ThingsCon is a convention set up to foster the creation of a human centered and responsible IoT. It is held annually at different countries.
The convention brings together designers, practitioners, researchers and strategists to explore various themes such as responsible IoT, ethical IoT, design principles, as well as local topics such as, building connected hardware in and for emerging economies and exploring open source hardware for peace building.
The event took place on the 8th of December 2017, at Gearbox, a Nairobi-based hardware and maker space. It was attended by a little south of a hundred people and featured a number of speakers. Among them were, Gabi Agustini, the founder and director of Olabi Maker Space in Brazil, David Li; one of the pioneers of the maker movement in Shenzen China, Brcks creative director Jeff Muthondu, Stephen Kovats of r0g agency, Jaiksana Amaruda Jose a refugee from South Sudan who set up the open tech oriented O-Space innovation hub in his hometown of Yei in 2016, Dr Kamau Gachigi, the founding and executive director of Gearbox, amongst many other equally remarkable speakers.
There has been a significant increase in the number of hardware startups and developments in the fields of IOT, big data and AI. As a result we are now living in a world where things that are connected outnumber humans by a ratio of 1-3.
The bigwigs of technology like Google and Microsoft are making huge profits from this, making these technologies account for massive chunks of the economy, hence they must be regulated and measures taken to develop them sustainably. He gave three answers to the questions posed. “Why are we doing this? (Building the product), because we can, to make money and to solve problems,” Simon Höher explained.
He explored popular reasons for building products which are gadgetism – building products no one needs, vanity products – things that are needed but quickly lose value, such as the connected bicycles created and now being disposed in China, Hype circles, and sunsetting.
He finally expressed that we should more often than not seek to develop solutions for problems, we should design for longevity rather than one time solutions.
One of the major take aways from the convention was the need for diversity in IoT innovation, as discussed by Gabi Agustini the founder and director of Olabi, this is a social enterprise that focuses on encouraging the use of new and old technologies for social change, based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Olabi provides access to tools by people who need them. Gabi brought to light the problem of inequality in the technology sector. Inequality in the sense of people of different classes, gender, cultures and areas of specialization (scientists, artists, engineers, musicians etc.) These are like bubbles that require connection in order to design solutions and products that are all-inclusive of their potential users.
Bringing diversity to the production of technology should be centered on people. “Promoting diversity means promoting understanding, it changes our way of thinking, Diversity leads to better products that address the problems of those who might have otherwise been sidelined,” explains Gabi.
When a diverse team works on a product, the result is a more relevant and empathetic product. One such instance was the case of a mobile phone lock AI that locked out an Asian man, as the criteria to be met was the user’s eyes had to be open, not taking into account that the user is Chinese.
Such problems can be avoided when the team designing is culturally diverse. In the 1800’s the pap machine used by gynecologists was designed by a doctor, who so happened to be male. The contraption gets more points for effectiveness than it does for comfort, which would not have been a problem had a woman been involved in its design.
“Technology is not neutral, it changes our behavior in society,” explains Gabi. This is demonstrated by the shift in people’s behavior around celebrities, from autographs to taking of selfies. She concluded by reiterating Simon’s sentiments, “In order to make better IoT products, we should always first ask ourselves, why, for who and by whom, these products are.”
Thereafter several speakers came up discussing theme in the IoT space, David Li founder of the first maker space in China, spoke about Shenzen, the Silicon Valley of hardware, and the ecosystem of factories manufacturing everything concievable in the electronics space, some even as absurd as a seven-speakered phone, and several others designed to cater to a niche market. He added that this openness to innovaton on Shenzen’s part has disrupted the electronics sector, bringing formerly formidable companies like Nokia to their knees.
The day ended in a panel discussion about the use of IOT in emerging markets, such as finance, transportation, health amongst others.