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Founding ThingsCon e.V.

February 19, 2017 | By | No Comments

Note: Cross-posting from the ThingsCon blog.

We’re happy to announce that we’re setting up ThingsCon e.V.—a Germany-based membership association—to further promote ThingsCon’s mission: To foster the creation of a human-centric & responsible IoT.

It’s a not-for-profit structure with 7 founding members (as German regulations require) and will be open for new members once the registration process is completed, most likely in April 2017.

A few days ago, we gathered the founding members to kick off the official process (in alphabetical order):

Having this not-for-profit structure will help us interface with other organizations more easily in terms of both advocacy and funding. After all, it’s easier for any organization to interface with another organization rather than a lose network of collaborators backed by a small company as has been the case before.

Simultaneously, our friends in the Netherlands have also set up a foundation for ThingsCon Amsterdam. So we’re very happy that our little rebel alliance for responsible IoT keeps growing and maturing.

It now includes a “core” ThingsCon group made up one association in Germany and the Netherlands plus local organizers, plus (helping out wherever needed) the founders’ companies (The Waving Cat in Germany and The Incredible Machine & info.nl in the Netherlands). And we work very closely and side-by-side with a number of other organizations with aligned values and mission statements including the Just Things Foundation, Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio and others.

With this organically grown, trust-based setup and two associations that make it even easier to join and support our shared cause and mission, we’re in a great position to do what we set out to do: Promote a responsible IoT and make sure that IoT works well for everyone.

Interview: ThingsCon & responsible IoT on RBB

February 16, 2017 | By | No Comments

RBB Kulturradio RBB, a public broadcast radio in Berlin, invited me to chat about smart homes and responsible IoT. So I put my ThingsCon hat on and headed over to their studio earlier today. You can listed to the stream (in German) over on their website:

RBB Kulturradio Tagesthema: Wie intelligent sollen unsere Geräte werden?

A few things were noteworthy to me.

  • Of course a short show like this (with two interview partners and call-in listeners) can only ever scratch the surface.
  • IoT in general and smart homes are areas both simultaneously so vague and concrete that everybody has an opinion and projects all kinds of hopes and fears. (Which is why I advocate breaking IoT discussions down into the most concrete areas—or arenas—possible.)
  • Lots of fears are of course proxies in which one particular technology or feature stand in for a larger personal or societal fear, like unemployment through automation, loss of control, or invasions of privacy.
  • Somewhat unexpectedly to me, Roombas featured prominently. The show’s host, at least one caller, and I all have a Roomba at home and it seems it’s one of the most relatable, most universally considered “useful” appliances in the connected home. That is, if you want to include a Roomba as part of the connected home suite – after all, most models aren’t connected to anything. However in conversations before, during, and after the show people mentioned the issues with the complexity of formerly extremely easy-to-use appliances like connected TVs or radios.

This show is as consumer-oriented a show as there could be rather, so listeners are unlikely to be involved in shaping IoT as practitioners. So we didn’t get to talk much about ethical or responsible IoT as much as I’d hoped to. But it’s also very clear that the topics we’ve been tackling with ThingsCon are arriving in the most mainstream circles, and that there’s a lot of work to do.

Users/consumers/citizens don’t really trust connected systems, and maybe they shouldn’t. Or rather, they shouldn’t unless they know these systems have been designed deliberately to be responsible, ethical, and built for humans. Which is exactly what the ThingsCon community works towards.

During the interview I also mentioned labels or trust marks for connected products/services/systems. A consumer-readable, simple labeling systems to allow for better informed decisions is, in my mind, essential going forward. I’ll certainly try to poke at this and see if we can make something happen, one way or another. I think this won’t be easy, but is far from impossible given the right partners—and I’m confident we can find them.

Top Projects of 2016

February 13, 2017 | By | No Comments

2016 was a tremendously productive year. It’s particularly great to see the range of projects The Waving Cat was involved in. Here are projects that I’d like to highlight.

ThingsCon global

For ThingsCon it was a big year. When I co-founded ThingsCon none of us had any idea about how big this project might grow within just years. From a single conference in Berlin, ThingsCon has grown into a global community (and dare-I-say, a movement?) of practitioners with the mission to foster the creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things. It’s also spread to 20 or so events around the globe, from small meetups to full-blown multi-day conferences. Going forward we’re working on expanding beyond events and into knowledge sharing (our LABS program), advocacy (figuring out how to work with policy makers and consumer protection organizations) and lean into other opportunities as they present themselves. And the global event footprint keeps growing, too! On top of local meetups we’ll see ThingsCon conferences in Amsterdam, London and Shenzhen. <3

Smart Cities & the German federal government

One of the most fascinating client engagement of the last few years was to provide research and policy recommendations to the Federal German Government on how to think about smart cities from a perspective of citizen-empowerment. So Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I co-authored a report as part of a big government publication on urbanization in the 21st century. (Details and an executive summary in this blog post.)

Understanding the Connected Home

Understanding the Connected Home

Together with Michelle Thorne, head of Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio (and full disclosure, my wife) I co-wrote a second, fully revised edition of our ebook Understanding the Connected Home—Thoughts on living in tomorrow’s connected home.

The Good Home

Teaming up with long-time collaborator and good friend Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino of Designswarm and Good Night Lamp we explored ideas for 21st century home living in The Good Home project in a series of workshops and exhibitions. I was very happy (and more than a little proud) that we got to exhibit as part of Fuori Salone in Milan, London Design Festival & the V&A, as well as Mozfest. Alongside the many collaborator projects we featured, I was personally most closely involved in one piece I helped put together: The Privacy Machines Project.

Google IoT Policy

Fascinating work for both the content and the scale of its potential impact: I helped Google HQ draft a global policy around IoT. Like much of the work here at TWC, details are confidential as the work is of an internal nature. Suffice it to say I’m quite proud of the final results and am looking forward to see the results roll out globally.

Co-chaired Interaction16 conference

Interaction, IxDA’s annual interaction design conference, is maybe the most relevant event in that space. I was honored (and very, very happy) to be invited to co-chair it along with Sami Niemelä, and run it together with the fantastic whole gang of the Helsinki chapter of IxDA. (For details see this blog post.)

View Source: Shenzhen

The majority of electronics and connected products (IoT!) are made in Shenzhen, China. So we wondered if it’s possible to leverage Shenzhen’s hardware ecosystem for ThingsCon’s mission—to foster the creation of a responsible & human-centric IoT. A fact-finding and relationship-building expedition was in order! So we got together a merry group of allies from that space: Our long-time collaborators and friends of the Dutch Just Things Foundation and Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio and went to visit Shenzhen. Thanks to our local contact (and now also host of ThingsCon Shenzhen) David Li of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (SZOIL) we had the opportunity to see and learn a lot, and get a great first-hand experience of how stuff gets done (and made) in Shenzhen.

View Source: Things in Shenzhen (beta) from The Incredible Machine on Vimeo.

This short video shares some of our impressions. More importantly, we’ll be back in April to also show around a delegation of another 20 or so European IoT practitioners, participate in the ThingsCon Shenzhen conference, and document at much greater depth what we learn there in order to keep building relations between the European and Shenzhen IoT scenes and promote a responsible IoT.

Dearsouvenir

The company’s first official spin-off, travel and souvenir magazine Dearsouvenir is a joint venture between The Waving Cat, Netzpiloten, and Carry-On Publishing.

Zephyr Berlin

A bit of an outlier project at first glance, Zephyr Berlin is also a deep dive into learning about manufacturing and distribution of physical products. In a (very part-time) team effort, between three friends we designed, crowdfunded, manufactured, and delivered a small batch production of premium pants that are versatile, highly functional and stylish, and travel extremely well. If this was a one-off or if there’s more to come isn’t decided yet, but it was the best first-hand lesson about physical manufacturing we could have wished for.

And to top it all off, I was…

Listed as Top 100 Influencer in IoT

Postscapes included me in their list of Top 100 Influencers in IoT. (Thank you!)

There was plenty more going on, including roles on juries or as a reviewer; some smaller events I helped put together; and other, more low-key collaborations. But the projects above were real highlights for both the company and me personally. I’m incredibly grateful and happy for the opportunity to work on such a wide range of projects and with so many smart, dedicated, interesting people on things that matter.

If you think my perspective can help your organization, ping me. 2017 is shaping up to be a great and interesting year, and I will continue to promote the ideas of a responsible IoT as well as the notion that good ethics and good business go hand in hand.

How to get started on your IoT strategy

February 13, 2017 | By | No Comments

So you finally want to put that Internet of Things (IoT) strategy that you’ve been talking about for years into place in your company. Excellent! The first step to an IoT strategy is to acknowledge the kind of framework to allow for innovation in IoT, and to create the necessary conditions for success.

Over on Designswarm, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino provides some highly relevant pointers to get started:

  1. Think about legacy
  2. Know your history and your landscape
  3. Help users get literate
  4. Be patient

Given I come in less from a product design & development background and rather from a business/product/innovation strategy angle, I’d add some additional aspects:

Think long-term and big picture

It’s important to understand that innovation isn’t a goal but a journey. The most interesting—and potentially most groundbreaking and lucrative—things might very well be those that happen as a side effect. They’re unexpected, projects that bubble up as the mindset and mental focus of product teams, researchers, and management starts to shift. Give it the necessary space, budget, and time to breath unfold. It’ll be worth it.

Top-down support to empower bottom-up innovation

The single biggest point of failure in trying to transform a company towards more innovation—or innovative thinking and practices— is the right mix of top-down and bottom-up. The key is to empower small teams to experiment and learn by giving them strong support from the very top. This, and only this, can ensure that these teams have the resources as well as the mandate to invest into experiments, learning, and exploration. It also is the only way to allow for them to fail: Where there are experiments, there is failure. This needs to be ok.

Change culture to allow for experimentation

Especially in larger companies there is a culture of deliver against very strict KPIs of some sort or another. Yet, often this leads to sub-optimum outcomes. Everybody has seen (or even worked at) an organization where there was a strong culture of looking busy and productive rather than being productive. A lot of the experimentation and learning that lead to great innovation in IoT, and that in fact lead to innovative thinking, practices and culture, doesn’t necessarily look particularly productive. You might see people reading from all kinds of sources, having chats, tinker with wood blocks or Lego, or write bots that generate poems, or whatever: This is a necessary part of the journey. Not from every action there’s an easy-to-spot line to draw to that final new product. Only if the culture allows for this without anyone giving these teams a hard time about this can they deliver.

Also, openness fosters innovation. Encourage researchers and tinkerers to publicly share their research journey, their experiments, their thinking. This allows for an easier exchange with external folks and will make it easier for other in-house teams to be aware what’s going on across the company. The upside will almost invariably outweigh potential downsides.

Allow for external input

A lot of times, internal teams will be guided strongly by the in-house thinking. Nothing wrong with that! However, it can help to get in external input, inspiration, help. Conferences and meetups allow in-house team members to swap ideas with others. Inviting collaborators in—through workshops, talks, long-term collaborations—brings in fresh perspectives.

These rules of thumb can help you get started. When you’re ready to move to the next level and start identifying opportunities around IoT, feel free to ping me. Good luck!

03 Feb

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What connects the Golem, the Royal Society, and ThingsCon?

February 3, 2017 | By |

The Golem Legend

A golem is an assistant or helper on a specific mission—often that mission was protection—brought to life by magic. Creating a golem was a way for medieval Jewish mystics to come closer to god. It quickly also became a metaphor for creating an artificial helper outside of Jewish culture and religion.

In the legends, there is a catch: The golem usually ends up getting out of control, it runs amok. It becomes a danger to its creator. The golem was artificial, soulless, and it wasn’t understood how it worked.

Rabi Loew and Golem, 1899, by Mikoláš Aleš. Source Wikipedia (PD)HAL9000Senora REEM, source Jewish Museum Berlin Rabi Loew creating the Golem (1899 by Mikoláš Aleš, source Wikipedia). HAL9000. Senora REEM (source Jewish Museum Berlin).

Similar narratives play out across different cultures under different names, right up to science fiction and contemporary scientific and philosophic debate. Just think of HAL9000, the Singularity, etc.

As a footnote, historically most golems are thought of as genderless but commonly referred to as male. For example, the maybe most famous of golems, created by Rabbi Loew in Prague in the 1600s was called Josef. Today’s robots and AIs tend to get female personas and voices—playing horribly into gender stereotypes of assistant-type jobs. Gender and bots is tricky business. We should—and can—do better!

The Royal Society

This is Isaac Newton. He’s one of the most influential scientists of all time. Among other things he laid the foundations of classical mechanics. This was groundbreaking, important, fancy new stuff in the 17th century.

Isaac Newton. Source: WikipediaRoyal Society coat of arms. Source: Wikipedia Isaac Newton and the coat of arms of the Royal Society. Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain).

Newton was also one of the first fellows of the Royal Society, a ragtag group of curious tinkerers and knowledge seekers across basements, labs and the “maker spaces” of the time. They were promotors of a shared, enlightened cause: Natural science and the scientific method. Their motto was (and still is) “nullius in verba”: Take nobody’s word for it.

This was in many ways a ragtag group of people (within a very privileged class of course) working on topics no one else was yet investigating. Yet, they essentially laid the foundation for science itself. Their impact on the world is immeasurable. Today, the Royal Society is one of the world’s leading promotors of science.

ThingsCon

The ThingsCon community is also a ragtag group of curious tinkerers and knowledge seekers across basements, labs, and maker spaces. We also promote a shared, enlightened cause: The creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things.

ThingsCon communityMembers of the ThingsCon community adopting our mission statement

Today it’s not mystics summoning golems, it’s the tech industry. We see assistants and helpers for every thinkable purpose: To regulate the temperatures in our houses, make ordering groceries easier, measure our steps or let us remotely check who’s at our doorstep. Yet, how these golem-systems work, and especially how they work together and change our lives over the longer term, isn’t well understood. It’s not magic, of course, but as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously stated: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I believe that, collectively, we can do better than that. We can learn from past mistakes and build a better future—one where our innovations take into account their impact on people, the environment, and society. One that’s focused on improving people’s lives, on inclusivity and diversity, and on empowering communities.

Today, the ThingsCon community—and our ever growing network of allies—is one of the top promoters of a responsible & human-centric IoT. Just imagine what we can do together tomorrow.

02 Feb

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A few thoughts on smart cities today

February 2, 2017 | By |

A recent UK survey shows that large parts of the (UK) public are sceptic over smart cities. Concretely, the 2.300 participant survey indicates that “two thirds of the public are unconvinced of the case for spending public money on smart city technology, and they are worried about the implications for their personal data”.

Smart cities are complex and tricky to discuss

Surveys about large-scale technological and administrational projects (read: infrastructure) tend to be oversimplified. Smart cities as a topic are by any standard complex and tricky to discuss. Still, these results seem plausible to me. Well thought out, too, to be honest.

I’m deeply interested in the role emerging technologies can play in improving people’s lives. That’s why I co-founded ThingsCon and ran The Good Home with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, and it’s what I try to focus on with my work here at my company The Waving Cat in every strategy, policy, or transformation project I’m hired for. And I believe technology is essential in tackling a large range of issues our society faces.

Yet, the smart city space in particular seems to be in an awkward phase: Huge potential, but few really great implementations. If done right, smart cities hold the promise of citizen empowerment galore; often we see solutions looking for problems instead.

And maybe most importantly, just under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances and power dynamics being reinforced in a bad way rather than upended.

Under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances

Last year, Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council for Global Change. Some background, an English-language executive summary and links to all the full (mostly DE) documents are available in this blog post.

Also in 2016, Nominet R&D hired Designswarm to map out the smart city landscapes. (I contributed a little bit of research to the project through Designswarm.)

From that work, through lots of reading and conversations with people in the smart city space, all the way back to Cognitive Cities Conference (which I co-organized back in 2011) there are a few themes that regularly and frequently come up and don’t seem to be going away:

  • Smart city projects are often based on a false premise that an algorithm, given enough and the right kinds of data, could neutrally and perfectly balance the competing needs in an urban society. (It could never, because an algorithm is not biased and it can only act on measurable input, and many legitimate actions, intents, needs, etc. are immaterial and not measurable).
  • The strongest proponents of smart city projects are companies with a background in technology, process optimization, networking, logistics. Think big networking technology and global supply chain management. Why is this relevant? Because in their world, their background, their company culture and thinking efficiency is at the very heart of things. In the context of a sensor-equipped, self-adjusting, smart production pipeline or global cargo tracking system there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But transferring the same approaches to urban public space creates more problems than it solves. The strength of cities is (usually) not efficiency but other characteristics like opportunity, inclusion, serendipity. The current top crop of smart city vendors is (in terms of culture, thinking, offering) not well-equipped to serve and improve citizens by fostering these characteristics.
  • In large-scale smart city projects we see a tendency towards a centralized top-down approach rather than the much more needed focus on bottom-up innovation and citizen empowerment, of which we generally see a lack. Smart city technologies can only unfold their real potential (ie. anything beyond mere efficiency gains) if they empower communities to creatively solve their challenges, if they are open source (and hence can be audited), and decentralized (and hence more resilient).
  • Smart cities and the underlying assumption of unbiased, data-driven management inherently lacks accountability and oversight. (Did someone just say dashboard?) Smart city projects are often provided as a technological turnkey solution to the city administration. Proprietary code means lackluster audits and potentially biased algorithms and data handling, centralization means centralized points of failure rather than resilience.
  • And overall, smart cities are (not always, but often) very pure expressions of market liberal approaches. I don’t say this to make a philosophical argument but rather a very concrete point about the day-to-day of citizens. Smart cities tend to be built in a way that’s very transactional: On demand you can rent a car, switch on the street lights, control that public screen. It’s all very pay-as-you-go. This is great to finance infrastructure through Private-Public Partnerships. However, the flip side of that coin is that those who cannot pay for a transaction do not get to participate in public space. The function of these transactional public (or formerly public) spaces and infrastructures is off limits to the most vulnerable parts of society.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first. Involve citizens decision making around the technologies that they may or may not see impacting their lives. And follow some simple, straightforward guidelines. The de-facto principles that governed and shaped the open web of the early days can serve as an inspiration: decentralization, open source, openness, and a focus on bottom-up innovation.

30 Jan

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Essential writing from 2016

January 30, 2017 | By |

As 2017 is picking up steam and (especially under the ThingsCon banner) we’re working to make it a pivotal year for the creation of a responsible & human-centric internet of things (IoT), it’s worth having a look back at some of last year’s writing output.

Specifically I wrote, or helped write, a number of pieces on a range of topics that I hope will be relevant for a while to come.

Understanding the Connected Home: Thoughts on living in tomorrow’s connected home
Co-authored with Michelle Thorne. Second edition, July 2016.
The second edition of our ebook, fully revised and updated. It’s about designing connected homes in a way that’s great to live in, about the opportunities and challenges inherent in data-driven homes, and about the deeper questions we should ask ourselves when connecting our homes. Available at theconnectedhome.org, in a somewhat shortened, serialized version on Medium (starting here), and on the Kindle Store in a Kindle-optimized version.

Smart cities in the 21st century: Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities
Co-authored with Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber. April 2016.
Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council for Global Change. You can find an English-language executive summary, some background, and all the links to the full documents (DE) are in this blog post.

Shenzhen: View Source
November 2016.
As part of a fact-finding and research trip we gathered a small alliance around open and responsible IoT (I was wearing my ThingsCon hat) and visited Shenzhen, China, where the majority of connected products are made for the rest of the world. It was a remarkable whirlwind experience. Here’s a series of blog posts of write-up. We’ll be back in Shenzhen for a larger ThingsCon event in April 2017.

Also, a shout-out to a report that Michelle Thorne, head of Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio (and full disclosure, my wife) co-wrote: We all live in the computer now. A NetGain paper on society, philanthropy and the Internet of Things (PDF). I was not involved in this report in any way, but it does touch on a few of the core themes we also tackle with ThingsCon and is full of great examples of the good and bad of IoT.

You can find a list of interviews, articles, and other publications at thewavingcat.com/media.