As the term the Internet of Things reached peak hype according to Gartner in the summer of 2016, a collaborative project with Elisa Giaccardi (TU Delft), Ron Wakkary (TUE) and the Design United collective offered a chance to pause for a moment before the term tumbles into the trough of disillusionment. Working across the three Dutch design institutions TUDelft, TU/e and the University of Twente, the Things2Things project was a 12 month long project consisting of 4 sets of workshops grouped around particular themes, that culminated in presentations, demonstrations and discussion at the Drive Festival, part of Dutch Fesign Week. The four themes were:
Each workshop brought together academics and designers to work through a series of concepts relating to the near futures of the Internet of Things. Despite teetering on the edge of a Gartner precipice, a technologies precarity is usually a sign that a technical concept has been translated into first-to-market products, and that the wider public have encountered the term. But before the Internet of Things settles down on to the Plateau of Productivity there are many hurdles for designers to tackle in order to move past household wares that are hooked up to the Internet, to more complex data driven artefacts that understand the human condition. It is in this context that the Things2Things teams operated, reflecting on how the principles of first to market IoT devices now differ to what people want in their homes. From Berg’s Little Printer that fed us personal newspapers on a thermal roll to Violets friendly rabbit the Nabaztag, that supported RFID tags for owners to build their own collection of connected things. The first generation of devices were pioneers on an adventure into the unknown, many of which burnt up as they left the earth’s atmosphere.
What survived were the telematic switches that allowed us to turn appliances on from a distance, the kettles and light bulbs, and the health monitoring devices that recorded our steps, weight and personal performance. In amongst these switches and wrist bands we learnt about big data, and the role of the cloud to profile, predict and make recommendations about our lifestyle. Difficult to build interoperable systems when you’re the first to market, platforms such as IFTTT became a ‘duct tape’ for the Internet of Things allowing the consumer to further understand how they can associate objects with systems to build discrete assemblages consisting of rules. Now aware of algorithms, we learnt with the public that one particular value within an Internet of Things is the design of horizontals across products that could never have been connected before. Over 47,000 Philips Hue owners have a recipe that turns their lights on at sunset, over 30,000 Fitbit owners document have a recipe that documents their daily activity in a Google spreadsheet, and over 348,000 Instagram users have a recipe that posts their photos to their Twitter account.
Scripted by individuals rather than corporations, successful IFTTT recipes are hard to predict but tell us a lot about what is important to people. Over 172,000 people have a recipe that mutes their Android phone when they get to work, but only 105,000 have a recipe that unmutes their Android when they get home. These automated shortcuts are successful characteristics of contemporary IoT practices that allow people to get on with their lives using technology by bolting together products and services horizontally. It is in the horizontal connections between things to things, the participants to the workshops found as the most interesting design opportunities.
Whilst Amazon’s Dash button returns us to an IoT of telematic switches that perfectly aligned verticals in which consumers need know nothing about where things have come from, and toilet rolls are presumably dropped by drones allowing us to avoid any contact with others, Things2Things was concerned with a richer engagement between data and artefacts. Exploring the entanglement between machines, algorithms and humans, the four Design United groups set out to better understand the social, environmental, economic, technological opportunities that the Internet of Things offers as a platform for design.
Within this short collection of investigations, the academics and professionals offer insight into the priorities for design as we move past telematic buttons and toward Internet of Things platforms. Platforms that will collapse value chains and bring the consumer much closer to the production and distribution of products and services through the passage of data. If large corporations want to develop a social license to operate within the Internet of Things, then they will require designers to develop services that are trustworthy, ethical and in the interests of people and the environment. Platforms that don’t obfuscate the use of personal data, but describe to us how it flows across the horizontals that helps us connect up the things that matter to us. The designers involved in these workshops have explored what the near future will be like when things around us become part of our families. Trusted to help us, but also clear when they are working for others teas have sought to understand where the value is in the Internet of Things, and what sort of values we want to design it.
I co-led the Predictive Materialities workshops with Elisa which can be explored in more depth here. The workshop, delivered over three sessions, introduced designers to the potentials of working with data technologies and prepared them for a future in which algorithms will become partners in their design studio. The workshop was articulated in a series of
three events where professional designers and design researchers engaged with contemporary, data-driven technologies, including Machine Learning and Blockchain databases, and speculated on the implications of such technologies for their own creative practices and the design industry at large. Although the audio isn’t great, and example of the content is exemplified in Neil Ruben’s introduction to Machine Learning for Designers that was held during the first of the three sessions:
Of the many ideas that emerged from the series of three events was the KASH Cups that were demonstrated at the Drive.NL event during Dutch Design Week.
In the near future, every ‘thing’ in the Internet of Things will become a form of currency. Powered by Financial Technologies (Fintech) bots that identify and broker opportunities for trade between other things, smart contracts will prevent social and economic value from escaping. The KASH cup is the first manifestation of this near future. Designed by Scottish ceramic artist Katy West in collaboration with the Centre for Design Informatics and Teun Verkerk, the KASH cup is a limited edition of 100 coffee cups that operate as a pop-up digital currency.
Augmented with NFC and RFID chips, each cup has a data shadow that reflects its credit status – on (available for coffee), off (unavailable for coffee). The cloud ‘bank’ displays the credit status of each cup which can be added to if people spend time to meet and talk to each other (turning on coffee cups). Credit is spent at the point of purchase where the barista swaps the credit for a cup of coffee.
KASH Cups was developed through the Design United Things2Things programme for the ESRC After Money Research Project.
Conceptual design Chris Speed and Tuen Verkerk
Cup Design: Katy West
NFC and KASH Cloud: Ferdinand Ginting Munthe
Modelling and integration: Mark Kobine
KASH Cloud graphics: Bettina Nissen
Coordination and documentation: Jane Macdonald
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