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connected world

Connected Products: Legibility & Failure Modes

January 31, 2016 | By | One Comment

Note: The following is not a review of The Dash, but a look at some deeper interface and interaction questions around connected products.

A few days ago, I received a package from a courier service. Opening it, this is what I found:

Bragi - The Dash

It’s The Dash, a smart, connected, wireless, waterproof, vital sign tracking in-ear headphone from Munich-based startup Bragi. I backed The Dash on Kickstarter in February 2014 (as backer number 5,362).

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First ThingsCon Satellite Event of 2016 in Brussels

January 25, 2016 | By | No Comments

Early in January we shared our plans on how to grow ThingsCon in 2016 and beyond. One key point was to run more events in and with local communities to grow the reach of the network and learn more about what the most relevant issues are for each of these communities.

So it’s with great pleasure that we can share news that the first ThingsCon satellite event of 2016 is going to happen in Brussels in February thanks to Dries de Roeck, Rob van Kranenburg, and Tom Collins.

Read all about it over on the ThingsCon blog and if you’re in Brussels, make sure to sign up!

18 Jan

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Smart Cities: The next frontier for IoT

January 18, 2016 | By |

Note: This text was written and planned for publication in September 2015. While it wasn’t published at the time and some bits and pieces seem a little dated by now, I felt there’s still enough relevance here to publish it now. Enjoy!

As the Internet of Things (IoT) expands into more and more parts of our lives, one big focal point for IoT is the smart city. Since the majority of the population lives in cities and we cannot opt out of our urban environments, this makes it the next frontier for IoT, digital rights and innovation.

Understanding the connected city

What makes a smart city? What’s the smartest city in the world? The connected city is a surprisingly hard-to-define construct: There is a very small number of “pure play” smart cities – planned cities built from scratch – that everyone would agree are smart, like Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. But do they count as real cities if they have no history and hardly a population? There are smart city services, like real-time public transport data: How many of these does it take to make a city officially “smart”? How does the population factor into it?

I believe that the current focus on the city-level might counter-intuively get in the way of our thinking. So let’s step away from the implementation level of a city wide integrated sensor network with a connected city data dashboard. I’m increasingly convinced that the trick is to tackle the understanding of connected cities from two sides:

  1. Zoom in to a more granular level where instead of looking at the city-level we can focus on individual projects, initiatives and programs that work with city data of any sort. This more open approach means we can count and analyze a wider range of projects from real-time public transport to networks of DIY air quality sensors or open source smart meters. Based on this we could rank cities based on their smartness, or maybe smart-readiness. Some not-yet-public research I’ve been involved in shows promising results: Imagine a large catalog of smart city(ish) projects that can be sliced and diced based on region, scale, funding sources, or impact.

  2. Then zoom out to the systemic level that doesn’t just consider the physical manifestation of the city, but it’s governance, administration, and citizenry. A large part of what makes a city smart isn’t its infrastructure (the strong focus on the technology angle is misleading), it’s the social impact of how we make that infrastructure work for its citizens. This means we need to look at how to prepare local governments and administrations, an area where NGOs like Code for America have been doing great work, and it means making sure that citizens know how to participate. After all, the overarching goal of a connected city should be to empower its citizens – so smart citizens are the true key to a smart city.

Smart cities need citizen-centric design

The way we discuss connected cities today is heavily framed through the lens of efficiency based on gathering data. This is no coincidence: The main drivers of the debate today are technology vendors who have been selling solutions for the industrial context like smart factories and connected logistics chain. It is only natural that the same vendors would try to solve urban challenges through large-scale implementations of their sensors, networks and infrastructure: If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

However, for the context of a heavily urbanized society this model might not be the best. Smart cities researcher and critic Adam Greenfield goes even further, calling the efficiency-focused model of the connected city “the least interesting and the most problematic” given that rich urban live depends on serendipity as much as efficient delivery of services. Algorithms should augment, not replace political processes like resource allocation.

Maybe even more importantly, history has shown that complex, massively integrated computational systems are fraught with issues. If we turn a city into a giant centralized computer, we might create infrastructure that is brittle rather than resilient: “Smart cities are almost guaranteed to be chock full of bugs, from smart toilets and faucets that won’t operate to public screens sporting Microsoft’s ominous Blue Screen of Death”, fears smart city advocate Anthony Townsend.

These doomsday scenarios are easily avoided, though, if we focus on how to put humans in the center. The open data/open government and civic tech movements advocate for urban services that are citizen-centric and focus on real-world needs. This allows to build resilient cities. In their academic and policy research, Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith speak of the responsive city: A city that focuses on its citizens needs and molds itself based on changing needs through technology and data. In other words, the city is a platform for its stakeholders – citizens and businesses alike.

Shaping the connected city

As Lawrence Lessig famously stated, code is law. The code we run our smart city on governs urban life. So it’s crucial to ensure that this code isn’t just fit for prime time in the sense of quality control, but also that we make the right choice for how and what kind of code is implemented in the first place. This is less of a technical than a policy question, and governments around the world are thinking hard about it.

Recently I co-authored a report on connected cities my colleague and ethics professor Dr. Christoph Bieber for the German government. The question: How to think smart cities with a strong focus on the citizens’ perspective. We found we have great historic precedence to inform solutions for the challenges ahead: The key to unlocking connected cities are the design principles – the protocols – that helped build the internet in its early days: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

In other words, we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.

08 Nov

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An easy guide to applying the #IOTmanifesto

November 8, 2015 | By |

The #IOTmanifesto is a great set of guidelines for designing connected products and services. (Read more about it on iotmanifesto.com.)

Trying to make it more actionable (rather than just aspirational), the IOTmanifesto team created this cheatsheet that gives a bit of support in how to best apply the manifesto in everyday life, like say in a client meeting.

IoT Manifesto at Mozfest 2015

You’ll notice the color coding of the different phases of product design that the 10 guidelines of the manifesto. To make it a little easier to skim and read, here’s the list broken down into these phases (concept/design/implementation) and rearranged.

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07 Nov

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#Homelab Kitchen at Mozfest

November 7, 2015 | By |

At this year’s Mozfest, Alexandra (designswarm) and I teamed up and, with support from the excellent Marcel & Harm (The Incredible Machine) joined the BBC R&D Homelab with #homelabkitchen, creating our own kitchen area at Mozfest’s Global Village. I was wearing the ThingsCon hat mostly, whereas Marcel & Harm focused on the IoT Manifesto and how to apply the insights to the kitchen in particular.

We set it up as a series of workshops to explore questions around domesticity, gender roles, and overall needs around a 21st century home and kitchen.

We also used the occasion to launch thegoodhome.org, where we’ll continue to explore these quesitions.

Below, some impressions from day 1.

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27 Oct

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The key to a truly smart city is decentralization

October 27, 2015 | By |

Earlier this year, as preparation for some research & policy input for the German government, we dug into the current state of research around connected cities.

The lense we applied was that of how a smart city would impact societal life, responsive government, and of course the power balance between citizenry, administration, large companies and the infrastructure itself.

While our report is yet to be released, I just read a piece by Paul Mason in The Guardian where he takes a critical stance on smart cities and identifies some major changes we can expect when heading for a smart city (emphasis mine):

The privacy issues [with smartphones that by design are also tracking devices] are dealt with by limiting the flow of data between public and private sectors, and by making the individual the centre of the information flow. But in a smart city, you need data to flow freely across sectors that, in the commercial world, would normally be separate. The energy system needs to know what the transport system is doing. And the whole thing needs to be run like a “God game”: the city government, not the individual, must exercise control.

This idea of the need for (and opportunity inherent in) a central control instance certainly is an inherent premise of the vision that smart city vendors often try to push. (Why Mason seems to buy this I cannot tell – otherwise his piece is very critical and thorough.) It’s not a premise we need to accept and in fact I think we mustn’t accept.

A truly smart city for me requires decentralization, openness, democratic oversight, and the ability for bottom-up innovation.

A centralized coordinating and controlling instance – the central instance of a “God game” – is the opposite and as such a barrier to, rather than a requirement for, the smart city.

Current “pure play” smart cities like Masdar or Songdo may be “smart” in the sense that they use lots of data and adapt to it – thriving cities they are not.

And (again quoting Paul Mason) Madrid is going exactly that hopeful road:

Manuela Carmena asked advisers: what are the social problems we want technology to solve? The result was the vision of a “non-neoliberal smart city”, incorporating three principles not welcome in the world of high-profit tech companies: openness, democratic participation and a clear policy that data generated from public services should be publicly owned. “Rather than keep funding proprietary systems with public money, support open-source collaborative technologies,” Carmena was advised. Instead of beginning with the transport system, the first deployment of new technology should allow citizens to “raise issues of corruption, equity in the distribution of resources and open the question of access to power”.

This is pretty much what I’d also recommended.

Concretely, I’d recommend to build the Connected City Policy after the principles that governed the early days of the open internet: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

Then we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.

20 Oct

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Understanding the Connected Home: Shared connected objects

October 20, 2015 | By |

This blog post is an excerpt from Understanding the Connected Home, an ongoing exploration on the implications of connectivity on our living spaces. (Show all posts on this blog.) The whole collection is available as a (free) ebook: Understanding the Connected Home: Thoughts on living in tomorrow’s connected home

As anyone who’s lived in a shared household can attest, there will be objects that you share with others.

Be it the TV remote, a book, the dining room table, or even the dishes, the connected home will not doubt be filled with objects that will be used by multiple people, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes even without the owner’s permission.

On the whole, you find wealth much more in use than in ownership. — Aristotle

Rival vs. non-rival goods

What will these shared, connected objects be like? What characteristics will define them?

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