#ThingsConAMS

Looking back: ThingsCon Amsterdam 2017

Take Aways and Learnings from #ThingsConAMS

ThingsCon Amsterdam is a wrap! For the fourth time already the amazing crew around Iskander Smit, Monique van Dusseldorp and Marcel Schouwenaar hosted a wonderful and inspiring event, brimming with open-minded and creative people and ambitious ideas on how to build a responsible Internet of Things. While I could not attend all of the ridiculously packed program of 70(!) speakers and hosts in just 2 days, I was delighted to have shared some time and conversations with the Things-family.

Here are some thoughts, take-aways, and follow-ups, I took from the event, slightly digested into the three big questions of the How, What, and Who of Building a responsible IoT:

1. The How: A threefold take on Things

Again, critical, deliberate, and considerate voices where ubiqouitous in discussions and talks, on- and off-stage. They reached from a brilliant discussion on security in the IoT with the wonderful Ame Elliot, Jeff Katz, and Mirko Ross, to quite a few keynotes doubling down on the importance of reflective and considerate thinking when building connected objects and services. My take away from those discussions went along three lines:

Users

Educating, raising awareness, building transparent and honest connected systems is key when thinking of users — and obviously of a Human-Centered approach to designing things. The big challenges are equally obvious, laying in convenience, expertise, lack of choices. The Incredible Machine built a fun prototype to showcase consequences and repercussions of a transparent car-charging algorithm in a connected city. Slightly reminiscent of Usman Haque’s Natural Fuse, it highlighted implicit and explicit results of personal choices within connected systems.

The transparent connected city — prototyped by TheIncredibleMachine

Companies

Sessions and projects reached from reviewing the IoT Manifesto to providing tools and resources, like IdeasOfThings.eu — a new initiative by Simone Mora and ThingsCon Fellows Dries de Roeck and Ricardo Brito.

It’s not (just) lacking awareness of product designers and strategy executives that lead to bad choices in the IoT (of shit). Rather, in many case it is actually lacking incentives — which is way worse. Stemming from detached business and sales expectations, vanity KPIs, equally nervous competitors, decisions often leave little room for slow, considerate steps. How can we as a community make a better case for how Good Things lead to Good Business? I believe there is more work to be done here, and I’m very happy about arguments, examples, and feedback on this note.

Regulation

Thirdly, and basically without alternative, regulation plays a central role in providing such (negative) incentives to build trustworthy and safe connected services. GDPR was a recurring theme at ThingsCon, and rightfully so.

Efforts of approaching policy makers and regulators were thoroughly underpinned by a vivid discussion of how to design transparent processes for public participation in this debate, and how to approach influencers, companies, and interest groups in Brussels and beyond to make the case for a European alternative to data-driven and arbitrary business models that turn personal data-sets into products. As Bruce Sterling put it in his closing talk: Unfollow the money. Build Political Things. Make use of (EU) grants and social initiatives, to build the products and political frameworks we want to see ourselves.

On a side note, initiatives like the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Prototype Fund, might do that trick, exactly (disclosure: I am working with their teams as a coach and mentor). Equally so of course our own collaboration with Mozilla on the Trustmark for IoT, that aims at policy makers and companies, specifically. There was great consensus, that pushing forward to influence and co-shape regulation and legislation around IoT is crucial for sustainable and long-term success of our mission.

2. The What — as in: what is ethical, really?

With examples of the thoroughly inspiring work by the likes of Iohanna Nicenboim, Nazli Cila, and others — and many discussions around design fiction, ethics, and desirable futures for the IoT, I not only went home with white a few new favorites on my list.

It re-rasied the question of what an Ethical IoT actually could be. The manifesto, the trust mark, and our mission statement of course highlight what it might all mean. Especially after a mind-boggling and super fun discussion over dinner, touching on cybernetics, biological, technological, and social systems, black boxes, and the question of healthy and unhealthy behaviors, I noticed, that we need to push things further on this end as well. Asking and discussing what healthy, responsible, ethical, and good actually means to us as a community. While I’m aware this might spike quite a few intense discussions, I am sure we need to have them as a community and as practitioners ourselves.

The crowd at the showcase / networking floor in AMS.

3. The Who: More Inclusive networks are needed

Talking about discussions: The question of how leads them is pivotal. As highlighted in a fun talk/performance/slid-show-experience by Jasmina Tesanovich, building inclusive systems is crucial. First and foremost that means bringing more woman to the table, in the audience, and on stage. On to the note of Jasmina’s Internet of Women Things Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino set the ambitious goal for a 50/50 ThingsCon audience in the future — and I can only second that. Exclusive discussions lead to exclusive decisions and solutions, and building open debates is a crucial task for all of us. It’s an ambitious one, too, and we do not always live up to those standards ourselves — next week’s ThingsCon Nairobi has an almost inexcusable male-bias on stage, which we acknowledge and regret. That said, taking ThingsCon to Nairobi in the first place does mark a crucial step toward opening the discussion about what a „good“ Internet of Things means for the world beyond Europe, by listening to voices from Makers from Kenya, Brazil, China, South Sudan and Uganda. It’s a long road still, but as Alex puts it, lets strive to make meaningful, considerate connections, after all.


After four years, ThingsCon certainly has left behind the early DIY-days in Berlin and matured into a global movement of incredibly dedicated, skillful, and resilient practitioners, that push for a responsible take on building connected systems and technology around us. I could not be happier to be part of this fun ride and can’t wait to see what the next four years might hold! For now, though, it’s Next Stop: Nairobi.