65 Hectares of paddy await another two weeks to be harvested. The rice paddy grown here had more than 20 varieties, with very few artificial fertilizers being used. The rains have been good and the harvest bountiful. Wild boar come often and the farmer has to guard against them. — Cholanakunte, Kolar District

Alternate Narratives for the Internet of Things

Quicksand is working with the Open IoT Studio at the Mozilla Foundation to explore alternate narratives for the Internet of Things (IoT).

~ Co-Authored with Babitha George

How Open or Closed is the IoT Currently?

Villages present an alternate aesthetic, a beauty that comes with a deep, age-old connection with nature and the land around

The narrative of IoT is currently dominated by discourses set by large for-profit organisations. These discourses tend to revolve around closed systems where the touch points for casual users are usually appliances. Even in such cases as the Google Cloud Platform, which are technically open source, the channels of innovation and usage tend to be very narrow.

For example, at present the narrative around the Internet of Things is closely linked with the narrative of Big Data. The Google Cloud Platform, which on the surface appears to be a fairly open set of tools, including a developer hardware kit, is in fact a fairly closed narrative around sensors streaming data through Google Cloud servers. Therefore, while the systems may have diverse and scattered inputs, the data collected is channeled into a narrow utility zone of monitoring and only through the Google Cloud pipeline.

Even this, however, is a fringe component of the IoT ecosystem as it exists today. For most people, interactions with IoT systems will begin (and perhaps end) with mainstream appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, ovens, automobiles etc. An average user perhaps will understand IoT in her home as the communication paradigm between these appliances. The idea seems to be that these appliances will be able to communicate with each other and with a larger system architecture.

This seems to be not only a benign but also a fairly decentralised system where each household forms a contained whole capable of intelligently making the lives of their owners more convenient. However there are large systems and protocols in this ecosystem that are definitely not decentralised and perhaps not so benign either.

For an average user these systems and protocols may be invisible. However, they are apparent to any kind of careful consideration. A fitness device for example, is a closed electronic system collecting user data and communicating with proprietary servers while giving the user a narrow window into the data collected through an interface. Not only are these devices closed systems built with proprietary technologies but they often communicate with centralised server architectures that are proprietary as well.

Learning from ‘Disconnected’ Communities

Left : Near the Devarayasamudra tank in the Palar river basin. The Palar basin is under threat from sand mining and the river is in ruins, with continuous disregard and abuse over 40 years. However many ancient tanks have been rehabilitated under a community-driven project called Jala Samvardhane Yojana Scheme (JSYS). The project was assisted by the World Bank. These tanks harvest rain, recharge aquifers and provide water for paddy cultivation. The rains last year were good , the tanks full and they have provided for a bumper crop this year. — — Devarayasamudra, Kolar district | Right : The beautiful Ramalingeshwara temple complex was built by the Nolamba dynasty in the 10th century and renovated later by the Chola dynasty. It is home to a well which is one of the oldest in Karnataka (~1000 years old) that still has water and is living and thriving. — — Avani, Kolar district

It is in this context, that we are seeking to understand and learn from decentralised models of production, distribution and control. The world of technology is often silo-ed, and works under the assumption that innovation emerges primarily in systems that are largely urban and often Western- in aesthetic, in function and in their inception.

The other aspect to this is the nature of the Western world being more ‘dependent’ in an intrinsic way on technology; the daily lives of people being more inter-twined with technology in a way that has maybe led to even surreal comical scenarios of dysfunction. Maybe there is a lot to learn from alternate contexts, in places like India, where some marginalised peoples, that are seemingly ‘disconnected’, continue to sustain communities of practice.

These communities are involved in a diverse range of activities such as traditional crafts, sustainable harvesting of forest produce and water body restoration. They often feature a decentralised structure, a keen awareness of contextual needs, local participation and a deep connect with the context at large.

The premise of our research is to explore what we can learn from these communities. What is it that enables them to be resilient to shocks and be able to serve local contexts and needs better?

It appears that resilience is closely connected to the nature of control in such communities; in that it is contingent upon the community experiencing genuine agency outside of any control imposed by an outside agency. A community organised around restoring water bodies in a village will not be able to preserve traditional restoration practices unless the external implementing agencies build around the community’s recommendations.

The Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) has been working with the Soliga tribes, through an integrated development program that values their core culture. BR Hills is located in south-eastern Karnataka, at the confluence of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats and is a protected reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act. — VGKK, BR Hills

Centralised technology narratives that are disseminated by large corporations offer little agency to the people consuming and scaling these narratives. The relevance of the Internet of Things is often narrowly defined in terms of collecting, analysing and reacting to big data where it could equally be about a seemingly unrelated challenge like empowering farmers to preserve crop diversity. An ecosystem of connected objects offers a far larger spectrum of possibilities than is currently recognised by the mainstream IoT narrative. A broader scoping is required to make this narrative itself more sustainable, resilient and relevant to large groups of people.

Technology companies often seek efficiency through specialisation and formal hierarchies. This setup compromises flexibility, thus making the core proposition of these companies more certain and predictable. For publicly held companies the organisational rhythms and product visions are dictated by the market. The communities that we seek to learn from often have a more organic form, evolved, as they have, through natural circumstances and not solely as a response to a market or business need. These communities thrive on shared and flexible notions of power and responsibility.

Seeking alternative narratives for IoT

Left : A gentlemen who has been working to restore water bodies in the village, with four other villagers. Two wells have been cleaned up and de-silted, a percolation pond was built and now the wells are full. — Doddiganahalli, Kolar District. | Right : The tribal communities have always lived in resonance with the forest that they inhabit. They are now allowed to collect ‘Non-timber Forest products’. Organic honey is abundant, which is collected and processed at the VGKK by tribal communities. The communities get paid at each level of the value chain- for selling raw honey to the processing unit, for their work within the unit and when sold to end consumers.

The problems of the real world are complex and largely evolve unpredictably. Lack of food diversity, for example, is a global problem that involves responding to climate change, soil preservation, nature of production systems and markets among others. These problem are perhaps more aptly addressed by the values and qualities of decentralised communities rather than those of the current technology ecosystem. These values that may appear chaotic and messy are also flexible and organic and are therefore well suited to grapple with these complex evolving challenges.

In some of our initial conversations with practitioners and participants in some of these communities, we are discovering that while they could inform practices outside of themselves, they continue to deal with real challenges that they face within their context that impact their lives very directly.

A juxtaposition of the old and the new. Tribal communities in this area were largely nomadic groups who built impermanent shelters and practiced shifting cultivation. After the government allocated a fixed location for them to live in, it also constructed more permanent housing structures.

Accountability, mutual responsibility, care and trust are prerequisites for any successful community of practice. These could potentially be seen as guiding principles that serve as a framework for resilient and sustainable systems. Maybe technology could be well-served to learn from these messy human systems that have evolved in an innately people-centered way. They allow for diversity to thrive, are more sensitive to the irrevocable scarcity of resources and recognise the limitations of scale.

A greenhouse with forest plants. Preserving local flora is of keen importance to the tribal communities. They have deep knowledge of various medicinal herbs and plants and they use this to collect and grow various plants that are sold to nurseries in nearby Bangalore, thus providing them a viable income generation opportunity. — VGKK, BR Hills
A tank from the time of the Cholas, around which paddy is grown. Kolar is considered a dry district and a scheme to divert west flowing rivers is currently on. Cholankunte is a tank rehabilitated under the World Bank’s Jala Samvardhane Yojana Scheme (JSYS). The community continues to sustain efforts around these water bodies and a traditional Neeruganti (water warden) ensures equitable distribution of water amongst the farmers, via well laid out, clean channels. — Cholanakunte, Kolar District
One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.