Making IoT great again: techno-social concerns at ThingsCon Amsterdam 2016

Im on a train, travelling from Amsterdam to Cologne. Behind me are two days of ThingsCon Amsterdam

Over the last year I have felt disconnected, perhaps even disenfranchised somehow: I had become distant through a year away, in a very different environment. Even though it was awesome to reconnect really just days after I returned out our ThingsCon retreat Brandenburg, it didnt fully bring back the excitement I felt before. But this event perhaps did. It was the friends I met, some familiar faces, but also a lot of new ones. But it was mostly the topics that were covered in the workshops, discussions and talks, all of which were infused and motivated by care for the society and world we live in, and the role technology and especially the IoT plays in there, for good and for worse. The Amsterdam crew had done a fantastic job, and created the kind of event that really leaves me inspired and hungry for me. Let me highlight a few of the sessions, to illustrate what I mean.

Bleak beginnings

After the introduction by two of the main organisers, Marcel Schouwenaar from The Incredible Machine and Iskander Smit by Peter Bihr gave the first keynote and was really able to set the tone for a conference that concerns itself with a responsible and human-centric IoT. He highlighted a few reasons for hope and concern, rightly pointing out that increased efficiency through IoT, more and better data really is not everything, perhaps even part of the problem (We come back to this on day 2). While he gave reasons for hope, Peter also made clear that we are faaaaaar from where we might want to be as a community, a society using IoT Technology for our own good, and that there is a lot of room to grow.

Farmhack Workshop

Right after the intro I took a deep dive into (connected) technologies within food production. The FarmHack crew puts farmers and consumers at the center of their work, trying to strengthen their position in the systems that create the food that ends up on our tables. In the workshop zoomed out a few notches, trying to look at all the elements at play in food production including farmers, processors, retailers but also animals, soil and mother nature as a whole. I really appreciate this broad, systemic approach. Based on the systems maps we tried to develop interventions, services and products that could enable changes in the system that empower farmers and consumers.

ThingsCon Labs

Simon and Andrea Krajewski, professor from the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt hosted a session on our plans with the ThingsCon Labs, a project to connect and share academic and non-academic research on responsible IoT. Questions the group would like to answer revolve around education and process: ways and means to make sure connected technologies are designed with actual humans, to make sure that they serve humans. Further topics that came up is IoTs connection to ubiquitous computing and the related community, and in what ways this decentralised research can be facilitated, connected and shared. A few offline meetings are now in the works, more updates on that soon o the ThingsCon blog.

Smart Citizenship

Day two kicked off with a in-depth look on privacy and security within the IoT by Ame Elliot by Simply Secure. While the presentation was super informative and really well-delivered, my personal highlight of the morning was the discussion on the Smart Citizen idea. Over the course of two hours Peter van Waart from Rotterdam University who is developing the Creating 010 project, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer from the DataStudio project by Het Nieuwe Instituut, Frank Kresin from the Smart Citizen Project by Waag Society and Usman Haque of Umbrellium, who presented his Voice Over project.

The first half of the session started with short presentations by the four people mentioned above. What was left of the second half afterwards constituted of a discussion between the four and the audience.

To me it became apparent that all four projects (all slightly different in their approach, all equally awesome) focus much more on the process and less technology. The result might be a technology, the invitation might be the creation of a technology, but definitely not the sole purpose, not even the most valuable outcome. Technology serves as the enabler of a discussion between real people, perhaps as the invitation, such as data gathered and created by the Smart Citizen Kit for example. But the real value created are messy, personal, offline communication processes that happen between real people, covering complex issues. Given this interpersonal, long process, a crucial question that came up was: how can this approach be scaled? How can these discussions include ad reach more people? And in which space and venue? Here tech enables to make parts of these discussions reach a larger scale and group with a mouse click, as Frank rightfully pointed out.

A big take away for me was a comment that Usman made: the value of these processes and projects lies in the opposite of simplicity. So often design intends to reduce complexity, make it invisible, reduce choices or hide the implications, but what should really happen is making complexity visible, discussable, and create more options rather than less. Especially in times like these, with popularism winning votes everywhere, these open inclusive processes seem like a beacon of light to me, providing options that bridge widening gaps, and actually try to make us better citizens, better humans, at times enabled by technology.

Difficult questions in IoT & David Li, and new paths for making things in Shenzhen

Michelle Thorne who is leading Mozilla’s Open Internet of Things Studio, expanded on the introduction of day one, providing a slightly more global perspective and what is wrong and right within IoT these days. She has done really interesting work with Mozilla over the past months, for example connecting with fishers in Scotland, Berliners, and Ahmedabadis to take a look at connected (and also no so connected) technologies and see what can be learned from it, to make IoT work better for humans.

David Li, who leads the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (amongst many other things it seems) brought a perspective from a very different ecosystem: Shenzhen in China. He recently hosted some of the ThingsCon crew and gave them an in-depth introduction to the city. Here, he presented the state of production and the role variations of open source play there. From completely customized production to white label products waiting for a logo or some customization, building hardware products is very different in Shenzhen. It is open and very very networked: no one does anything alone. Everything, from ideation to prototyping to production is within a network of partners. A lot of is about trust and personal connections. It almost seemed like different economic model in a way, and a real-world example of an open source economy. I’d love to read and think more about it — any recommended resources and pointers highly welcome.

Usman Haque: Infrastructure for participation

The closing keynote was delivered by Usman Haque of Umbrellium again. Rather than talking about specific technologies Usman zoomed out five steps and looked at our current techno-social systems, and the relation between technology and climate change, voter outcomes and our evaluation of truth. He again made the point that it is perhaps the focus on simplicity and efficiency in the development of technologies that has brought us to this stage, where rising ocean levels leave octopusses in Miami garages and different versions of similar right-wing popularist politicians in parliaments.

Usman also pointed out that an understanding by a rather forward-thinking group, that understood and proclaimed that data was never neutral, and needs to be questioned as to who collected data with what agenda, etc had been adopted by a very different group, with very different outcomes: new right-wing, popularist movements deny evidence for inequalities, climate change, etc.

After this pretty bleak start of his presentation he made sure on his promise to end on a hopeful note, and pointed out a lot of positive examples by what Smart City also could mean (almost all examples did not even include technologies)

As we already discussed in the earlier session on Smart Citizens he showed several revolutions, protests, debates were perhaps enabled, changed by technologies, but really constituted of new or re-discovered social practices, that mostly happen offline: debates about purpose and governance of shared community-based communication infrastructure, as in is Voice Over project. Human microphones in New York. Organised community response to disaster, such as in response to hurricane Sandy (or as I saw in Lahore, after the attack in March). Repurposing urban infrastructure for community communication purposes. This is the real smart city. Its complex, difficult, and with a whole a lot of friction. But its all so real, connecting real people with each other.

At the very first ThingsCon in 2014 I have to admit that Usmans talk was my personal highlight of the two days. This is true again today. His holistic, systemic perspective and his care for the individual, the human in it all to me is so valuable in this ecosystem that is still figuring out how to walk.