ThingsCon 2015

Living in Berlin has its benefits. Lots of things are happening, especially now that winter has lost its grip on spring. One of the nice surprises lately was ThingsCon – the small but premier european conference on the Internet of Things. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I registered anyway. Berlin has so much energy around the startup and technology scene it’s just insane. ThingsCon turned out to be another one of those events that buzzed with energy.

The two days of talks and workshops focused no only on the technology of the Internet of Things, but also -and more importantly- on the social responsibility and implications of the Things we put on the Internet.

The opening Keynote by Warren Ellis set the tone. He doesn’t care how we build this stuff or how cool the next gizmo is. He just wants to get home without worrying that the connected world doesn’t crash and shuts him out of his connected house. He doesn’t want to fiddle with buttons or operate his light switch from the iPhone. He just wants it to work, and he doesn’t want to be bothered with the technology part. He is, as he put it, “your worst nightmare – I am your products’ and services’ most likely customer.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for him though. He is excited by the prospects and pleaded with his audience of technologists:

It was probably the best opening perspective that a crowd of young, excited and energetic product innovators could hear. In the end what matters is how these products enhance and enrich our lives. No amount of tech-cool or big-data monetization can make up for a deficient user experience.

This was the second year of ThingsCon and I can tell that this conference will grow. I am definitely going back next year to keep track with how this field is maturing. I was expecting a very “thing-centric” technology conference but was delighted to see that for the most part the human side and the personal aspect took center stage. Yes, lots of of attention to the technology of IoT, but most of the talks and workshops I attended framed the technology inside the user experience.

The Internet of Things is definitely a darling buzzword, but at the same time it is difficult to imagine how an exponential growth of connectedness could not have some fundamental impact on your daily life. If it is the next evolution of the Internet, it will be the Invisible Web. The more we push technology for technology’s sake, the less adoption we will see. To me it’s not so much about making new cool gadgets. The best technology, as far as I am concerned, is invisible.

That is the challenge for the folks working in the IoT space: not to highlight the new gizmo or technology, but to embed it invisibly in a natural and socially responsible way so as to improve and enrich our lives.

Socially responsible.That phrase kept coming back to me as I sat through workshops and talks, and by talking to the folks around me. The IoT manifesto draft looks a little “thing-centric” in its first form, but in the workshop critique all the comments were human-centered so it’s a nice signal that the folks involved with the technology recognize that there is a lot more to the challenge than just “the thing”.

Two days isn’t enough, but I got a first sense for where the IoT technology curve is right now. I also got a much better appreciation for the coming struggle of making sure the technology, devices and the data they collect are managed in an ethical and responsible manner. Once you endow personal devices with consent to collect information about yourself in your daily life, the privacy issues surface very quickly.

We will have to find a balance between personalized services (which most of us want, but which require sharing of personal information) and privacy (which we also want, but which precludes any personalization of service). Ease of use must be a foremost concern, but security and privacy could make a seamless experience difficult to achieve.

At the moment I am visualizing the IoT conundrum as the 4 corners of a square with conflicting attributes:

Personalized  –  Secure  –  Easy to use  –  Private.

If you cant have all 4 of them, then where does the compromise start? In those 4 constraints, innovation waits. Until ThingsCon 2016…