Smart systems must learn the ways of the world

Sensemaking / Smart systems must learn the ways of the world

The internet of things needs to be designed for diverse lifestyles if it is going to make a meaningful difference, says Scott Smith

By Scott Smith / 30 Aug 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Living Energy. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Consensus among observers and analysts, as well as among technology titans and start-ups alike, is that the internet of things (IoT) – a dense global web of connected devices, sensors, software and systems – will be the next big thing. By its global and highly distributed nature, the potential for connected devices, systems and services to transform our world is enormous – from our domestic energy consumption to smart grids with solar panels that report their status to streamlined urban mobility and food distribution.

The most well-known IT analyst firm, Gartner Group, told us, as 2015 closed, that we are already at almost five billion connected ‘nodes’ in the IoT world, and that we should expect this number to quadruple to over 20 billion by 2020. Other analysts tout projections that differ but are of a similar magnitude. Mega-companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM are making enormous bets that the IoT will provide people and businesses with real-time control of the connected world from the convenience of our smartphones, smartwatches, smart homes and smart cities. Meanwhile, thousands of start-ups are turning out new wearable devices, self-trackers, connected cameras, tweeting washing machines and more – both useful and frivolous.

This is not just a Global North phenomenon: organisations are looking to the IoT to transform the developing world, revolutionising infrastructure in the way that mobile phones transformed communication. One report in fact estimated that 40% of the impact of the IoT will be in the developing world by 2020 – a sensible estimate when one looks at where antecedent smartphone and broadband growth is happening today. The ultimate IoT vision is of an internet that is both a connected planetary nervous system and a way to understand and perhaps optimise even the most personal actions and interactions we experience.

Yet, despite the promise, what the IoT offers at a consumer level comes from the workshops of a fairly narrow slice of society, and mostly delivers to that same narrow slice, with narrow ambitions – designed for middle-class or above, able-bodied, highly normative individuals with consistent access to resources.

It isn’t designed to anticipate frictions between different technological or commercial ecosystems; much less frictions between technology and wider variations, in social, economic or value systems. And so clashes emerge, around values such as privacy and data ownership, or in the definition of what constitutes a family, for example.

These clashes, which we’ve called ‘thingclashes’, are everywhere, even when you begin to scratch the surface of the IoT just a little. Just take the basics: who decides what defines a normal lifestyle, or optimal health, or reasonable consumption levels? At Changeist, we thought these frictions in the world were significant enough to create a research project, called Thingclash, to help organisations surface and understand them.

Unfortunately, many popular IoT devices take both stable users and stable environments for granted. They are designed for places where there is little friction, let alone disruption. For a global network, the IoT is not globally prepared.

Take a current IoT icon, the Nest connected thermostat. It’s created and marketed to give us smarter, more efficient control of our energy use, beginning with how we manage our home heating and cooling. Introduced by ambitious designers in Silicon Valley just a few years ago, Nest has already sold millions of units around the world, been acquired by Google, given the benefit of that company’s brilliant engineering talent, and turned into the centrepiece of a broader connected-home strategy. Quite the story, and one worthy of respect.

And yet, much of what Nest’s value is predicated upon won’t exist in large parts of the world in 2016, no matter how much the global middle class has expanded, or how many mobile phones are active: ‘always-on’ IP networks for consistent access to Google data centres; limited fluctuations in power and voltage; dry, secure and stable housing; sufficiently high technological literacy ... It’s built for lives that are both stable and well-off.

But our continued existence as a viable and thriving global society now depends on our ability to pull off two tricks at once. We must deliver the benefits of economic and technological progress to vastly more of the planet than we do today, and do so in a way that is sustainable for everyone without creating more waste, raising temperatures or pulling another unnecessary ounce of fossil fuels from the ground.

At the same time, there’s no reason for the IoT not to ‘happen’. It’s a logical next step in the diffusion of networks, shrinking and distribution of sensing, and application of data analytics. The IoT will emerge and evolve one way or another. But at this early stage in its life, we have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to shape its development path, capabilities and application.

Thankfully, it’s not a hard thing to imagine the types of use cases that will help us not just get a car to our door at the tap of an app, or tell us our high-tech gym bottle has no water in it, but which can intelligently bring low-carbon mobility to places that need breathable air, track an endangered animal population, or tell us that the nearest well will go dry a week or month before it does.

It’s also not hard, as our team has shown recently through simple workshop exercises developed around the Thingclash idea, to see where frictions emerge between imagined devices and applications across a diverse spectrum of users and contexts. Developed-world ‘norms’ such as connectivity or data storage can’t be taken for granted in an environment where they may be more expensive, fragile or not politically desirable.

If we’re going to meaningfully address and maybe even solve the deep structural issues we face, the inequities that plague much of the planet, and reach the sustainability targets that will allow our societies to see another century, the IoT is the kind of light-weight, distributable, connected technology that can help us right now and in the future.

But it can’t if it’s only focused on the needs of 1% of these societies, or, at worst, creates additional problems we will need to solve down the road.

We must put our collective global genius to work, not just for those who want to shave a few steps off their commute home or follow their fridge on Instagram but to deliver truly scalable applications that can help us to meet critical resource management goals.

Scott Smith is the founder of Changeist, a lab and research consultancy created to make sense of complex futures.

Image credit: ITU Pictures / Flickr

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