Active furniture and the Internet of Things

Very cool, very strange, very hypnotic and potentially practical. How do you add motion to a table? How can you send messages using furniture? How can you actively interact with hard surfaces?

Transform, a project of the MIT Media Lab, blends technology and design to turn a solid, static object into a dynamic, active participant. Surprising, a bit noisy, and quite mind-blowing… Is it just me, or does it also bring to your mind the concept of furniture as a pet?

 

Why?

It’s about time that I set a general outline for this blog, that I laid out what I really want to write about, what fascinates me, what can get me talking for hours (just ask my friends…). In a nutshell, it’s the impact that communication technology has on the way we work and live. I’m not an academic, but I have spent 14 years working in e-commerce in Spain, and while that gave me a privileged position from which to witness and experience the technological and cultural changes Spain is still… um, enjoying?, it also made me realise how little I know. And how much there is to learn.

a café for thinking(image via Unsplash)

I sold my business at the end of last year, and after a few months of clearing my head and my computer files and the cupboards in my house, I started reading… As all entrepreneurs know, we don’t get a lot of time to read, and I confess that a lot of the new ideas and trends had passed me by somewhat unnoticed… (Yes, I’ll happily go into how not to get too absorbed in your work at another time, not that I know much about that…). Now I spend my time looking at the forest, not the trees, and while I do still love the detail (I’m a statistician by training), it’s the big changes that fascinate me. And there’s so many of them.

Things have changed so much since I started working in the Internet 14 years ago. Back then, when I was setting up the business (an e-commerce portal), seasoned investors and financial advisers said, and I’m really not joking, “But nobody buys on the Internet…” We couldn’t find a logistics provider willing to work with an e-commerce company because they didn’t think it had much future. And strangely enough, I still hear similar statements today, obviously about different things. “I don’t understand Facebook”. “Snapchat is just a fad”. “The sharing economy will never work.” And who knows, maybe they’re right, but one thing we have to have learnt over the past 15 years is that our collective mindset has huge capacity for change.

nostalgic inspiration

 

(image via Death to the Stock Photo)

Back then, who would have thought that the largest encyclopaedia would be written by us, without being paid? Or that we would want to take photos of our lives and share them with the world, several times a day? Or that we would have access to top-level university courses, for free? Obviously these things no longer surprise us, and I love dwelling on what will cease to surprise us in the years to come. And how the increasing use of wireless technology will continue to bring down barriers, create efficiencies and generate cultural wealth, while forcing us to re-think jobs, copyright and what the definition of freedom is.

So this blog will document my journey of discovery, my arguments with myself and others, the debates, the surprises, the “you gotta be kiddings”, and the awe in which I hold human ingenuity, creativity and adaptability.

The future is coming, markets are changing, and you might as well get involved.

Let’s go back in time. Not to 10 years ago, not to the pre-Internet era, but to the Middle Ages. More specifically to a dirty, noisy marketplace in the center of a town. Listen to the noise. Bartering, haggling, arguing, laughing, gossiping, plotting, insulting, flirting… The marketplace was the hub of communication, the center of activity, and definitely not a boring place to be. Back then, being shy and reclusive was not an option. If you didn’t put yourself forward, chances are you would die of starvation.

medieval marketplace via deviantart

Now, fast forward to the turn of the century. This century. 1999 to be exact. No doubt you remember what a really interesting year that was. The Y2K bug was hanging over our heads, mobile telephones were finally mobile, and Internet was this thing that we had to get our heads around. Everyone was talking about bandwidth and emails and search engines.

That year a book was published called “The Cluetrain Manifesto”. A very interesting book, and if you were to read it now, you’d be surprised just how prescient it was. It discussed how we needed to adapt our form of communicating to the new medium, and what the new medium meant to our way of doing business. While many of us have radically changed the way we communicate and get things done, in our professional and our private lives, it is also surprising how slow the rate of change actually is.

cluetrain manifesto

15 years on we still get a lot of envelopes in the mail. Our children still lug heavy textbooks to and from school. We still carry around wallets full of plastic, paper and metal. And while it is understandable that profound societal change can take some time, and that institutions have an incentive to resist messing with the status quo, failure to initiate the process ends up costing businesses their livelihood and people their jobs.

But that’s not new, you’ve no doubt heard that many times before. What we need to get our heads around is that a huge amount of the change that has yet to happen, that as a society we need, is in your hands. How? By going to the proverbial market. By putting yourself forward. By communicating.

One of the main messages of the Cluetrain Manifesto was that “Markets are conversations”, and in 1999 that was ground-breaking. All though the last century we were sold at, we were manipulated, we were categorized, and unless we formed part of a tedious marketing focus group, we were not listened to outside of our immediate social circle. Internet gave us a voice, companies started listening to us and talking back, and we became part of the conversation.

conversations

I imagine that most of you have bought something online over the past year? Now, did you leave a rating, or a comment? Few of us do. So where’s the conversation? Maybe you didn’t feel like it, you didn’t have time, or, more likely, the online store didn’t ask you for your opinion. Having worked in e-commerce for years, I understand the reluctance to open yourself up to the risk of getting stuck with a lot of stock of a consistently poorly-rated product. But if collective opinions can wake up the manufacturers and get them to focus on making better products, we will be approaching a more efficient marketplace.

Which brings us back to “Markets are conversations”, and how, while some of us are well on the way, many of us have yet to realize that the nature of communication has changed. It’s not so much that we can communicate with the market. It’s that we should. The market needs us. So, comment. Like. Share. Your opinion is one of millions, sure, but it matters.

Most of us have some degree of shyness. We are afraid of being judged. We don’t want strangers to know us, we don’t want to regret divulging sensitive details. We don’t want to lose control. But this reluctance ignores a fundamental shift in the way our civilization is developing. That a “marketplace is a conversation” is truer than ever. Companies that don’t talk to and listen to their clients are missing the point, and losing out to the competition that IS participating in the conversation. Many businesses, large and small, don’t even realise this yet. They still are afraid of their customers, and they still underestimate the customers’ interest and influence. Sales used to be about knowing more than your clients. Not any more, now it is about validating choices already made, and helping clients to generate new ideas.

ecommerce Burberry store

(image via video on the digital face of Burberry – really interesting, if you haven’t seen it!)

On a personal level, as well. How we act, what we say and do, says a lot about us. It determines peoples’ opinion of us, which has both personal and professional repercussions. And it doesn’t really matter how “private” we wish to be, NOT participating, NOT communicating, in itself speaks volumes. What we don’t do is as interesting to others who wish to know us better (potential employers, that cute guy you met at the picnic last weekend) as what we DO do. Staying completely private in this era of “let’s look it up” is no longer an option.

And I think that that’s good. The future is about connecting, communicating and creating. If you don’t participate, you have no influence. If you don’t show up, you miss the opportunity. If you don’t put yourself forward, you won’t get noticed. With easier communication, more and more decisions will be made collaboratively, and if you don’t express your opinion, your voice won’t get heard.

You’ve probably heard of crowdsourcing, where we all create together. Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced encyclopaedia, research projects are asking for public participation, even art exhibitions are getting crowd-sourced. We believe that, yes, markets are conversations. But more and more, conversations are markets. Conversations generate ideas, collaborations produce results. Arguments stimulate, debates inform. And this is all happening, all the time, under our very noses. We can’t be everywhere all the time, not on a personal nor on a professional level. But we can participate, get noticed, connect. And with that, we generate a marketplace, for our product or service, and for ourselves.

The future is coming. We can help to shape it. Get involved. Get your company to open up even more to its clients. Listen. Talk. Fix problems as they arise, and do so publicly. Your clients will love you for it. Your friends will support you. And along the way, great things will emerge from the conversation.

And as for the title of this post, well, I think it could make a catchy song, don’t you?