The Internet of Things

Futures Rambling #82
By Laurie Aznavoorian

Earlier this week I was travelling on a plane from America to Australia, unfortunately it wasn’t with British Airways and therefore I was not offered a hi-tech ‘happiness blanket’ woven with fibre optics connected to neuro-sensors to measure my brainwaves. If I’d had one, the blanket would have morphed from a bright red to blue as I binge watched all nine episodes of True Detective and sipped scotch indicating an increased level of relaxation.

Blankets that read brainwaves are just one example of how things in the world are beginning to interact with people to improve experiences, when those things bypass us all together and talk directly to each other, it’s referred to as ‘the internet of things’, The IoT. The term was coined back in 1999 by technologist Kevin Ashton, but is still a relatively new idea for many of us. It describes a world in which everything, from a person to the inanimate objects that surround them, has a digital identity enabling computers to organize and manage them.

Having the word internet in this phrase misleads small minded people like me; The IoT is not about the internet at all, but a major departure from it. It’s often described as the next generation of the internet – a global system of interconnected networks, sensors, actuators, and devices all using internet protocol to talk to one another. The big change is connections have moved beyond computing devices alone to include billions of everyday items like blankets, parking meters, home thermostats and light fixtures.

If you believe The IoT is going to simply fade away like other failed tech trends e.g. Second Life and QR Codes, think again. A new report by Business Intelligence suggests 1.9 billion devices are connected to each other today and by 2018 this will increase to 9 billion. To put this in perspective, it’s about equal to the number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers and PCs we have today combined.

As you’d expect, The IoT has taken off in the tech industry as evidenced by Google’s acquisition of Nest, a smart thermostat and smoke alarm company for $3.2 Billion. Most of us have already experienced The IoT through wearable devices like Fitbit and the Nike FuelBand that track activity and store it in the cloud reminding us of what lazy arses we are. Even in Seattle, where people are far from fashion conscious and would more likely wear a device to drip feed Starbucks, I saw a guy wearing Google Glass just last week, and yes he did look like a tosser.

The greatest potential for The IoT lies in industries that are not yet digitized, unlike information industries like communications and entertainment, the prospect of remaking traditional products into new smart and connected ones is a larger challenge for ‘old economy’ industries that will require many more sensors and big data to take full advantage of things talking to things.

Never the less, companies like Dell, Intel and Samsung are already joining forces to ensure their smart devices work together and Cisco’s “Internet of Everything” is testing sensors for applications in old fashioned places like prisons and hospitals. GE’s “Industrial Internet” applies The IoT to the dusty old public sector, as well as, mechanical and plant engineering services.

The potential to connect large-scale agriculture, transportations systems and highways is enormous, imagine a future where highway lanes adapt to traffic flow or roads are designed to serve speeding autonomous vehicles. Business and government application for The IoT is equally compelling. Advertising will connect to marketing via billboards, smart factories and telecommuting support systems and there is great hope The IoT will improve traffic management, collect tolls, apply congestion penalties and establish smart parking space management.

But wait, it also does julienne fries! Just kidding, moving beyond the Popell Chop-O-Matic jokes; there will be no turning back on The Internet of Things for three reasons:

1. COST: Connecting to the internet used to be very expensive, now it’s cheaper and easier and this enables more things to be intelligent. A parking meter can now be part of an intelligent city for just a few dollars
2. BIG DATA AND ANALYTICS: Dumb devices from the past have finally found their voice and they’re telling us things we need to know to make smarter decisions.
3. FINANCIAL: The industrial Internet of Things has the potential to fundamentally move society in a very good direction by developing connected systems that only work when they need to

The applications for The IoT in the architectural and design industries is staggering, a point driven home when I relived my early days as an architect and visited floor 3 of The Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Floor 3 is office furniture stomping grounds and after a quick stroll and peruse of the major American manufacturers it was clear they are all over this. Chairs were chatting to worksettings and furniture enclosures talked to lights.

The obvious question that comes to mind when contemplating The IoT is how this new dialogue between things is going to make us feel? Will we be left out and isolated like we’re in a foreign country and can’t understand the language, or worse like we’re back in grammar school being snubbed by the popular kids? More importantly, when everything around us is smart will it force us to acknowledge how dumb and lacking in purpose some of us are, the Kardashians spring to mind?

Having worked with many organisations struggling with the complex emotional issues of transforming work styles, I can imagine The IoT will wreak absolute havoc in the corporate realm where control freaks and micro managers abound. If middle managers had a tough go at mobile working and felt inconsequential as a result, imagine how The IoT will make them feel. First we take away their ability to manage by wandering around and now they won’t be required to control other aspects of work experience.

Once again technology is forcing us to envision a new world where the physical and the virtual merge and objects have the ability to be intelligent and networked. Creating organisational dynamics and business models that transform these visions into reality and capitalize on their potential will be one of the future’s key challenges and with that comes an even greater need for workplace designers to appreciate and be conversant in the complex interactions and dependencies of space, people and technology.

Alder, Emily 2013, ‘Here’s Why ‘The Internet Of Things’ Will Be Huge, And Drive Tremendous Value For People And Businesses’, accessed 17 July 2014

Bell, Donald 2013; ‘Failed Tech Fads’. accessed 21 August 2014.
‘British Airways Begins Testing ‘Happiness Blankets’ 2014, accessed 20 August 2014
Ferber, Stefan 2013; ‘How the Internet of Things Changes Everything ’ accessed 17 July 2014
Nusca, Andrew 2013, for Between the Lines, ‘The Internet of Things is ‘fundamentally about economic value’ accessed 17 July 2014,
Watson, Carlos 2014, ‘The New New Thing: The Internet of Things’, accessed 17 July 2014,


The Courage to be You?

Futures Rambling # 79
by Laurie Aznavoorian

The Human Research and Ethic committee overlooking a current research endeavour has once again not disappointed in making our research team jump through hoops to gain ethics approval for the upcoming data collection phase of our next research initiative. Historically, I’ve poked fun at the committee for holding projects like ours to the same standards as those that could have far more serious consequences than determining whether a desk is occupied or not.

In this case it’s warranted, our research participants will be wearing Sociometric badges and there is an understandable concern the electrical pulse from the sensor might mess with pacemakers. However, that was not the question that flummoxed us it was another, which I am embarrassed to admit we hadn’t even considered. It was about the benefit of involvement in the research to the participant.

Pretty lame given we tout ourselves as professionals who care about occupant’s experiences in the workplace! Surprisingly, or perhaps no so much, we had only articulate the benefits of the research to our clients and ourselves and hadn’t given two minutes thought to what might be in it for the guinea pig. Surely there would be something.

Fortunately a compelling answer surfaced without too much mental duress. When you think about it, it’s quite simple, who wouldn’t want to know more about the effectiveness of interactions they have with co-workers? After all, information is power, and understanding the nuances of how we interact with one another will help lay the foundation for more meaningful and productive collaborations.

The Sociometric readers we are using will provide a great amount of valuable data, but unfortunately, it will not lead to knowledge that will break the back of many serious maladies that plague the typical workplace. To be more specific, to some extent they will measure variables that will allow us to monitor behaviour, since they do not record speech, we will never really know when a colleague is being a jerk and talking behind another’s back or trashing someone in the corridor.

Shocked? That doesn’t happen in your office, not true if you subscribe to Robert Kegan’s ideas about being yourself in the workplace, he’s a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of education who believes most interactions in a ‘normal job’ have nothing to do with the real work we perform and have much more to do with a second job we have that is arse covering, looking good and hiding shortcomings.

I concur. I’ve met several people who’ve spent their entire career dedicated to this exact endeavour! Kegan maintains that even though we know covering our weaknesses, inadequacies and uncertainties is counter productive; we do it anyway and it is typical in the ‘normal’ organisation where people feel compelled to hide their less developed parts, or true self.

It makes no sense if you think about it logically, our employers hire us not because we’re perfect, but to realise the potential they see in us. After all we are human and therefore imperfect. In reality, we are not logical, so we spend enormous amounts of time everyday trying to be something, or someone were not, by putting on airs and covering our shortcomings and errors. Unfortunately, this makes us more likely to continue making the same kinds of mistakes hampering growth for each of us personally and for the companies we work for.

Patrick Lencioni lists these same exact attributes in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, suggesting that hiding weaknesses and covering mistakes, amongst a number of others, are indicative of organisations that lack trust, not to mention one that is standing still because it’s too timid to evolve. Lencioni supports what our Trust Research, and many others, concludes and that is a lack of trust in an organisation impacts productivity and profit, and it makes people feel downright miserable.

Our sociometric readers are not going to remedy this completely; they will record signals that will provide insight into the authenticity, honesty or sincerity of co-workers interactions. But they can’t really tell us when one employee behaves like a complete tool, in an unproductive or unprofessional manner. What they will tell us is how people interact with one another during various phases of the collaborative process and from this we can bridge the gap to infer how the environment helps or hinders it.

We will most definitely succeed in capturing insights that will inform designers and clients on the spatial attributes that support phases of the collaborative process, but going back to the Ethics Committee question, what’s is this research doing for the people? How do we help them achieve richer interactions and encourage them to be their complete self in the workplace by boldly exhibiting their passions, enthusiasm, wacky ideas and warts? How can we create a company culture, because this is not about a workplace, where employees are not ashamed to be who they are?

That is the $60,000 question, and one that is important to understanding, what Keagan describes as, our ‘new economy’. In the new economy employees seek benefits beyond a paycheck, of the old economy of salary and benefits will continue to be important, but in the ‘new economy’ employees will seek incomes that address “the psychological person”. These incomes support happiness, not in smiley face kind of way, but rather a state of happiness as an evolutionary process that comes from the Aristotelian concept of unfolding, growing and developing as a person.

This probably sounds familiar to many I’ve spoken to recently who are searching for fulfilment and happiness and not finding it at work. Undoubtedly there are a host of reasons for worker dissatisfaction, but one could be not working for a DDO, a deliberately developmental organisation. These are companies that walk the talk and go out of their way to draw employees into a process that helps them grow and become better versions of themselves.

Sign you up to work in a DDO you say? Well maybe think twice, because for most the level of openness required to promote personal growth is a little too scary a proposition. It is true, being in a workplace where there are no secrets and every conversation is an open one can lead to discomfort. Kegan gives an example of an organisation in Connecticut that records every meeting. An extreme example, but one it gives a taste of what true transparency is.

You might rightly surmise, it is not everyone’s idea of fun, but for those that do preserve, working in a DDO can be exhilarating. Some see it as an illustration of the organisation’s generosity with time and a willingness to make an investment in their future. They believe the organisation really cares about them as a person and do not see them as just a means to an end. They thrive in the organisation, would not consider working for ‘normal organisation and the company benefits from excellent results.

For others it’s too confronting and this is why many DDO’s have high turnover rates, and face it not everyone wants their co-workers to know who they really are, you never know they may be in the witness protection program or they want everyone to think they are better than what they are. Those that feel that way have many organisations to choose from that are ‘normal’

I imagine if we had wanted to record this type of information in our research we would not have been given ethics approval, because we could easily delve into people’s psychological well being, and find ourselves outside of our pay grades. Both researcher and participants could find out things they prefer not to know. Like that famous line from A Few Good Men, we think we want the truth but we can’t handle it.

Are You the “Real You” in the Office? HBR IdeaCast 5:45 PM March 27, 2014

Russell, Joyce E.A., The importance of trusting co-workers; Australian Financial Review, April 17, 2014

Everyone’s an architect

Futures Rambling #78
By Laurie Aznavoorian

At a writing workshop I attended a few weeks ago the facilitator made a surprising statement; ‘Everyone thinks they are a writer’. Her comment was not directed at the ten people in the room who had toiled for years producing manuscripts, some published and others not, but to countless others who make absurd statements over glasses of Zinfandel about how they were thinking about maybe someday writing a book. The point being, there is a difference between intentions and actually doing the hard yards.

Participants of the workshop came from a number of industries: architecture, IT, public service, gambling and the sex trade (no kidding) and could relate to the comment. Because they knew watching episodes of ER or House does not qualify one to diagnoses illness, viewing CSI NY, Miami and Las Vegas provides no real knowledge of how to solve crime, and my personal favourite, selecting a paint colour or living through a kitchen remodel does not make you an architect.

There is a difference between the professional and hobbyist, that difference is that design professionals: architects, interior designers, communications, graphics and experience designers etc. do not just create something that looks good, they create designs that provide value to the end user and that is a very different outcome. Unfortunately, design professionals do a poor job of articulating what that value is in a language that is meaningful to their client and therefore deal with the negative ramifications of this shortcoming on a daily basis.

Add to this the influence of new technologies and procurement models for design services: open source, crowdsourcing, contests and competitions that take the best ideas and only pay the winner or no one at all. For most designers this is far from a sustainable business model because the time spent on the work has nothing to do with compensation. Winning or succeeding is more a factor of luck, whim of judges, or the personal preferences of people who may have questionable qualifications, or lack the experience and know how to identify a superior design solution.

Crowdsourcing is not something we come up against in architecture and interior design; never the less assuming it won’t creep into our lexicon would be at our own peril. Speak to a graphic designer and mention crowdsourced logo competitions and you’ll receive a litany of reasons why this is bad. Crowdsourcing should not be confused with outsourcing, where jobs are moved from higher to lower paying regions; the practice guarantees an equal quality of work for lower cost. Crowdsourcing combines ideas from people all over the world, qualified or not, and follows a pay on satisfaction model. It does not guarantee a similar quality of outcome.

Most industries would consider such a situation ludicrous, whether or not you like what your doctor, lawyer or accountant did, they would still be expected compensation. However, the question of payment is the least of the problems with these models, the real issues arise from the inability for the designer to capture a competent brief, interact and educate the client about the pros and cons of one solution over another. Since the average person does not really understand graphics, digital communications, interior design or the technicalities of architecture, having a professional navigate the decision making process is critical.

All good relationships are built on trust and those between client and designer are no different. Ideally, communication would be constant throughout the project and in the end the outcome would be the result of discourse and collaboration. Forgoing this opportunity for interaction is the main problem with many of the new methods for procuring design services popular today.

When we whine about the insurgence of design competitions being used to award commissions we are singing an old tune. 140 years ago The Royal Institute of British Architects began a debate on the value of design contests, and as far as I am aware, it continues to this day. On one hand it can be argued design competitions devalue the work and create a host of problems for the profession as a whole.

A number of these were identified in a 2013 exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York that addressed the hidden stories and politics behind architectural competitions. Noted were tricky ways architects broke anonymity rules and the unlikely chance of a poorly named entry proposal being a successful winner. They labelled competitions as ‘breeding grounds for clichés in architectural representation, and finally identified the real quandary, hours and hours of unpaid work generally done by interns barely earning the minimum wage if they earn a wage at all. For years the profession turned a blind eye to interns providing services for free for the opportunity to work with an internationally famous architect. Unfortunately, Obama’s executive order on the minimum wage will not change that situation in America if it still exists; it only applies to the public sector.

Considering the other side of the coin, competitions alter the course of design by bringing new movements to the fore. International competitions, in particular have broadened our notions of what is possible by calling on the creativity of architects around the globe. We would not have our own Sydney Opera House if it wasn’t for an international competition won by an outsider, and relatively unknown architect, Jorn Utzon. And moore recently if it hadn’t been for an international competition Thomas Noakes from Australia would have never won the Doritos ad competition and millions of Americans would have been denied a taste of Aussie sophistication. See for yourself it will make you proud, particularly if you’re an Aussie.

This highlights another benefit of the competition process, it allows new players to compete regardless of their prior experience in the region or project type. We saw this in the recent Flinders Street Station competition where the people’s choice award went to a team of Melbourne Uni grads: Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina. Although they didn’t win the competition, their entry got us all thinking and talking.

Of course thinking and talking does not pay the mortgage. In researching this piece I read one blog that suggested the last thing you wanted to do was win a competition, because it would signify the end of self-indulgent fantasies and force the architect to listen to clients, local politicians, health & safety certifiers and fire regulators.

The blogger was having a go at Zaha Hadid, who didn’t get a paying commission for 25 years, he claimed her reputation was “based on images, not real-life.” While it may be true that it took a long time for Hadid to warm up, something she could only have done with rich parents or some kind of supporter behind her, it’s hard to see how her work did not become more refined, some might say palatable, from the many international competitions she entered.

Hadid is the recipient of, and only woman to win The Pritzker Prize; her life’s work has been on display in the Guggenheim and she runs a practice of 350 people in London. She is 69th on the Forbes list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” and was named by Time as an influential thinker in the 2010 TIME 100 issue. If that is not enough, she was listed as one of the fifty best-dressed over 50s by the Guardian in 2013! Architectural competitions have been very, very, good for Zaha, and prove that when it comes to architects it’s all about flash, not cash.

Doyle, John; “Did We Just Overlook the Next Opera House?”; The Age; January 24, 2014
Dunn, Zach; “The Real Problem With Design Contests”; The Blog of One Mighty Roar; posted January 16, 2009
Kubey, Karen; “The Competitive Hypothesis” Domusweb; posted February 13, 2013
Stevens, Gary; “How to Become a Famous Architect Without Building Anything”; Dr. Garry’s Place; Contests—who wins?; Posted on Jan 23, 2013
McKiernan, Patricia; Creative Professionals and Ethics; Graphic Artists Guild; August 7, 201