Future Scenarios for the Internet of Things

Future Scenarios for the Internet of Things

In our exploration of adoption and acceptability of IoT , we’ve looked at cyber hygiene in our infographic, thought about how we design the ‘things’ in the Internet of Things and talked about how to preserve privacy in IoT healthcare. In our last article in this series, Professor Paul Coulton, Chair of Speculative Design at Lancaster University, talks more about future scenarios for IoT.

If we are considering the potential futures of the Internet of Things (IoT) a useful place to start is by considering it in terms of technology adoption.

Whilst there are various ways of presenting adoption, here I utilise Gartner’s hype cycle which is produced annually as a graphic illustration of technologies as they mature and become widely adopted. Whilst there is little scientific evidence to support its accuracy it is widely referenced within the commercial world which makes it a highly useful aid when discussing adoption.

The hype cycle presents selected technologies on a graph of time (x-axis) against expectations/exposure (y-axis). Starting with the trigger of a new technology, exposure and expectations grow quickly to a ‘peak of inflated expectations’ around the wide scale adoption of the trigger technology. As those actively pursuing the commercial adoption of a technology realise, more often than not, the market is not yet mature enough for commercial viability the initial hype quickly falls away leading to a ‘trough of disillusionment’. Sometime later exposure and expectations grow again, although much more slowly, up the so-called ‘slope of enlightenment’ as developers reconsider the potential of the technology and design products with more longevity. Finally, the technology stabilizes at the ‘plateau of productivity’ at which point it has likely been widely adopted across a number of commercial sectors.

Whilst the hype cycle suggests a natural movement towards adoption for any new technology the reality is different. Technologies generally have to get across the chasm, not typically shown on the hype cycle, which appears at the bottom of the trough of disillusionment and before the long slow climb up the slope of enlightenment. Many technologies don’t make it across at all, while others end up in a seemingly endless loop, jumping back to the start of the cycle as their potential is reconsidered time and again – arguably this is what has happened recently with Virtual Reality.

How do we spot coming IoT trends?

Currently the Internet of Things lies very much at the left hand side of this figure whilst many of those researching and developing for IoT are excited by its the potential many of those in the sectors who will ultimately benefit from its potential struggle to consider how it may be adopted into their everyday practices (represented on the right of the hype curve).

As a design researcher I’m interested in how we can bridge this chasm: to help researchers and developers anticipate how emerging technologies might reach everyday use; to ask questions about the regulatory, policy, and societal changes that might be necessary to achieve this; to present them in a way that is understandable to a variety of different audiences who may benefit from IoT. To achieve this aim we are utilising design fiction which a form of speculative design: a design practice represented in the following figure.

The x-axis represents time from pasts to the futures (the use of the plural is deliberate to acknowledge these will be perceived differently by different individuals). The y-axis intersects the x-axis timeline at the present with a range from possible to impossible with actual centred on the present. Note that actual represents the point of commercial domestication of technology or the plateau of productivity if we refer back to figure 1.

Design Fictions, and their commercial counterparts Vapourware/Vapourworlds, seek to create a form of temporal shift of potential near and far future points of domestication, so that they may be more readily understood in the present. Technologies that fail to reach the commercial domestication point could be considered as Lost Futures and their potential might be reconsidered by in terms of their alternate histories.

There are obvious similarities between Design Fiction, Vapourware/Vapourworlds and Science Fiction. Whilst some Science Fiction might derive inspiration for emerging technologies it generally acts to aid the narrative and thus emerging technologies are rarely the primary focus. A final area might be technological ideas outside what is scientifically feasible which we would consider to be fantasy prototypes.

Designing the future

Considerations of what Design Fiction is, and what it is for, are currently being developed by practitioners but what is already evident is that it can be a powerful tool to initiate discussions. The position we have developed at Lancaster is to consider Design Fiction as a world building activity. Whilst the means of Design Fiction (the objects and artefacts produced by practice) are diverse and varied, the end of Design Fiction is always the creation of a fictional world. Put simply Design Fictions are collections of artefacts, that, when viewed together build a fictional world. The artificially built world is a prototyping platform for the very designs that define it and allow multiple perspectives to be developed. The best way to understand this is if we illustrate it with an example.

Design Fiction has been useful to consider the oncoming General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) which WILL have an effect on how we design for IoT. GDPR covers a range of rights for the individual but one that is particularly relevant to the IoT is the directive that users must make meaningful consent and that consent may be withdrawn. To be better reflect the changing social context of IoT, in our research we wanted to consider consent as an evolving practice rather than something that is static and only negotiated once.

We chose to represent our concepts through a Design Fiction video which shows the process of adding a smart lock to a home IoT system. We envisaged the smart lock being used in conjunction with a supporting app that aims to reveal consequences of changing the particular operations of the lock.

Using different features of the lock might impact upon where a users’ data is subsequently shared, and when those features are used the consent should be renegotiated at that point in time. The app displays different levels of functionality built on various IoT technologies (NFC, geolocation, voice activation, ‘If this then that’) and shows how much data may be revealed about the user and how far that data might travel, based upon the chosen level of functionality. The three circles represent levels of home, known provider, and 3rd parties. The sharpness or blurriness represents how identifiable the user might be at these levels. This is obviously one simple example but has already proved useful in a variety of stakeholders to consider new forms of obtaining consent and in particular a need to move away from lengthy and hard to read documents and the need to consider new forms of representation.

As Marshall McLuhan famously observed, “we shape our tools thereafter our tools shape us” – meaning the technologies we create have an effect on human behaviour. Rather than waiting to deal with these effects to become apparent, Design Fiction allows us to consider the wider context in which our designs will operate and hopefully allows us to adopt a more considered approach to the design of IoT technologies.

If you want to keep up with Paul and his musings, you can follow him on Twitter @ProfTriviality.

You can also keep up to date with us on @IoTUKNews.

Next in our content series with PETRAS, we’ll be looking at Harnessing Economic Value with IoT.

Paul Coulton
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