Diversity, Relevance, Globalism in the IoT

Reviewing ThingsConNBO

Last week, we held ThingsCon Nairobi. It was a special event for ThingsCon as an initiative — but also for me personally, as we pushed for this to happen ever since the very first ThingsCon in 2014. Also, ThingsConNBO took place exactly one week after ThingsConAMS, which allowed me to continue the discussions that we had in Amsterdam — and get a clear understanding about the shared views, and the differences between the European and the African perspective, when it comes to building a responsible Internet of Things.

On a general note, ThingsConNBO was one-day event, supported by Gearbox, a Nairobi-based maker space, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), and r0g agency. It featured a pretty diverse set of speakers and projects on stage: from Gabi Agustini from OLABI, São Paolo, to David Li from Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, to Stephen Kovacs from r0g Berlin, to many incredibly dedicated speakers and entrepreneurs from Africa, including Jeff Muthondo of BRCK, Nick Quintong of PayGo Energy, and Jaiksana José from South Sudan, now Uganda, and Abdulmalik Adam, Elizabeth Ondula from Kenya, all making for a throughly inspiring and fun event.

Toward a Responsible IoT

I held the opening keynote on perspectives „Toward a responsible IoT“, underlining the growing relevance of collectively understanding and discussing the things and systems we are building. This includes the pitfalls and challenges that come with it, namely Gadgetism, Vanity Products, Hype Circles, Security and Privacy concerns. As a perspective I highlighted the importance of 1. Purpose and Principles 2. Tools & Methods and 3. Openness & Diversity to address these challenges. The slides are right over here:

While there were many ideas and follow ups coming up of this packed day, I’d like to highly three personal take aways form ThingsCon Nairobi here and dive into them in more detail:

Lessons Learnt:

1. Growing Diversity

As Gabi highlighted in her opening, the role of diversity, inclusion, and openness cannot be overstated when building global networks (of things). This is not only true when it comes to deciding how we go about decision in design and manufacturing of IoT products, but also and maybe more importantly when deciding why, for whom, and by whom those products are built. I’m all the more happy, that with ThingsConNBO we managed to broaden our own circle of discussion a little bit, learning and involving voices from thoroughly different contexts and scenarios. And while this diversity might very well lead to conflict, inefficiencies and costs along the way, I wonder how we can go ahead and ensure that the benefits of clearly identifying and understanding specific problems of users and communities, surely outweighs these trade-offs. Applying and embracing open and participatory design practices can provide a robust way forward to address these challenges and include all stakeholders from step one.

If anything, this helps us to do one thing:

2. Identifying Relevant problems

Gadgets, Vanity, and Innovation

As David Li pointed out, building things just doesn’t cut it anymore. Shenzhen’s ecosystem is way ahead of the world, making for 90% of the global manufacturing of electronic devices, with products and iterations churned out at every thinkable niche and alternation. It i a somewhat brute force way to innovation, that might herald actual results, its downsides are apparent — with vanity products and seemingly useless gadgets rolling from the belt.

Kamau Gachigi, Founder of Gearbox, pointed out, that what seems to be a Gadget (as in: and useless product) here does not mean to for it to be a Gadget elsewhere. Usefulness lies in the eye of the beholder and certainly the beholder in Africa is rather open to re-using tools and products at hand.

But talking about Gadgets, this is where we as designers, entrepreneurs, and strategist might come in — and where the power of diverse and open decision making processes comes to full play: If Shenzhen is the global work bench, it allows everyone else to focus on what really matters on the ground: identifying relevant and pressing problems that are worthy (and worthwhile) to be solved. This, in fact, seems to be one of the main take aways of ThingsCon Nairobi:

The basis for building a human-centered Internet of Things is to identify relevant problems.

Turns out, emerging markets, tend to be full of them:

A particular take on those specific and highly relevant problems was provided by the team around Jaiksanda José and Abdulmalik Adam, who both fled from Juba, South Sudan, due to violence and unrest. They joined forces with Berlin-based r0g agency for open culture and designed the „Access to Skills and Knowledge Kit“ (#Asktoek), basically a portable maker space, that not only allows people in refugee camps and equally dire situations to proactively solve their own challenges. It also provides powerful and hands-on STEM education and is completely open itself. Its an inspiring project that adds a new level to „building a responsible IoT“. Applying Open Source principles to conflict settlement, peace and even state building seem incredibly challenging and promising at the same time, and I would love to dig deeper on that end.

And #Askotek is not alone: products and companies like PayGo, allowing to micro-transactions for Gas due to a connected valve, and BRCK, a rugged, autonomous wifi-router to connect “the last mile” go in the same vein: while the actual hardware might not be built here, the problems are identified on the ground, and the solutions, too. This shift has powerful consequences.

3. Hardware Globalization 2.0?

The growing need to identify problems worth solving in combination with a global manufacturing powerhouse, called Shenzhen, not only provides easy-as-ever starting grounds for hardware companies around the world. It also shifts the relevance of businesses toward a thorough understanding of problems in specific contexts. A human-centered business is one, that solves relevant problems on the ground — and make use all whenever resources are available to bring that solution to market, however global those solutions might be.

I was happy to join in quite a few discussion at and after the event to explore, what an innovation economy that de-coupled understanding and manufacturing could look like, for better or worse: As promising these opportunities might seem to local entrepreneurs, as dire the consequences of a re-vamped industrial globalization might be, from questionable trickle-down effects in the manufacturing side of things to vanity products and equally challenging competitive effects in communities around the globe.

I can’t wait to pursue these questions further with the truly global ThingsCon community and beyond. For the record, ThingsCon NBO was part 1 of a back-to-back event. Round 2 will happen in 2018 in Germany and continue these discussions. You should come and join us!