ThingsCon15 in WIRED

[S]ome of the most interesting discussions centered on the need for sober, critical thinking about the Internet of Things.

One product of ThingsCon is the “IoT Manifesto.” Written by designers for other designers, it addresses high-level concerns about the IoT in the form of 10 pledges. Designers are encouraged to “build and promote a culture of privacy,” “empower users to be the master of their domain,” and be “deliberate about what data we collect.” Its most provocative pledge might be its first: “We don’t believe the hype.” It acknowledges an important fact about the Internet of Things: There’s a lot of action—but there’s also a lot of unconsidered design.


WIRED writes about ThingsCon, the IOT Manifesto and the importance of taking ethics, context, and impact into account when designing for the Internet of Things.

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ThingsCon15 – A (personal) recap

It happened. After months of planning and scheduling it finally all came together for ThingsCon15 this weekend. It was the second installment of a community-driven conference on the IoT & future of hardware. And it was amazing: More than 40 speakers and so many partners, participants, friends, and just really clever minds gathered in Berlin for two days to talk about connected products, how to build and design them. We had a lot of input in all kinds of formats: talks, workshops, project demonstrations, pitches, manifestos, readings – and bar-talks. In the end this all made for two wonderful days, brimming with ideas, new friends, and new questions. And the emergence of a very interesting overarching question.[[MORE]]

What kind of world do we want to build?

While we will share all, photos, talks & write ups, and a nice little video wrap up of ThingsCon15 very soon, I wanted to share my personal take-aways on ThingsCon. Note: I was bound at the main stage for most of the conference for moderating duties, which led me to miss most of the workshops – but that way I got most of the talks which is nice. So here goes a rather partial and recap of ThingsCon from my personal point of view:

A critical take on Things – discussions far from gadgetism

ThingsCon was kicked off by a thought provoking keynote from Sci-Fi Author Warren Ellis, who early on framed a recurring theme: A very critical (and sometime almost dystopian) take on a connected world – and a deliberate distance from Gadgetism or Tech-Talk. I’m still haunted by that front door who has an 404 and won’t recognize me. That’s terrifying.
In this was joined by many speakers across the board – from Claire Rowland and an interesting outline on design principles for connected products, to Scott Smith and his human centric take on a culture that is drenched in interconnected products. We heard some very interesting learnings by the good guys at Rural Spark, locally designing and building a smart, decentralized energy grid in India – and a refreshing Keynote by Bruce Sterling to wrap it all up, nicely linking back to Warren’s door vision, by presenting his and his wife’s work on Casa Jasmina, a fully connected house.

While Warren repeatedly highlighted the need to go all the way, to not just design the technical aspect of a product, but also the human-centric side to it, in some cases this evolved into an almost philosophical, but certainly sociological discussion on a connected world and its implications. I was amazed by the deep, theoretical insights on concepts like ‚embodiment‘ and abstract vs. object-centered thinking and design by Prof. Andrea Krajewski. And I was literally blown away by Matt Gorbet’s reading of a beautiful essay by Rich Gold, titled ‚How smart does your bed have to be before you’re afraid to go to sleep at night?‘ an on-point and humorous collection of thoughts and questions dealing with a potential future world where everything is smart, connected and active in itself. Written in 1991! It was one of my absolute highlights of this years ThingsCon, and if you have the chance to should definitely check it out, here’s a brief excerpt from it. (More to be found here)

How is an intelligent house different from an intelligently designed house? Given a choice, which would you rather live in? How about a basically stupid house, but one that is quite pleasant if you live in it intelligently? Do smart houses prevent you from watching dumb TV? Do smart houses take part in the action of TV shows, by say, adding lighting and special effects? If you don’t have children but would like some, do smart houses add the patter of little feet to the background? Does the patter get louder as the children grow up?
How smart does the bed in your house have to be before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?

Responsibility, Education, and the IoT

It became very obvious throughout these two days, that implications of the IoT matter very deeply for our lives, and the questions why? and how? ought to be answered by everyone in building this new connected world: designers & entrepreneurs, consultants & clients – and engineering students & universities. These questions shape the very way how we work and force us to find our own answer to them – as open or irritating they might be. The situation is that in many cases, we’re just at the very beginning of merely asking them. It’s a matter of education, of taking a step back from the breadboard and reflecting on what we’re building, and why. Turns out, an indie-conference is a wonderful place to do so.

Because we had the chance to go beyond the theoretical and conceptual part and actually produce hands-on and tangible take-aways that have the potential to not only keep this discussion going, but to actually feed back into our day-to-day work and projects. One of these wonderful outcomes is the launch of the IoT-Manifesto, a 10-point document that takes a stand for creating meaningful products designed for a world that we all would want to live in. It’s a joint effort of four studios (The Incredible Machine,, Frolic, Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken) and some good folks from the TU Delft and serves as an interesting starting point for a discussion around vision, reality, and realism on building IoT Products. Another tangible tool to understand the implications of connected products we’re building was introduced by Scott Smith: Thingclash is a dive into what happens to our culture and lives, once we start connecting things to the internet.

In the end, we are all human beings

In a way, this year’s ThingsCon was way more about people than it was about things. And that’s a good thing. It was inspiring to see question like What world do we want to live in? And how can we shape it in a way that makes sense for us, people? What are the dangers and pitfalls when in comes to designing products for the IoT – and what can we, as designers, entrepreneurs, researchers, consultants do, to make sure we avoid them? discussed in the audience – and somehow surfacing on pretty much every talk I had the chance to see. As Andrea Krajewski put it nicely:

The object is not the object. The object is an extension of ourselves. It’s an extension of us, our homes, our lives.

Let’s keep that in mind when we talk about the future of hardware. It’s the future of ourselves.

*With ThingsCon* [*a crazy week*]( *is ending – and an interesting transition phase for myself is starting to which I am looking forwrad to. I’ll keep this outlet going and of course I’m very looking forward to continue all these wonderful discussions we had over the past days in all kinds of future settings. Thank you all for taking part in making this happen.*

Meaningful Things

One of the things I keep myself busy with these days is putting together ThingsCon15, a two-day conference on everything IoT, hardware, and its future. I’m pretty excited for the second installment after we launched it in May 2014 for the first time. We managed to once again get a thrilling line up of clever minds to share their ideas with us, a brimming and diverse program full of talks and workshops – and a wonderful community to join us for two days in May. It’s a pleasure to see it all come together once again – and it’s a blessing to work with such a focused and fun team one more time.[[MORE]]

ThingsCon very quickly developed a character and an sense of community on its own – unsurprisingly as the audience and speakers very happily engaged in shaping the program and spirit of the conference. And that’s a good thing. Just six month after ThingsCon Berlin we had our first community-organized satellite taking place in Amsterdam. I actually believe that’s pretty much the best ting that can happen to an indie-conference – to be taken over and owned by the community it is tailored for as soon as possible.

Design & Meaning

Now, with ThingsCon15 well on its way, I spent some thoughts on where I see this going, and what actually drives me about it. I remembered an inspiring discussion I had with our good friend Marcel Schouwenaar last year. He pointed out how designers and entrepreneurs have the great chance (and duty) to come up with meaning for their products (You should check it out!). That struck me. Meaning is something that goes beyond technical achievability, even beyond usability, design, or vision. Meaning takes into account the context and the impact of a product – and that’s crucial. Being aware and deliberate of the context we’re working in can give us a highly capable understanding of the notion of ‚building products‘. It pushes us to ask: What does the world we want to live in look like? What can we build to get there? And does your product help us along the way?

Design for meaning can give also some very refreshing answers to the everlasting question of where hardware is going. It can spin the old story of classic buzzwords like home automation, transport, wearables, smart cities, or smart energy. Don’t get me wrong – these undoubtedly are the most driving paradigms when it comes to ‚the future of IoT‘ we discuss these days. And that makes a lot of sense, since there is tremendous potential to be found in these areas, once combined with low-energy systems and computing power.

My point is that the term meaning can help us to be a bit more ambitious about our answers here. To get out of the old rut of chasing fancy and disruptive IoT ventures and embrace the full potential we’re actually looking at here. Understanding the context we’re working in allows us to question it, to reframe its reference and its focus. And often the result here is not fancy, but seemingly boring – and all the more significant. (Amazon Dash Button, anyone?)

Discussing perspectives

I am looking forward to have these kind of discussions at ThingsCon. To get away from the tech specs and think about the society and the future we’re getting ourselves into. What does it really do to our world if everything, including ourselves, is constantly monitored and measured by our own things? What does it mean for us if there’s a global battle around disruption, data, and consumption by companies right in our living room? What happens if things go wrong or are way ahead of us? Or – even worse? – if we’re in-between things?

In some ways, the dystopian version is already here with IoT. People can’t turn their fucking house lights on. The clocks think they’re in the next time zone over. The thermostat has 404’d and the doorlock system’s getting too many hits so you can’t get inside your networked house that’s gone insane anyway.

Warren Ellis most certainly will have some thoughts to share on that matter, as will Bruce Sterling, Scott Smith, and many others.

I am looking forward to learn about the Rural Spark, a decentralized, bottom-up and smart energy network to tackle the lack of safe and clean energy for about 400 million people in rural india. And to explore what this has to do with design, research, and field work. Jan Belon will join us to share how and why they came up with it:

It’s these kind of discussions that I find incredibly inspiring for they seem to open up the context in which we might tend to think concepts like IoT or design or entrepreneurship. Last year, the wonderful Bilal Ghalib sketched a similar point of view when he shared his take on DIY-culture, innovation and impact in a very global context. It’s truly inspiring and humbling to get this sense of potential for what we call hardware and IoT (or whatever, actually), once we reflect on the terms we think it in.

ThingsCon and beyond

This is why I am so excited for ThingsCon15 – and its why I think that this discussion will certainly go way beyond just one event in Berlin. ThingsCon is but one context to have it andI would love to continue swapping it in more projects to come for sure (one of them might be the amazing Global Innovation Gathering which is taking place at re:publica in Berlin just before ThingsCon). It would be great to have you with us – either on-site, online, or in whatever context you prefer. What do you think?