Big numbers & a feeling about connectivity

Big numbers & a feeling about connectivity

Analyst reports are curious creatures. The utility of most, at least in the traditional sense, is constrained by their need to assess tomorrow’s unknowns through a frame of reference anchored in today’s industries. After all, it is clients wishing to defend successful businesses who tend to have the money to buy these things.

One from Gartner caught my eye recently. It tells us there will be 6.4 billion ‘connected things’ in use next year, rising to 20.8 billion by 2020. These are big numbers. They are accompanied by all the essentials one would expect of a report from a leading analyst firm: tables organising the broad sweep of ‘things’ into sub-categories, numerical predictions denominated in billions and commentary on the industries this may impact. I don’t mean to single out Gartner – as analyst reports go, this is worthy stuff, no doubt thoroughly researched by the company and well used by its clients.

However, thinking of this type extenuates the widespread and self-limiting condition of imagining future digital experiences will flow in a straight line from today’s product categories and industry verticals.

However, thinking of this type extenuates the widespread and self-limiting condition of imagining future digital experiences will flow in a straight line from today’s product categories and industry verticals.

What alternative questions might we ask if, instead of trying to think forwards from today, we thought backwards from the future?

We could assume that ‘connected objects’, or the ‘internet of things’, or whatever other buzz term you wish to apply, become ubiquitous. That may mean 10 billion or 100 billion individual devices, but really the numbers are somewhat meaningless at this point. In all likelihood, we are talking about a future in which the expectation is that most physical objects are connected or connectable, and it is more unusual when something is unable to connect.

It is a tipping point that’s not far off. When I’m advising management teams on the shifting digital landscape I often begin with an exercise in which we talk about the objects they encountered in the time between them waking and leaving for the meeting. I challenge them to find one which isn’t already connected or connectable. From toothbrushes and cars to dresses and pets, it is rarely hard to cite examples of how these objects are already beginning to connect.

If this is the case, surely a natural next question is: what will be disconnected? Furthermore, what should be disconnected and, indeed, impossible to connect?

We might also ask how the feeling of connection and disconnection changes in a world where the balance has tipped, in a relatively short period of a few decades, from an expectation of disconnect to an expectation of connectivity?

I have no doubt the majority of design work in the future will be about shaping the experience of gaps between individual entities – both tangible and intangible – more so than the entities themselves. Good user experience will be determined as much by how well your product interconnects as by the virtues it can boast within its own confines.

If this is the case, then it raises additional questions about the implications and opportunities presented by all those connected objects.

Firstly, what do we actually mean by ‘connectivity’?

Constrained as they are by reliance on today’s terms of reference, I suspect most reports addressing this question are essentially trying to predict how many things in the future might have an IP address. The internet, of course, is today’s most obvious example of connectivity, but anyone with an affinity for the natural sciences will know the world has many others, from bird song to the waggle dance of the bee. Indeed biomimicry, as its known, is already producing intriguing examples., whose founder Patrick Bergel spoke at a previous MEX, is exploring how low cost speakers can ‘chirp’ bird-like sound strings to transmit information between objects. Qualcomm’s Mirasol displays, which offer breakthrough levels of reduced power consumption, were inspired by the way butterflies produce iridescence in their wings.

If a car, for instance, is able to change the colour of its external panels in response to the environment around it, perhaps using a combination of cameras and a form of low power display technology like Mirasol, should we consider this an example of connectivity? It may not rely on IP as we know it today, but it is an object which is connected to and able to respond to its environment.

Secondly, regardless of the nature of these connections, what responsibilities does each carry when it is brought in to being? This is an issue attended by questions of longevity unfamiliar and often uncomfortable for a technology industry accustomed to short and self-contained life cycles. If we begin to build objects which are innately neighbourly – designed from the outset as connected citizens – then we must also accept this massively multiplies the potential scenarios in which they could be employed.

In doing so, it requires creators to think more deeply about the new contexts of use enabled by combining their products with other connected entities. If I connect your sensor to someone else’s hub to monitor humidity in my greenhouse, what are you going to do when I expect it to still be working in 20 years time? How much more important does this become when it transpires three of my neighbours have been relying on my sensors too? Just like I expect to be able to source spare parts to repair a 20 year old bicycle, so will creators of connected objects need to consider the long-term supply and support chains for their products.

With this acceptance of greater lifespans and deeper significance for connected objects must come a corresponding courage among creators to embrace the responsibilities of their role.

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