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13 Feb


How to get started on your IoT strategy

February 13, 2017 | By |

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


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.


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


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


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, 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

27 Jan


Monthnotes for January 2017

January 27, 2017 | By |

A belated happy new & happy lunar new year! I just came back from a vacation and some personal commitments, so this month’s notes are nice and short.

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21 Dec


Monthnotes for December 2016

December 21, 2016 | By |

These are the last #monthnotes for 2016 (duh!), so they are part of a double feature of sorts together with my annual look back (part work, part personal) at the year over on my personal blog: That was 2016.

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06 Dec


ThingsCon Amsterdam 2016 is a wrap

December 6, 2016 | By |

ThingsCon Amsterdam 2016 aftermovie from ThingsConAMS on Vimeo.

Last week I had the chance to go to Amsterdam for the best reason: It was ThingsCon Amsterdam time. The Amsterdam event has not just grown to be the biggest local ThingsCon event—it’s now the biggest total! It’s mind blowing for me to see how much this all is taking off. And with the Amsterdam team around Monique van Dusseldorp, Iskander Smit & Marcel Schouwenaar, ThingsCon is in the best hands I could possibly imagine. I couldn’t be happier.

Fabulous Monique was the guide through the packed program

But enough of my happy rambling. What actually happened? A lot! In fact, much more than I could have possibly attended or even remembered. With 1.5 days full of talks, workshops and exhibitions there was always something going in inside funky Volkshotel.

Some highlights and shout-outs

So let’s look at some highlights and some documentary to follow up online on what went down. (The event was also live streamed and the videos will be available soon at

Marcel & Iskander opened the event wearing freshly printed “Make IoT Great Again” hats—a reference of course to the fact that IoT never has been great, but still is politically charged terrain. (Personally I loved them, but I did hear quite a few “too soon” on Twitter.)

"Make the IoT Great Again"
“Make the IoT Great Again”

Talking to an audience that skewed a bit more intensely to the design crowd than other ThingsCon events (we’re in Amsterdam, after all), there were a lot of calls to action for designers throughout the event.

Ame Elliott spoke about better UX for security

For example, Ame Elliott of Simply Secure gave a fantastic talk about how to design for better security. I highly recommend all her work, but maybe the most hands-on starting point might be the Simply Secure resources on Github.

Michelle’s talk focused on the role of openness & community for IoT

Michelle Thorne tackled the open research she’s doing with her team at Mozilla for the Open IoT Studio.

Alper explored conversational interfaces for IoT

Alper Çu?un, author of Designing Conversational Interfaces, spoke about exactly that: How to design conversational interfaces, especially in the context of IoT.

Usman took us on a roller coaster ride from bleak dystopia to a hopeful silver lining

In a gripping closing keynote, Usman Haque explored participatory infrastructure.

Along the way—and tied into the program through workshops and demos—participants could get hands-on with projects in an exhibition. They ranged from artistic explorations to commercial. Here, for example, Vai Kai‘s ready-to-ship final prototypes, which are absolutely gorgeous:

Vai Kai at ThingsCon Amsterdam
Vai Kai is ready to ship their lovely connected wooden toys

The Amsterdam team kindly invited me to do the opening keynote. I explored where we are today in the world of design and responsible IoT. Here are my slides (the video of this and the other talks should be available online soon, too):

Want to read some more?

For some more impressions, among other places I recommend this Storify from the Amsterdam team, Simon’s notes from the ThingsCon Labs session, and this very personal write-up by Max. For photos, check out this Flickr set.

Which also brings us to something we spontaneously launched while in Amsterdam: A new ThingsCon Medium channel that will serve to highlight and amplify great projects and ideas around a human-centric & responsible IoT. It’ll include some write-ups from ThingsCon events around the globe, and also contributions from guest authors and ourselves. Finally, it’ll serve as the content pool from which we’re planning to draw heavily for a publication later in the year.

Monique also infected us with a great idea: How great would it be to have a quick overview of what’s brewing in responsible IoT and empowering tech around the world? (Hint: very cool.) So we’ll try a little experiment: A monthly newsletter with curated recommendations from our extended network.

More ThingsCon in more places

It was so great to see the community gathered in Amsterdam. And that community is growing! We’re also working on making it even easier to run local events by setting up a Github repository and some other supporting structures. We came out of the event with potentially several more local ThingsCon events in new places. As of today, it looks like ThingsCon events in 2017 will be happening (among others!) in Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Copenhagen, Darmstadt, London, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Milan, Shanghai, Shenzhen and, quite possibly, many other places! As always, is the place for up-to-date information.

Many things are still up in the air, but it looks like the heavyweights among these events are most likely going to be Amsterdam (Dec), Shenzhen (April), and London (June).

Mind = blown!