Our annual report The State of Responsible IoT (RIOT for short) is released on 11 December 2020 at ThingsCon Festival.
You can download the full report (PDF) here.
Below, you’ll find licensing info, a preface for the report, as well as the table of content. The articles will also be published individually on our blog and elsewhere. To complement the report, we recorded interviews with many contributors that are available through our podcast, ThingsCon Stories.
The fine print: The State of Responsible Internet of Things 2020 is published by ThingsCon e.V., Berlin, December 2020. ThingsCon has been publishing the State of Responsible IoT Report (RIOT) since 2017. RIOT is an annual collection of essays by the experts within the larger ThingsCon community. License info at the end of this page.
The Theme: Good Things
Preface by Andrea Krajewski
Every year, our report explores the state of the art in the development and design of responsible networked living environments. This year’s report is dedicated to the search for the good.
J. Lund, founder of the Lianeon Project, described 2020 as the actual start of the 21st century (cf. Lund,J., 2020) at the beginning of the year, referring to the state of the art in space technology that we have achieved. But is it really the technology that will bring us a desirable future? And if yes, what for?
In an extreme situation like a pandemic, we are often literally alone with ourselves and hope for technology to rescue us. Read with a
wink the article by Davide Gomba “At Least the Sex is Better?”. Here he explores this unusual moment of living through a pandemic and how this might impact intimacy through connected technology. After all, in times of social distancing, an increased reliance on intimate technology means that these technologies need to be reliably good. Follow Davide on a whirlwind tour of the history of sex tech, the role of patents, the ethical issues of hackable chastity belts and the impact these technologies might have on long distance empathy.
At present, the pandemic seems to force the world to reflect: What is really helpful and good under these conditions? Long overdue reforms, such as the introduction of digitalisation in schools and the world of work, are now being accelerated by necessity, but in times of lockdown we are also becoming aware of the importance of our own social relationships and social responsibility. The image of a world that we used to believe we could control through constant technological progress and economic growth is crumbling.
Why now? Environmental problems, surveillance capitalism, social inequality, wars, flight, hunger have been known for years and have a firm place in our news reports, but the root causes are not being vigorously and consistently addressed. It seems that the world has become irreversibly stuck between the belief in progress and capitalism. And this year, on top of it all, we sit isolated at home and look at pandemic deniers right on our doorstep. To write about the good in such a situation seems absurd.
But if we want to eliminate the bad, we must necessarily think about what the good is. And when could this be done better than in a crisis that calls into question everything we are used to anyway?
So what is good? Harald Welzer, sociologist and social psychologist, director of the FuturZwei Foundation and co-founder of the Council for Digital Ecology, doubts in his contribution “What are Promising Definitions of the Good in the Interaction of Society, Design and Technology?” that our perfected optimisation drive leads to good. Better is not necessarily good – on the contrary. It sometimes makes more sense to prevent products than to improve them.
Elise Marcus, designer and founder of the Mother Earth Network is an advocate of Planetary Centred Design. In her contribution “Re-Generative Design” she explains that there is really no time left for circular design. The status quo that traditional sustainability thinking attempts to maintain is detrimental to the survival of the earth. We need to not just prevent things from getting worse, but improve them: Elise Marcus pleads for a design that helps to repair the environmental damage of the earth. Here the concept of re-generation is particularly interesting. By “generative design“ we mean a design generated by rules and algorithms based on data, beyond any human-creative interpretation. And perhaps it is also quite reasonable to focus on the facts rather than selling dreams and identity illusions by product design. Marcus says that the goal of regenerating the earth could be helped by giving citizens access to their own data to give them insights and conclusions for their own environmentally improving behaviour. This is a first step, but it means that people are opening up to the uncomfortable truths and no longer see themselves as the centre of the universe circled by over-zealous designers.
Designers are, as Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino explains in her article “Doing Good: a Design Impossibility?”, in any case badly placed for creating good things. On the one hand, too many — often bad — decisions have already been made by the time designers enter the process. On the other hand, as service providers, designers are almost by necessity caught in the capitalist framework. But wait, aren’t we designers the good guys, the advocates of the users? The answer is simple and frightening. This idea of the designer whose very task it is to represent the interests of users has nothing to do with the reality that most professional designers experience, in which they can only survive by equating users with target markets.
So designers alone won’t save the world, especially designers who create more and more products for the sake of the product life cycle. Then again, there will not be one profession that will achieve this goal, it will take a concerted effort.
Perhaps the objectives of design and development should be reconsidered anyway. The present report provides some suggestions for this. In their article “Ludicrious IoT Dreams”, Dries De Roeck and Iskander Smit argue for democratising design, i.e. taking it out of the hands of companies and giving it back to people as a ground for experimenting with their own desired lifestyles. In other words, less planned efficiency, less perfection and optimisation for the masses, but more responsibility and self-determination by the citizens.
In his contribution “What Designers can Learn from Political Science”, Peter Bihr suggests that design should cut off the old pigtail of creative genius and allow many more voices to be heard in a holistically considered design process. The parallel with political science here is that any form of governance is more just if those who will be subject to the decisions, rules and laws are represented in the decision-making process. Having a voice is seen as more important than the results of the decisions.
According to Simon Höher and his article “Designing good systems after 2020 – What to make of a year of crisis”, designers should stop offering solutions to problems anyway. This is just because there are no longer any simple solutions to the increasingly wicked problems. Instead, designers should start to explore the gaps that prevent solutions to problems together with other disciplines, not to keep them secret, but to consider their existence as part of a solution. Courage to leave a gap, no more paternalism, no more nudging, no more behavioural design, no “I know what’s best for you”. No governing.
Gabriele Zipf and Antja Karoli curate the exhibitions at the futurium Berlin. In “What’s the Next Good Thing?” they describe this idea of personal responsibility further, that the question of the next good thing must be answered by each individual. In the exhibitions in the Haus der Zukünfte — the house of futures — design ensures that people can engage with possible futures, understand and question technologies and their impact on the environment and society, and make informed decisions for their own future wishes. Accessible, easy-to-understand research, education and selectable options may be the best that can be offered by designers and developers now to help people make their own informed decisions.
Michelle Thorne is one of those enlightened thinkers who does not shy away from the big picture, such as trustworthy AI and a sustainable, climate-friendly internet as an EU policy issue. While design has been dealing for some time now with the question of how AI systems and users can interact and coexist with each other in the future, she shows together with her co-author Fieke Jansen in their contribution “Trustworthy AI and the Climate Crisis — Towards better policies in the EU” at what ecological price this is happening. Trustworthiness includes not only data protection and transparency, but also human well-being through habitat conservation.
The often complex strategies and concepts for a better use of resources and care for the well-being of our ecosystem with all the existences within can be explained by design artifacts and brought to life for trial and error. This is how Michael Stead, Adrian Gradinar and Paul Coulton describe in their contribution “Must All Things Pass? Designing for the Afterlife of (Internet of) Things”. In a speculative design scenario they describe how AI-supported things will be able to enforce their own right to repair in the future and thus protect the environment. Here again, the mission “Good” is not to offer the finished solution, but to point out problems and provide a provocative suggestion as to what a basic approach to dealing with them might look like. In doing so, conventions and patterns are intentionally broken in order to provoke an openness for other solutions. What would be, the authors ask, if a greater degree of sustainable decision-making were to be delegated to the things themselves rather than to their users?
To redesign the relationship between increasingly autonomous things and their users, Elisa Giaccardi and her team at TU Delft are researching with the Things Centred Design approach. She and Felipe Pierantoni dedicate their contribution “The Repertoire of Meaningful Voice Interactions. How to design good smart speakers” to the underestimated influence of the linguistic relationship between people and devices with speech interfaces on the further social behaviour of humans. The fact that the perspective changes from the design of a tool to the influence of the tool (cf. Culkin, J., 1967, 51–53, 70–72) on the design becomes clear here once again.
Design, it seems, must redefine itself in order to be able to produce good systems. The time when it was already a giant leap forward, when it was only possible to recognise the needs of the user and satisfy them in an exciting way, not only seems to be over, but this practice seems to make everything worse (Monteiro, M. 2019).
Maximilian Brandl and Philipp Kaltofen plead for a radical change of perspective in design in their article “Entangled Interfaces – The Design of Post Human Centred Interfaces”. The world to be designed is becoming increasingly complex. Soon we will all live in such a systemic network consisting of countless components and independently acting (human and non-human) actors that it will become impossible for design to concentrate on just one player – the human being – in a meaningful way.
The role of design has changed again and again over the past decades. From artistic craftsmanship to supporting industrial production and user-centred design, the field of activity has expanded from the design of objects to the creation of interactions, processes and systems – and this increasingly in interdisciplinary teams and with the participation of those for whom design was created. Design is moving away from the design of solitary objects towards complex systems that first need to be identified and understood. The key issue is less and less how technology can be designed to be humane, but how co-existence of the existences populating the earth can survive collectively and for the well-being of all.
When it comes to the question of what will be good in the future and how we want to coexist, designers can be questioners, provocateurs and offer options at the same time. In the 1950s, designers sketched seductive images of the future with flying cars, rolling robots and residential towers. They are capable of making imaginary pictures irresistibly tangible and real, so that others can engage with these ideas. We need new images of the future as a basis for determining how we all want to live in the future. Designers can bring them to life as models, create transparency, enliven test rooms to enable us all to decide how we want to survive.
With great power comes great responsibility (cf. Avi,A., 2002). Given the state of societies, political systems, technological developments and climate change, the question of good is not a question of luxury, aesthetics or progress, but an existential one.
The answer may well lie in the attitude with which we will tackle a challenge that seems almost impossible: Not as heroes, but as part of the problem.
Lund, J. (2020, January 15) 2020 Is the First Year of the 21st Century. Access on 10 November at: https://medium.com/swlh/2020-is-the-first-year-of-the-21st-century-64a41044a7e3
Culkin, J. (1967, March 18). A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. Saturday Review, 51–53, 70–72
Monteiro, M. (2019) Ruined by Design, How Designers Destroyed the World and What We Can Do to Fix It. San Francisco, USA: Independently Published
Avi, A. (Producer) & Raimi, S. (Director). (2002). [Spiderman]. Columbia Pictures
Table of Contents
At launch, these articles are available in the PDF version of the report. We’ll publish them and add links here soon. For audio interviews with the authors, please subscribe to our podcast, ThingsCon Stories.
- In Search of the Good
- What Are Promising Definitions of the Good in the Interaction of Society, Design and Technology?
- RE-Generation – Why Internet of Things Citizens are Going to Save the World and Themselves Along the Way
- Doing Good: A Design Impossibility?
- Ludicrous IoT Dreams
Dries de Roeck & Iskander Smit
- What Designers Can Learn from Political Science
- Designing Good Systems After 2020 – What to Make of a Year of Crisis
- What’s the Next Good Thing?
Gabriele Zipf & Antja Karoli
- Trustworthy AI and the Climate Crisis Towards Better Policies in the EU
Michelle Thorne & Fieke Jansen
- Must All Things Pass? Designing for the Afterlife of (Internet of) Things
Michael Stead, Adrian Gradinar, Paul Coulton
- The Repertoire of Meaningful Voice Interactions. How to Design Good Smart Speakers
Felipe Pierantoni & Elisa Giaccardi
- Entangled Interfaces – the Design of Post Human-Centered Interfaces
Max Brandl & Philipp Kaltofen
- At Least the Sex is Better?
Andrea Krajewski is an industrial designer and professor for the Design of Interactive Media Systems at the Mediacampus of the University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt. Here she established the interdisciplinary study course Interactive Media Design, the UX-Lab and the THINGS- Lab – the current centres of her research.
Since 2019 she is guest reseacher in the interdisciplinary research community of project-mo.de – the mobility design project, The project is funded by the state of Hesse as a LOEWE priority. She is on the board of IMD-F, a non-profit association for the pro- motion of research and teaching in the field of interactive media for the future.
Andrea is a founding member of ThingsCon e.V. and hosts the ThingsCon Salon Darmstadt.
Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies can have a positive social impact. At the core of his work is the mission to align emerging technologies and citizen empowerment. To do this, he works at the intersection of technology, governance, policy and social impact with foundations, public and private sector.
He is the founder and Managing Director of The Waving Cat, a boutique research and strategic advisory firm built around this mission. He also co-founded and chairs the board of ThingsCon e.V., a not-for-profit that advocates for responsible practices in Internet of Things (IoT). In 2019, he co-founded the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities and Civil Rights.
Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) researching trustable technology (IoT), and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019) exploring smart cities from a civil rights perspective. He blogs at
We would like to thank all our wonderful authors for this issue. The fact that you are thinking about the good in a time of particular professional and private stress gives us hope for the future.
The State of Responsible Internet of Things 2020 is published by ThingsCon e.V., Berlin, December 2020
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About the RIOT Report
ThingsCon has been publishing the State of Responsible IoT Report (RIOT) since 2017. RIOT is an annual collection of essays by the experts within the larger ThingsCon community.