Forum for the Future and the trouble with the Internet of Things

Sustainable Futures

Forum for the Future and the trouble with the Internet of Things

Image of lights by Kevin Dooley via Flickr.

The Internet of Things is a hot topic at the moment, with plenty of hype about how big it will be and how many devices will be part of it — but what has it ever done for you? For most, the answer would be "nothing?" and you'd be right. So, how is it that something so amazing — and which has the potential for being a major driver for sustainable change — can have been with us for more than 15 years and yet had so little discernable impact on our lives?

The answer is that while the concept is brilliant, the execution is mostly rubbish because we're at an inflection point in our expectation of technology. And unless we correct this, its whispered promises of fantastical opportunity will be lost in the noise of real life and clamouring needs.

Great expectations, personal needs

There are two problems here, and the first is simply that our expectations are greater. For decades, we were wide-eyed children oohing and aahing at the latest wizardry designed to make our lives richer: the color television, the microwave, the universal remote control, the tamagotchi, the electric can opener, the programmable pasta maker and so on. And even if it didn't all really work very well, or if we were unable to understand a lot of what it actually did, we embraced it because it was new, it was generally benign and it was under our (inexpert) control.

But now we've grown up. The rate at which technology has developed around us and now permeates our lives makes us a bit more discerning — and our expectations of what it does for us and how it does it is more sophisticated. We are less willing to accept technology being done to us, particularly if it's done badly — and at the moment, too much technology fails to engage and connect with us.

The second problem is more fundamental. If it's to work well, the Internet of Things must be personal, intimate. More intimate than anything that has gone before. Because what the IOT promises is simplified optimization of your life, the removal of the need to make mundane decisions and an enhancement of all that you hold most dear. It will understand everything about who you really are, where you are and where you're going, what you like, who you love, what makes you happy or sad, what you need and what you dream of.

And it will use this information to gently ameliorate the world around you to make it fit your needs — whether that be as simple as warming the house, making you coffee and putting on your favourite music as you get in from a stressful day, or as complex as planning your diet, ordering your food, arranging your social calendar and managing your health.

Image by Miki Yoshihito via Flickr.If it's to do this, we'll have to really love and trust it, and to do that it'll have to meet our basic needs in an engaging way. At the moment, it is failing to do this on all counts. Its technocentric development from the old school thinking of "make it and they will use it" isn't appropriate for operating in the eccentrically chaotic world of human emotions in which it will be used.

In Connections to Change, a new paper supported by The Nominet Trust, Forum for the Future argues that if the IOT is to reach its potential, it has to alter its focus from a technical obsession with number of devices to a human understanding of where it can meet our needs.

Early examples with promising potential

There are examples of where this could be starting to happen, which we highlight in the report. RestoreIt, for example, allows farmers to combine advances in ecosystem science with sensing technology to actively measure and manage our ecosystems for the benefit of multiple stakeholders; BuggyAir offers an air quality monitoring system for parents, while the Objects With Attitude platform hints at the potential of a new approach to resource management. It shows that with the right imagination and joined up thinking, the IOT could be used to solve real global challenges, rather than running the risk of never graduating beyond being a frivolous plaything

Central to its development, the IOT has to put simplicity of human interactions with the technology to the fore, and it has to be accessible to the billions of lightly connected, as well as the tech-saturated multitudes. It has to shift its goals from connections to change.

Image of lights by Kevin Dooley via Flickr.