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 Tinker.it 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.

End of year review

Thanks to Prof. Dr. Molly Steenson for initiating this habit, this is the 9th year I’ve done these reviews.

1.What did you do in 2015 that you’d never done before?
Went back home five times.

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

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Yes, my adoptive dad two weeks ago.

5. What countries did you visit?
Morocco, France, Ireland, Canada, US, Germany, Luxembourg, Singapore, New Zealand, Sweden.

6. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015?
More time at home.

7. What date from 2015 will remain etched upon your memory?
December 18th.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Shipping the Good Night Lamp.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Not spending much time at home.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A drone for my dad’s last weeks.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
Most politicians.

14. Where did most of your money go?
The Good Night Lamp and flights (again)

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Shipping the Good Night Lamp!

16. What song/album will always remind you of 2013?
The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
More tired.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Writing, and reading books.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

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

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

22. Did you fall in love in 2013?
Already in love.

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

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

26. What was the best book(s) you read?
Mr Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Lord Huron, J.D. McPherson, Sufjan Stevens

28. What did you want and get?
Lots of time with F.

29. What did you want and not get?
More time with F.

30. What were your favourite films of this year?
Drive, St Elmo’s Fire (I never watch films when I’m supposed to)

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
Spent it with family, wrapping Christmas presents.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Less travel.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2015?
Grown up.

34. What kept you sane?
Conversations with J.

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

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Syria (3rd year in a row) and the Brexit.

37. Who did you miss?
M + M (every year)

38. Who was the best new person you met?
S + W in Singapore.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2015.
Keep your family close.

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

“Long afloat on shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile”