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connected world

ThingsCon Salon Berlin July videos are up!

July 23, 2017 | By | No Comments

On 14th July we had another ThingsCon Salon Berlin. You can learn more about upcoming ThingsCon events here.

Here’s the presentations!

Gulraiz Khan

Gulraiz Khan (@gulraizkhan) is a transdisciplinary designer who works on civic engagement. As an urbanist, he is interested in developing grassroots engagement methods that can help communities thrive through political and environmental flux. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Communication & Design at Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan. Prior to this, he received an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design from Parsons The New School for Design in New York. He also serves at the Assistant Director for The Playground, the Centre for Transdisciplinarity, Design and Innovation at Habib University.

Peter Bihr

Peter Bihr (@peterbihr) gave a few remarks about the trip and available for an informal chat about Shenzhen.

Screening of View Source: Shenzhen

We screened the brand new video documentary about the ThingsCon trip to Shenzhen. Produced by The Incredible Machine with support from the Creative Industry Fund NL, this is the video counterpart to the written View Source: Shenzhen report we just published and shows the journey that The Incredible Machine had when trying to build a smart bike lock in Shenzhen.

Hope to see you soon at a ThingsCon event near you!

28 Jun


Trust and expectations in IoT

June 28, 2017 | By |

One of the key challenges for Internet of Things (IoT) in the consumer space boils down to expectation management: For consumers it’s unreasonably hard to know what to expect from any given IoT product/service.

This is also why we’ve been investigating potentials and challenges of IoT labels and are currently running a qualitative online survey—please share your thoughts! The resulting report will be published later this year.

I think the quadrant of questions anyone should be able to answer to a certain degree looks somewhat like this (still in draft stage):

“Trust and expectations in IoT by The Waving Cat / Peter Bihr (image available under CC by)”

Let’s go through the quadrants, counter clockwise starting at the top left:

Does it do what I expect it do do?
This should pretty straightforward for most products: Does the fitness tracker track my fitness? Does the connected fridge refrigerate? Etc.

Is the organization trustworthy?
This question is always a tough one, but it comes down to building, earning, and keeping the trust of your consumers and clients. This is traditionally the essence of brands.

Are the processes trustworthy?
The most tricky question, because usually internal processes are really hard, if not impossible, to interrogate. Companies could differentiate themselves in a positive way by being as transparent as possible.

Does it do anything I wouldn’t expect?
I believe this question is essential. Connected products often have features that may be unexpected to the layperson, sometimes because they are a technical requirement, sometimes because they are added later through a software update. Whatever the reason, an IoT device should never do anything that their users don’t have a reason to expect them to. As an extra toxic example, it seems unreasonable to expect that a smart TV would be always listening and sharing data with a cloud-service.

If these four bases are covered, I think that’s a good place to start.

28 Jun


Challenges for governance in the Internet of Things

June 28, 2017 | By |

Image by Paula Vermeulen via Unsplash

I’d like to share 3 short stories that demonstrate just a few of the challenges of governance for IoT.

1) In the fall of 2016 Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and other popular consumer websites were temporarily shut down in a so-called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. This isn’t unusual in itself—it happens all the time in smaller scale. What WAS unusual was the attack vector: For the first time, a large-scale DDoS attack was driven by IoT products, mainly cheap, unsecured, internet-connected CCTV cameras. Who suffers the consequences? Who’s responsible? Who’s liable?

2) As part of the European Digital Single Market, the EU just passed the The General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR for short. It’s is designed to enable individuals to better control their personal data. However, experts around the globe are scrambling to figure out how this applied to the IoT: Almost certainly, a lot of the type of data collection and personalization that’s part of consumer IoT products falls squarely under the GDPR. What will IoT-related services look like 5 years from now? Is it going to be different services depending on where you are? Based on where your provider is? Based on where your residency is? Or will it just stay the same?

3) In 2015, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York launched an interesting research project called Deep Patient. They applied artificial intelligence (AI) techniques—concretely machine learning algorithms—to analyze their patient records for patterns. It turned out that these algorithms were extremely good at predicting certain medical conditions; much better than human doctors. But it wasn’t clear how they got to these predictions. Is it responsible to act on medical predictions if the doctors don’t know what they’re based on? Is it responsible not to? How do we deal with intelligence and data that we don’t understand? What if our fridges, cars, or smartphones knew better what’s good for us than we do?

These 3 short stories demonstrate how wide the range of questions is that we face in IoT. The width and depth of this range makes questions of governance more than just a little tricky.

Image: Paula Vermeulen, Unsplash

22 Jun


First and foremost, get the basics right

June 22, 2017 | By |

In my work, and in an endless stream of conversations, I notice how organizations focus on perfect delivery over getting the basics right. This is a recipe for disaster! Today I’ll make the case for focusing on the basics first, even though this might not seem as rewarding in the short term.

For example, if you build a table with four solid legs, even if it might look crappy it’ll fulfill its primary purpose. It’s a table. It’s table-ness, manifested. However, it you focus on perfect delivery and apply the most beautiful polish to a table without first getting the basics right, you’ll end up with an object that might look beautiful but is too wobbly to use. It’s not a table, but a simulacrum of a table.

This principle holds for all walks of life and organizational output. For something a little less cliché than a table, consider a developer event. Even the most polished developer event with fantastic catering and a great video documentary is bound to fail if there isn’t a powerful API and the documentation to go with it: If the company culture isn’t yet at the point to be open for external developers, no amount of polish at the event will help.

First and foremost, we need to get the basics right.

I could go on listing examples, but the principle is clear: Basics first. Once the basics are in place, the rest can follow, but the opposite is not true.

The issue is, of course, that often the basics don’t offer much chance to increase one’s standing or profile internally or externally, at least not in the short term. It’s essentially plumbing work like all infrastructure: Incredibly important, but not generally lauded.

The same holds true for solid strategy and future-proofing work: In order to successfully future-proof an organization, it’s usually necessary to touch on all parts of the organization. Org charts, business models, culture, strategy, tactics, processes, product, marketing and all the rest needs to be on the table. Like security, you can’t just tack it on after.

Before you can run, you need to learn how to walk. Only once a reliable foundation—the basics!—is in place, you can move on to greatness.

22 Jun


We can move past the outdated cult of the genius founder

June 22, 2017 | By |

Following the recent news about Uber and its leadership issues, I can’t help but think of the structural issues at play here. Personally I think of Uber as a near-perfect manifestation of what’s wrong with the tech industry, but the underlying issues go way beyond this company.

The outdated cult of the genius founder

In the saga around Uber founder being ousted by investors as CEO, there’s been lots of talk about changing the company’s culture, about making changes, about reigning in bad behavior. First of all, if this happens after being slapped on the wrist it doesn’t come from a place of credibility: Uber’s behavior in all of their scandals has been pretty clearly just window-dressing. When there was enough public pressure, course-correct just enough. Never has there been any credible sign of truly wanting to change. These are just my 2 cents, and I’m obviously not an Uber fan.

This whole culture, as has been documented very well in lots of places, is an expression of the founder’s personality and mode of operation. A culture doesn’t just exist, and change when you tell it to: Culture is the accumulation of decisions, reinforced by success.

In Silicon Valley, the myth of the genius founder is strong. And how couldn’t it be. It’s such a strong narrative! But like all narratives, it’s a fiction.

This wouldn’t be dangerous if there weren’t such a broad range of VCs who went for this myth of the genius founder, and for the alpha male bravado that comes with it. (And make no mistake, this cannot be discussed without talking about gender.)

Whenever I think about Uber and its culture the thing that strikes me most is how outdated Uber seems. Despite the technology, the angle of disruption and innovation and what have you, it feels like a company more like 1980s movie Wall Street rather than a 21st century enterprise.

This reminded me a lot of former ISS commander Chris Hadfield’s explanations of how the requirements for becoming an astronaut have changed since the 1950s, which turned into this little Twitter rant (some typos removed):

In his (excellent!) book Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield explains how requirements for astronauts have changed over time.
In the early days of space exploration, it was all about technical skills and bravery: You would have to be ok being strapped onto a rocket. In modern space exploration, it’s all about good leadership and being a team player, having broad skillsets, and handle stress well.
When I see Uber news, the company feels so outdated it makes me realize: Maybe the startup & tech scene moves in the same direction. Rather than the brilliant, visionary—but potentially ruthless—genius preferred in the past, we’re moving into a new world:
Imagine a tech & startup world of great, level-headed team players and leaders with broad interdisciplinary skills and diverse teams.

Turns out, this might be huge also under inclusion and diversity aspects.

The Atlantic’s brilliant and painful article Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful To Women? refers to a study published 2015 in Science and how the cult of the “genius founder” is highly problematic, especially—but not only—regarding diversity (highlights mine):

The researchers found that telling participants that their company valued merit-based decisions only increased the likelihood of their giving higher bonuses to the men.
Such bias may be particularly rife in Silicon Valley because of another of its foundational beliefs: that success in tech depends almost entirely on innate genius. Nobody thinks that of lawyers or accountants or even brain surgeons; while some people clearly have more aptitude than others, it’s accepted that law school is where you learn law and that preparing for and passing the CPA exam is how you become a certified accountant. Surgeons are trained, not born. In contrast, a 2015 study published in Science confirmed that computer science and certain other fields, including physics, math, and philosophy, fetishize “brilliance,” cultivating the idea that potential is inborn. The report concluded that these fields tend to be problematic for women, owing to a stubborn assumption that genius is a male trait.
“The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female PhDs,” the study found, pointing out that the same pattern held for African Americans. Because both groups still tend to be “stereotyped as lacking innate intellectual talent,” the study concluded, “the extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor of women’s and African Americans’ representation.”

Just imagine that: What if VCs and consumers alike gave their support not to alpha male-led “genius founder” personalities, and carte blanche to break things first and ask forgiveness later? What if instead they guided them to build more sustainable businesses and cultures?

To be fair, some VCs and other investors do. Most notably, or at least most “purely”, Bryce RobertsIndie VC, which is fantastic.

What about non-tech skills?

There’s another angle to this that’s relevant if only somewhat related: A broader intake of talent.

Traditionally, there’s a bit of a two class society in tech: Technical skills and non-technical skills, the former being at the core, the other playing support roles.

There are of course founders from other backgrounds, and increasingly some non-tech disciplines like design are starting to have a seat at the table. But it’s nowhere near diverse enough.

So let’s talk about how we value skills.

Recently Berlin announced that to fight a shortage of teachers, primary school teachers are soon going to make €5.100 a month. For a city with traditionally very low wages (for a big European city), that’s a solid salary. For comparison, it’s roughly in the ballpark, but actually above, what developers earn in Berlin. Gasp! That’s right, teachers could earn more than software developers. First I thought whaaaat, how can that be, but then it actually made some sense to me given the societal contribution of teachers. But I digress!

As someone working in tech but not in the tech skills section of tech, I believe there’s lots to be gained by getting to a better mix of disciplines and skills in tech.

My training was in the methods of social sciences and humanities: I hold two masters degrees; one in communications science with a minor in political science, and one in media practice. While people in tech have looked at me funny more than once in my career, I’ve always found this broad background, methodology training, and big picture perspective extremely helpful in my line of work. For example, this is what allows me to do research and distill the insights into writing (and of course strategy advisory).

When I think about a model for a successful, sustainable, desirable 21st century company, I imagine a team of humble experts with broad skillsets and diverse backgrounds, both in terms of origin and professional training.

That, and only that, allows a company to develop the flexibility, resilience, and broad perspective—to ability to ask the right questions!—to thrive in an environment shaped by uncertainty, ambiguity, and rapid change.

29 May


Monthnotes for May 2017

May 29, 2017 | By |

May was AI month at Casa The Waving Cat. Also, #iotlabels. Also, #thingscon.

Read More

24 May


Impact and questions: An AI reading list

May 24, 2017 | By |

As part of some research into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) over the past few months, I’ve come across a lot of reading material.

Here’s some that stood out to me and that I can recommend looking into. Please note that this is very much on the non-technical end of the spectrum: Primers, as well as pieces focusing on societal impact, ethics, and other so-called “soft” aspects, i.e. societal, political, humanitarian, business-related ones. These are the types of impact I’m most interested in and that are most relevant to my work.

The list isn’t comprehensive by any means—if you know of something that should be included, please let me know!—but there’s a lot of insight here.


Basics, primers:

Resources, reading lists, content collections:



Reports, studies:

Presentations, talks:


For completeness’ sake (and as a blatant plug) I include three recent blog posts of my own: