Living in the IoT

Living in the IoT

Digital Catapult’s IoTUK Programme is working with PETRAS on a content series, bringing some of the exciting projects that the academic programme has been doing to life. In this first post, Rachel Cooper OBE talks about some of the projects that are happening and why the work that they are doing is important.

It creeps up on you, it surrounds you and offers you services that make life just that little bit easier. The internet is like air we breathe and the water we drink, we cannot (supposedly) live without it.  Now we have the Internet of Things and our imagination is unbounded, we live in a constellation of things that record, facilitate, and enhance our lives. We live in the space between the digital and physical world. Figures abound that illustrate this such as 7000 tweets, 40000 Google enquiries, 2 million emails sent in a second, so that everyday we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data.

Our optimism for the potential of the internet of things is valid and there are all types of initiatives and test beds, for example Manchester’s Demonstrator City Verve that ‘aims to build and deliver a smarter, more connected Manchester, creating a city that uses technology to meet the complex needs of its people’, the focus they believe is not on things but the people of the city and how they have access to service from transport to healthcare.  Already we have over 40 million devices part of the IoT in the UK and this is predicted to grow exponentially over the next three years.

But do we understand what is happening, how our privacy and security is being protected or where we are becoming vulnerable, do we understand where our data is or who is using it. I suggest that for the ordinary customer/consumer no we do not. The question is do we care, perhaps not until something happens to us or our devices and systems.

At business and government levels there is of course significant concern with the security or vulnerability of the systems and indeed the EU General Data Protection Regulations (2016) will have a considerable impact on the way in which business and the consumer enter agreements. In industry and academia there is also a significant amount of research into the security and resilience of systems especially from a technical perspective. Indeed the research programme we are involved with PETRAS has a large group of engineers and computing scientists dedicated to privacy, security, resilience and risk in the IoT.

However the interconnectedness and interdependency of the IoT massively complicates everything and is often beyond our ability to understand the opportunities and threats in this growing universe. Within the project PETRAS we are looking specifically at the adoption and accessibility of the IoT and the implications for notions of acceptability, privacy, ethics, and  trust within the system.  We are looking at the future by designing and building fictions, speculating on what might be and looking at how people might react and use a service.

At Lancaster University Paul Coulton and his team are looking at the home, in doing so we are moving away from the very traditional design approach of human-centred design to one arising from the theory of Object Orientated Ontology. This approach is ‘center-less design’ for the IoT, where we need to understand all aspects of the ecosystem of objects, including all of the stakeholders and data in the constellation and beyond. So for instance in the design fiction of a  smart kettle, we create a product to ensure it reveals all the  motivations and intentions of the system (security, interoperability) and the use of the data generated (organisations and entities involved) to the user, so that they better able to understand their role and what is actually happening in in the constellation.

Chris Speed  and his team at Edinburgh apply this design approach to a business environment so for instance the team gave 100 coffee cups simple bank accounts at last years Dutch Design Week, and watched how humans changed their behaviour as algorithms changed the transactions within the digital and social economy of buying coffee. They illustrate how algorithms on social media proved to be have an extremely disruptive effect upon the world as we know it today.  Therefore they ask what will the new human practices be in the near future, as IoT systems that are driven by algorithms shape our behavior and therefore how will they shape the world?

And finally Andy Hudson Smith at UCL is testing IoT in the environment by deploying a network of blue tooth-beacon enabled, geo-located conversational agents in 3d-printed enclosures in the Olympic park. These agents have knowledge about culture, history, and biodiversity in the Park and visitors can chat with them using their smartphones. However as users chat with the agents, they are asked for information about themselves and their memories of the place the agent is located. The agents remember individual users, what’s been said to them, and keep the user informed about what they’re learning about them. This is allowing the team to analyse what information people are willing to share with these devices and to what extent they trust them.

The one thing in common in this evolving digital and physical space is that it is easier to ‘speak’ to the system to access services and information, and it is getting easier for the system to influence behaviour. One of the fundamental principles of design has traditionally been to ensure that the products and services we develop are accessible, understandable and elegant where the underlying functionality does not hinder the user, probably epitomised in the way Jonny Ives developed the whole array of apple products.

Now our interface with the IoT gets easier everyday through geo-location services, biometric authentication and voice user interfaces etc and we can ‘speak’ and ‘communicate’ both tangibly and intangibly in this space. Do we need to develop new ways of understanding who, what and where we are in this constellation of things, individuals, organisations, and thus the possibility of abuse and of our own personal security?

We live in a physical world but our digital presence is significantly greater, using design to speculate and imagine futures should help us ensure we are content with the direction of travel and that IoT enhances our world without compromising our future sense of identity, security and safety.

Rachel Cooper OBE is Distinguished Professor of Design Management and Policy at Lancaster University. She is Director of ImaginationLancaster, an open and exploratory design-led research centre conducting applied and theoretical research into people, products, places and their interactions, and also Chair of Lancaster institute for the Contemporary Arts. Professor Cooper’s research interests cover: design thinking; design management; design policy; and across all sectors of industry, a specific interest in design for wellbeing and socially responsible design. She has published extensively on these topics, including books ‘Designing Sustainable Cities’ and ‘The Handbook of Wellbeing and the Environment’. 

The first series of projects are part of the ‘adoption and acceptability’ theme. We’ll be looking at BitBarista, the ‘hacked coffee machine’, exploring design fiction, and also examining how users of IoT can practice cyber hygiene, keeping themselves safe in the internet of things. To stay informed about this exciting series, sign up for the newsletter below and follow us on Twitter @IoTUKNews.

Rachel Cooper
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