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.


The End of Ignorance

This is a transcript of my talk for Webstock ’16.

I’ve been thinking about where the internet of things sits in the grand scheme of the human experience and I’ve come to some conclusions I’d like to share with you.

  1. On ignorance

The word ignorant is an adjective describing a person in the state of being unaware and is often used to describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important information or facts. Ignoramus is commonly used in the UK, Ireland, and the US as a term for someone who is willfully ignorant.


It’s fair to say that we are ignorant of the conditions that surround us. Moreover we are ‘willfully’ ignorant.

We walk down the road and don’t know what is the quality of the air we breath, we don’t know what’s in our water, we don’t know what’s in our food and whether it’s good for us or not. We don’t know where the things that surround us come from and we don’t know who was hurt in that process. We don’t know how much our energy consumption and expense compares to our neighbours, we don’t know how much waste we are producing compared to a similar sized home.

We barely have access to information available that we can digest (what’s a KWh or a calorie anyway) but mostly we know nothing.

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.

We are not invited to know, to discover, to learn because much of the information is being collated, then maintained by private companies. The information we are given back doesn’t allow us to make decisions in any other way than on an individual basis, making the opportunity for collective change almost non-existent. We think that this is a form of respect of our private lives, but in fact it is also a way for us to avoid knowing, discovering and learning collectively. To learn from each other. And being prevented from accessing and developing knowledge prevents us from taking action, capitalism’s ultimate weapon.

Let’s assume this is because we are weak, we are self-absorbed and we lack enough technical literacy to care about all this. What would someone else do?

Let’s imagine Margaret. Margaret is a little girl of 6 and is growing up in the future. She learnt how to code at the same time as learning how to read and write. She was playing with Cubetto and Prelibri when she was a toddler. She got her first Arduino Junior at age 5 and was making small responsive objects out of cardboard. She really wanted to be a vet so use to measure the pulse and temperature  of her cat and dog with a cardboard wearable she made. She learnt to see sensors and technology as just another thing in her world.

She used to tell her parents off about wasting food and used to show them the online facebook data log for her street, showing them how the other kids in the street would recycle more. Every morning she would check the barometer and air quality sensor next to the door to take her face-mask or umbrella accordingly. If the NO2 levels got bad enough on her street and more than 30% of doors were showing the same-ish results this would auto-file an e-petition to her local government to reduce traffic in her local area on health and safety grounds.

She used public transport on her own when she turned 12 and had a GPS-enabled backpack. If she ever felt unsafe or was being bullied, she quickly pulled a string and her bag would send a notification to any open tv screen that belonged to a ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ family along the street she was on. The ID of the phones nearest the bag and a 5 minute audio recording was also logged by the police and saved to their ‘minor incidents’ database. This made her parents feel better about her growing up so quickly.

When she went to high school, she got involved in the volleyball team. She had a bit of asthma so still had an old school Casio watch to keep an eye on how much  stretching she was doing before playing a game. Whenever she had an asthma attack, her pump would log its use and contribute to global research on the incidence and conditions of asthma.  In the changing rooms at school, all the showers were on a timer which helped her understand how much more was being used at home.

Her parents had co-invested with the neighbours to set up a collective PV solar cell on the roof and the energy gathered was split across the 3 flats across the day. This is something they could all check on the go or at home too so they knew when their home had run out of renewable energy and they had to buy some from the local network and the national grid.

Some neighbours have started develop little urban farms. They monitor the soil and have started a local ‘low carbon food’ coop that collects their food and sells them to the people in the neighbourhood, arranging for delivery by bike locally too.

Now Margaret doesn’t exist of course, but the world she lives in almost does. Her expectations of the world around her are different to our and her family and community are a bit different to those of high density urban areas. Mostly, she knows things about her world. She isn’t willfully ignorant. How do we build a world that gets a little closer to hers?

  • We stop considering technology (software and hardware) as an add-on in our children’s education.
  • We pressure our local councils to hire CTOs who have web experience.
  • We don’t just stop at our cities building data dumps (I mean stores) but we pressure them to build applications for it.
  • Government grants should be available for social and civic applications using cheap hardware and that same data.
  • Develop policies that enable scientific research to easily benefit from distributed connected hardware.
  • Force public infrastructural services to have APIs so that others can build better collective communication tools for the information they hold.
  • We look to connect the things around us that we care about, not just each other.
  • We learn how to really collaborate and act locally while thinking about global trends and impact. Being care-ful.

If some of these conditions are met in the near future we may find that we have entered the Age of Knowledge and Action. We will gently brush aside the Information Age and decide that not knowing is simply not good enough. The technologies we have developed should allow us to do all of this easily, but really our actions and attitudes will need to change forever. And that’s a good thing.

The year of the Good Night Lamp

I’ve been a bit quiet about the the Good Night Lamp but this year was major. I actually made and shipped lamps around the world. Here is a rather long breakdown of how I did it, how much it cost and what’s next.

Good Night Lamp

A bit of history I had the idea in 2005 as a student in Italy. I made some rather basic plastic lamp-shaped prototypes with a technician at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea and presented it to Droog who had set us a design brief around single household living in the future. They took it under consideration for about 6 months, but after presenting to their team in Amsterdam (I was living there at the time) they said it didn’t fit their aesthetics. I think it just was too complicated for their whimsical collection. I also had no idea how to manufacture it at all. I had a prototype based on a hacked remote control toy car.

I moved to London in 2007, ran a design studio and the first UK distributor of the Arduino with Massimo Banzi. We talked about it with Matt Biddulph a lot but not much was done. I still had the now empty plastic prototypes on my desk at the office.  We closed Tinker on December 3rd 2010.

In March 2012 after I dusted myself off from closing Tinker, I registered Good Night Lamp Ltd at Companies House, trademarked the name in the UK and booked the second smallest booth you could get at CES 2013. At that time I roped in Adrian McEwen as CTO, John Nussey as Head of Products and Konstantinos Chalaris as Design Lead. We had a two day workshop in the summer of 2012 with Lawrence Archard, an electronics engineer. We came up with the idea of a house as a shape and chose to connect the lamps using wifi based on a very high level cost breakdown.

The Good Night Lamp

Kostas designed the first shape and our distinctive roof angle and we wanted each Little Lamp to connect and share power with the others that might be near it. This would let people build a bit of a village.

How Little Lamps Connect

That summer I also asked around me for financial support and Usman and Blaine came to the rescue with a combined £20K. I used that money to pay for the prototypes to be made by Tom Cecil Studio for CES and get us there (that trip alone cost £14K). I started meeting investors in autumn 2012 and was offered in my first meeting £40K if I could find others to join in. They never materialised so I decided to run a Kickstarter campaign while at CES. We worked with PAN to come up with a video and photography for the campaign. We made a xbee-based prototype and with John, went to Vegas. 

Good Night Lamp at CES 2013

I never realised the press picked up their releases and did their coverage on the Monday while we were still setting up so we missed the boat a tad but the event was a real eye opener. We had a lot of interest in the product but being one of two Kickstarter projects there people really wanted to see a final product. We had some good coverage, but the inability to deliver right there and then really affected people’s perception. ‘That’s interesting’ is something you get a lot when people can’t buy it right there and then. We failed our campaign and investor interest basically disappeared as a result.  I stopped working with the guys as I couldn’t pay them anymore. I went back to square one and continued meeting investors for about 6-8 months and applying for funding and incubators. It was summer 2013 when I understood I was going to have to go it alone with no further financial support than what I could get from the consultancy work I do and the speaking engagements I have. I got an agent (thanks Ben)  and started working with some great clients and just kept going.

I also continued showcasing the Good Night Lamp in the UK at various tradeshows. The most important one for me was the Gadget Show Live in Birmingham.

Good Night Lamp at the Gadget Show 2013!

Visited mostly by working class dads and their sons, their reaction to wifi was quite telling. ‘Oh nan doesn’t have wifi’. So I pretended a 3G version was coming up and got a lot more sign ups for our newsletter. This was the turning point in terms of technological direction towards a GSM version.

In early 2013 I was working with the Eyehub project helping with dissemination, something I’d done with Lirec. I met Eseye at that point, an M2M company based in Guildford. The perfect match for the change I’d decided to make.

I worked with Daniel for about 6 months in early 2014 and he helped with web design and the strategy for production. I went live with a humble little shop and a paypal link (soon replaced by Stripe) in September 2014. 200 lamps were pre-ordered by over 60 customers around the world in a few weeks. I closed the shop link and got to work. The first lamps were shipped to customers in April 2015 and more have sold and shipped for Christmas. I’m now preparing to make about 2K-3K  to sell to the UK, Europe and the US and ride the 2016 Christmas wave properly next year. It’s taken some time to get all the ducks in a row and it’s still work in progress.

Now what

I now have a CE certified product made in batches in the UK.  The enclosure is made by Tom Cecil in London, the electronics and data supplied by Eseye in Guildford and the assembly and shipping will be handled by EPS in Woking. I’ve also been working with Burgopak on some packaging for each lamp before it goes into a box. I’m also working on a proper back end to help manage the lamps remotely with Andrew & Boris. A British product through and through (except for where the electronic components come from sadly) for the UK & EU markets. I’m working on getting a version of the product made in the US (Tennessee & Alabama) for the US market but that’s still in its infancy.  It’s been tiring, stressful and expensive overall and I don’t think I’d do it in the same way if I had to start from scratch.  But it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done.

Here are some very technical pieces of advice for anyone wanting to get into the business of making a consumer connected product.

Making is waiting

There are only 3-4 categories of things you will be ordering (eclosures, electronics, packaging, mis parts, accessories, packaging) but each one of them has a high chance of being delivered late which means you can’t start to really assemble things for *weeks* sometimes. It’s super frustrating, but save yourself and just assume it’s always going to happen and have plenty of plan Bs.  You’re not Apple, chances are you never will be, so you can’t squeeze your vendors aggressively.  Just plan for at least 1 to two months of delays on everything you order.


Keep things very, very local

Even within the London-area which is where the lamps are made, the fact that the enclosures are made in E10 and the rest happening around Guildford means I’m spending a fortune on couriers moving things from one end of London to the other. Customer returns are being returned to me in Brixton so far thanks to a pretty neat Freepost return labels, but then I need to get them couriered to Woking again. Very expensive. So keep every process very close. No working from your bedroom won’t do if you’re making hundreds of something. So have a plan.

Have a really good plan for customer support

Eseye are my first line of support for customer enquiries, this is normal because I don’t have great API access or a back end to connect to, but it makes the process of assessing what’s wrong with a customer really painful.  It’s not their fault, the Good Night Lamp is a unique product in the M2M space. Usually, you’re only taking a sensor reading locally and sending some data back, end of story. And the product isn’t a consumer one, so the user-generated problems don’t really exist. The Good Night Lamp is an ‘if this then that’ structure with units all over the world in real people’s hands. Super tricky to both assess what is going on and where the problem is for a customer. I’m using Zendesk but really don’t like it. Not sure what else to use, so still working that out. Anyway, have a plan.

Expect you’ll lose a lot of money at first

I’ve lost over £70 / lamp so far in unexpected courier costs, returns, delays, pricing, etc. That’s ok as I have other clients too so it helps, but it’s not a long-term strategy. I don’t want someone else’s money to help with that either, I’d rather build a solid business with vendors who all know how to work with each other and work to cover my costs. More importantly, I see it as an investment in my continued eduction as a business owner and designer. This goes against the rhetoric of raising lots of money first and spending it (usually badly) after but I think there’s less pressure this way and the right design decisions are made. This all takes a lot of time, but the rewards happen daily: a nice email from a customer, a good prototype, more ideas for packaging. All part of the job.

Keep talking

I’ll spend more and more of my time in 2016 on marketing the Good Night Lamp and see if it has international appeal. You have to be careful about burning yourself out on these types of things. Because this is my third business, I think I’m more prepared. You can never stop talking about the product and I’ll do that more and more. It may bore the living daylight out of your friends and family, but having a product is like running a marathon. You are rewarded for sticking around and being pig-headed, not tiring yourself too quickly.

I’d never describe the last ten years is as an incredible journey, if anything it’s like hiking up a narrow badly-lit road on the side of a mountain during a blizzard. But I’m there because I want to be there and that’s the difference. Happy New Year everyone.

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







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.


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.

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.