permeate our lives soon. We still haven’t seen or thought about the products we’ll need to buy to see if our water is clean, our air is breathable, our family safe and healthy. We still haven’t designed the interactions that will convince our governments that these are important issues and policies need to change. We’ve not even begun to think about how we will deal with the disposal of all the stuff that we’ve decided to through away because we’re reading Marie Kondo. Those are the products and interactions that are going to be really worth designing.

Those companies of course already exist but they don’t do well, they barely exist on the fringes of what you might call success, mostly because designers don’t get involved or they don’t show up to help. It’s too hard, too techy. But that’s precisely why it’s interesting. Why it’s worth doing. Why it’s worth coming out of your comfort zone, why being a designer should be not only about doing total design, both online and offline. The world is changing and you have to change with it too.