Oct 30, 2019
| 3 min read

Podcast #73: Designing Intelligent Spaces - A Conversation with Usman Haque


Usman Haque, CEO of Thingful and Founding Partner of Umbrellium, has used his training as an architect to inform an extensive career designing smart city projects. His work at Umbrellium goes much further than what is typically thought of as smart cities – he has applied a creative approach to create greater engagement of citizens in public spaces, anticipating changes and evolution to deliver a better quality of life. We discuss the considerations involved in designing and implementing projects and the approach to take, the value of platforms and toolkits (along with the evolution of Pachube and the Urban Innovation Toolkit) as well as Thingful, the IoT data search engine.   

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Good day everyone, and welcome to another Momenta podcast. This is Ed Maguire, Insights Partner here, and today we have with us Usman Haque who is Founding Partner of Umbrellium, and also the CEO of Thingful Net, which is a search engine for IoT data. We’re going to dive into a number of topics, but first of all, Usman it’s great to have you here with us today.

Thanks for having me Ed, great to finally talk in person.

Absolutely. I’d love to start off by getting a bit of context around your background and understand what some of the experiences and influences are that have led you to your current role, and the work that you’re doing.

I got into all of this in perhaps a not very typical way, although one could also say there isn’t really a typical way to get into the Internet of Things I suppose. I’m trained as an architect, and almost all of my work ultimately is about the built environment, urban environment, and people interacting with each other and spaces, structures, and systems all around them. My career started out designing buildings, designing interiors and things like that, and I would argue in a sense that what I’m doing now continues that line of work and interests, which is fundamentally about architecture and space, and people interacting with each other, albeit in perhaps a slightly different way to 25 years ago.

I think that architectural approach to smart cities, it’s a unique but very essential angle because I think when people hear about smart cities there’s a technology association with that, and I’d love to get a bit of a sense of how you think about designing spaces. What does it mean for a city or a space to be smart, in your view?

I think that’s a great question, and to give you the punchline, I think the word ‘smart’ just doesn’t mean enough, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and let me expand on that a little bit. I think there was a time perhaps five or ten years ago where we were thinking about cities, and by ‘we’ I mean we in the technology sector but also in the built environment, we’re thinking about cities very much in terms of, what can technology do to solve this problem? What can technology do to make cities better? Very often there’s a lot of discussion about this idea that technology could make things more efficient, more convenient, more secure, optimized processes and all these kinds of things.

Now, the thing is that’s great for a close system of finite knowables, but that doesn’t describe the city, a city is really an open-ended system where you can’t even define its boundaries in some cases, you can’t necessarily even draw a circle around individual problems that can be solved. You have quite complex issues that need to be managed for sure, and I would never suggest that technology has no role in that. But very often what you’re looking to do is to bring about improvements through people’s relationship to their city, if you see what I mean, their relationship to each other. In other words, let’s take transportation as an example, it’s often described in smart city literature, we can have smart infrastructure, again using this word smart, and that there’s a technology solution to it. But the fact is there has been smooth and efficient transportation, for example in Japan for decades, in Switzerland, they were there because of a particular systemic design, rather than specifically technology, a piece of hardware or software, it was almost you could say a sociocultural phenomenon as much as a technical one.

So, I guess when you start thinking about smart cities, for me part of the issue is it’s really hard to even define what smart means, and it means different things to different people, and in some cases smart is not very smart, if you see what I mean, particularly when it veers towards you could call it, the surveillance end that’s troubling a lot of people now. But it’s also not very useful necessarily because, it’s hard to even quantify, or measure or say, when you have created this smart thing. So, one of the words I tend to use more these days is, ‘Engaging cities’, what are engaging cities? For me, first of all it’s something that city managers say that they want, because there are processes, or there are sectors, or there is phenomenon in the city that they want people to acknowledge, be part of, and recognize the impact of. In a sense, engagement, you can measure it, you can assess whether something has been successful, and the knock-on impact of that is this kind of changing relationship that people have, both to the neighbors, and also to the governance of their cities.

So, he idea of engagement for me is almost the fundamental thing, because if you like there is a technical aspect to it, there is a sociocultural aspect to it, there is a kind of governance aspect to it, and making all these things work together is key. So, there may well be a very strong technology element to that, but there’s also a very strong participatory element to that and getting those to work together is quite a design challenge.

It’s fascinating that you’ve touched on a number of elements or factors that come into place when you’re designing a new system, or upgrading a system, and I’d love to get your perspective; maybe we take transportation for example, and you made that point of Switzerland and Japan have culturally given rise to these very efficient transportation systems. But every system needs transportation, every large city needs some measure of traffic management; to what extent does a unique culture inform what many people would think about as a standardized approach to traffic, for instance you have standardized traffic signals with red, yellow, and green, you have different types of parking management or road management, rules of the road are generally similar.

But as you’re looking to apply a bit more intelligence shall we say to existing systems, what are some of the cultural inputs, you mentioned governance as well and I think when you’re trying to balance many different constituencies and stakeholders, when you’re trying to implement a big project, I’d love to get your views on some of the considerations of how you balance all of these factors, and how that may differ from a small city to a large city, or a new city and an old city! I realized that might be a bit of a broad canvas there, but I’m very interested in your design perspective.

It’s interesting that you lay it out like that, because I think you’ve touched on some of the really meaty aspects of the problem. First of all the idea of standardization, I think we can probably all agree that there’s a benefit to having standards for certain things, and I think for example you described traffic lights as one; there’s a shared language about what the traffic light system is there for, and because we all know and agree on it, that seems to work quite smoothly. But at a layer above that I think is where the cultural or sociocultural layer has a slightly different impact, so we can look at a city let’s say like Los Angeles which is well-known for being a car city, and that has certain consequences, but there’s also certain assumptions behind the design of the city that priorities certain things, which might be that whole sense of individual freedom that comes from owning a car.

And if you look at… I’m not going to just pluck any random city from Scandinavian, but let’s say more of a Scandinavian approach where perhaps there’s a lot more public transportation investment. Now, that has a different set of underlying assumptions and priorities, and a different set of consequences for what the city looks like in terms of transportation, and how people get around, and also frankly how the efficiency of the transportation is even measured. Because I think there’d be a lot of people who would say you can’t really compare let’s say Copenhagen and LA in terms of transportation and efficiency, because it’s like comparing apples with oranges.

I think one of the interesting implications of this, particularly in the technology sector is to think about a company wanting to operate in these different environments, how do they figure out the economies of scale, how do they generalize their proposition? Because of course often a technology company is based on this idea of having a thing, a widget, an algorithm, something that through economies of scale you can just repeat, because you’ve figured out the generalizable principle, and you can then roll it out to lots of people or organizations, or what have you. That comes into conflict with the fact that every city is very unique in its sociocultural makeup. So, I think the old model of the technology company going into work with the city, whether it was a small city or a big city tended to be, ‘Okay, here’s our all-encompassing product solution’, or, ‘Here’s our platform, here is our technology stack for you, and we’re delivering this as a generalized possibly sash model type of system.

But increasingly I think cities are baulking at this for a couple of reasons, one is, the solutions so often don’t solve or help them manage the issues that they face, and secondly I think they’re starting to get worried about being bought into these 20-year long-term contracts, where they cannot take advantage of new technologies in the future. I’ll give an example on that, a South American city which I should probably not name, because this was described to me in confidence, they had contracted a European company to deal with all of their smart lighting, this is the smart lampposts and things like that. They had rolled out these smart lampposts and were able to see all the data from these lampposts, which was great from the perspective of maintenance and these kinds of things, figuring out which bulbs need to be replaced and things like that. But the platform and the data was owned by that very large European company.

Now, when the city decided or realized that they were having a bit of a brownout issue, and that if they could get access to the data from the lampposts, they could start to do some predictive analytics on the brownout situation that would take in different parts of the city. It turned out that because the data wasn’t theirs, they would have to get a new license for it, and pay a lot more money for it, etc. etc. This is the kind of thing that I think cities are starting to get quite concerned about, particularly looking at it in the long run.

The way we tend to look at projects, this is with my Umbrellium hat on; Umbrellium, we are essentially a project-based company that works with cities and companies around the world to activate urban environments and communities with technology. With Umbrellium, our approach is to say, every city to a certain extent needs something bespoke, and here might be elements in our toolkit, or our tool chests if you like, that can be brought together for economy purposes because it will be cheaper. But ultimately what the city needs is going to be defined buy in with the city, and more specifically buy in with communities in that city. What was interesting was, we came across maybe 2018 the smart city publication put out by McKinsey kind of suggested that the same approach to technology companies, I’m rephrasing it, but they essentially said that the age of technology platforms building a one-size fits all model for cities seems to be coming to an end. And what cities are looking for in terms of value is the thing that has been produced for their specific context, their specific cultural context, their specific community context, their specific even financial context if you like. So, that means that it is quite different from city to city.

That’s an interesting point you touched on about the desire to have flexibility, but also the accessibility of having a toolset that does have some standard capabilities. I’d love to go back a bit into the background of Umbrellium and talk a bit about pot tube which I think was launched in 2008. I’d love to hear about what your original vision for the platform was, tell us a little bit about the history of that, and ultimately how you’ve seen the vision and the applicability of your original idea evolving through the years, to result in what you’re seeing today, the dynamics that you’re seeing today.

Well it’s funny, I think often people refer to me as an entrepreneur, but I’m a bit of an unwitting entrepreneur, because the stuff that I do tends to just be the things that I think I need myself, to do the work that I want to do, if you see what I mean? So, Pachube was an example of that. In the early 2000s I’d set up a practice building interactive environments, interactive spaces and things like that, still very much in my mind operating within the built environment and construction sector and trying to think about how building management systems and sensor systems in people’s homes, but also in their offices, how those systems might interact with each other. As I said, the idea at one point that buildings should be able to talk with each other, share information and strategies for energy-saving, and things like that.

Around 2006 or ’07, we had quite a few of these projects around the world at the same time going live, and I think there was one in Japan, one in France or something like that, we also had an exhibition in Boston somewhere. I realized that I wanted to be able to monitor these things that were going live, their sensors and things like that, and I built just a really simple script to grab the data from the different environments, the interactive environments we’d created, the sensors that were in those environments, and basically to publish that to a kind of Java widget that can go into our webpage. So basically, the webpage would change in response to the environmental conditions in Japan, Boston, or France, and what have you. At some point I realized with that webpage being a kind of nexus for the data coming from all these environments, that we could start to connect them together and have the space in Boston respond to somebody doing something over in Japan. At that point started thinking, well why don’t we just connect up all of our projects, so they’re all connected and sharing their data with each other.

I expanded that into a slightly more sophisticated, I won’t say very sophisticated, slightly more sophisticated system where I could quite quickly add-in these new projects, identify their data streams, get the data in a similar format, and then be able to pull in the data wherever it needed to go. Basically, my friends and colleagues in other firms, and in other organizations, started saying, ‘Can I do an experiment with that data? Can I put my building management system onto that system as well?’ and so-on and so-forth. Arduino had just come out, and somebody connected up on Arduino to publish data to the system, it just started expanding and expanding, and suddenly realized this was something people wanted to be able to interact with remote data and do stuff with environmental and sensitive data.

To be perfectly frank this is around 2007’ish, I don’t think I’d even heard or uttered the phrase Internet of Things at the time, I was thinking about connected environments. So, out of my design practice I spun out a company called Connected Environments, just to do this, just to manage this platform. We eventually relaunched it as Pachube, also as you pronounce it (pronounces differently) I think a lot of people called it because of the funny spelling. But essentially it was the idea of a Pachube where you could patch any device plugged into the platform, or environment, into any other. It just got more and more popular from there and ended up being part of people doing energy monitoring, crop monitoring, agricultural monitoring, building management systems, there was air quality sensors put on the platform, it grew and grew and grew. Then in 2011 when the radiation crisis in Japan hit it became a center of people sharing radiation data with each other. It was used by an energy monitor company for their backend, and then Cisco was using it for their Urban EcoMap, and it just snowballed.

Meanwhile my design practice continued, and we kept on building projects that used Pachube, but by that point we suddenly discovered we’d got 50,000 users, there was an official Arduino library and all these things happening. Eventually we got acquired by LogMeIn who were entering into the IoT market at the time, and my team and the platform moved over to LogMeIn to take it on the next leg of its journey as it were, at which point then became known as Xively, around 2011-2013.

And now Xively has actually ended up as part of Google, which is pretty interesting given the work that Google is doing in smart cities.

I’d be very interested to get your perspective on some of the used cases that you’ve been involved with, and I know that Umbrellium has been involved in a number of different projects, for instance Starling CV have the interactive pedestrian crossing. Could you tell us a little bit about that, what are the considerations involved with that, and what were some of the objectives and the outcomes of this project at the Starling crossing.

Yes, just to give you a bit of context to this, in 2013 I basically decided to relaunch the design practice, and rebrand it as Umbrellium, as an umbrella for all sorts of different projects. The intention was to say, okay, now that the IoT market has evolved, now that the notion of these… well, let’s call them smart cities, was coming about, how could we bring the architectural and urban design aspect of the work that I was doing, together with the technological elements, and the IoT focused stuff that I was doing, but specifically focused at delivering things for people, people on the ground, and actually getting people in the cities excited and involved in thinking about and interacting with, and making decisions about not just their own homes, but also their neighborhoods, and ultimately maybe even their cities.

So, the project that you mentioned, Starling CV which is an offshoot of what was originally called the Starling Crossing, came about because we were trying to think about with the streets starting to get populated by autonomous vehicles, and as we can tell most likely the streets are going to be increasingly filled with these autonomous vehicles, what is the relationship that people, pedestrians have with the street? Because right now the streets are entirely designed for cars, and people are a bit of an inconvenience, so you drop in at the pedestrian crossing somewhere, basically almost as an afterthought, the street is not designed from the pedestrian crossing up, it’s rather the pedestrian crossing is added there, so that people can cross this river of vehicles.

Now, in the context of autonomous vehicles, in theory once the entire vehicle traffic is autonomous a person could just step out into the street anywhere, and in theory the vehicles will seamlessly avoid the person and move around them, but that’s going to make for quite a difficult transition for most of us, in terms of our concern for safety, not feeling like we can just step out anywhere and what have you. So, we basically said, okay, how do we go back to first principles, designing a road for people first, in which vehicles come as a secondary phenomenon? We looked a lot at what is known as shared space, which is an urban design technique used in a lot of cities now, where you have people and vehicles and bicycles sharing the same street, so you don’t have a curb between the pavement and the roadway. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the theory behind it, but essentially for a given context it appears to make things flow more efficiently, and it’s also safer; I stress for a given context, because this wouldn’t necessarily work everywhere.

So, basically what we decided to do was to try and build the shared space where the very markings on the road, where the crossing is, where the lanes are, where the stop signals might be, are all dynamic, adaptive and responsive to people first, but also to vehicles. And so, the Starling Crossing is basically a pedestrian crossing that learns where people’s desire lines are for crossing the road and ensures that the crossing appears in the safest location. It’s supposed to learn basically where the safest and smoothest crossing location is, and we actually built this as a road service in South London, it almost looks like a huge computer screen, but to all intents and purposes when it’s not interacting it looks like a normal road, its glare-free, its waterproof, it can take the weight of vehicles, but when people start to use it then… for example, if there’s no pedestrians around then there’ll be no pedestrian crossing, and the road will be totally open to vehicles. If there are a few pedestrians, and if they are waiting in the specific location, then the pedestrian crossing will appear and warning signals, or guidance signal will be shown to the vehicles further away from that. Let’s say when school lets out at 4pm or something, suddenly loads of kids are trying to cross, then the pedestrian crossing actually widens, and it appears exactly where the kids are running across the road, rather than forcing them to walk somewhere which they might feel is too long, and which they would just choose to jaywalk instead.

All of these markings are designed to look like and use the language of the pedestrian crossings that we already know. The only difference is that they’re dynamic and responsive and can be configured to the actual time of day, or the actual context of what’s going on.

It was interesting that you had highlighted this concept of engagement, and this seems to be a common thread in many projects that Umbrellium is involved with. I’d love to get a bit of perspective, and just your thoughts on how you think about using technology to engage resonance, and to encourage behaviors or participation in bigger projects in ways that wouldn’t necessarily be possible, without the technology of sensors and communications technology.

That’s an interesting question. One thing I should stress is, our focus on involving people, and getting communities to be part of the process is actually a pretty pragmatic one, which is, we’ve seen now time and time again that if you don’t involve people, if you don’t get them actively part of the process, and this is both in the architecture sector as well as in the technology sector, if you don’t get them involved then they just tune out, and all of that investment goes to waste. Usually you find that your assumptions were all wrong about behaviour, or about needs, or what impact was required. So, from our perspective the whole point of getting people involved is purely pragmatic, if you get them involved, not only do they become excited about something, but they almost help you see through the success of the project itself, because they become ambassadors for it in some cases, or at least they feel like they’ve had a say. So, often, in almost every single project when you do that, you find that as an outsider your assumptions have been completely challenged, and that if you had not got them involved you would basically have ended up deploying completely the wrong thing, to solve a problem that people on the ground didn’t even think was a problem, if you see what I mean.

So when we do a project with technology, and I should say that pretty much all of our projects are technology-based, because I think that’s where we have a specific expertise; when we’re using technology we are almost in every case trying to think about not how the technology can make things more efficient, or how it can optimize something, but rather how can the technology be used to help somebody make a decision, or how can the technology be used to connect a person with somebody that they weren’t connected to previously, ideally so that they can make a decision together. So, the projects tend to be focused on this question of, who is it that actually needs to make a decision, and maybe more importantly, who is currently not being involved in making a decision that should be part of the decision-making process, perhaps because they’re the most impacted by it or what have you. And, how can we use a technological intervention to ensure that actually happens, that they are part of the decision-making process, or what have you.

When you do that, what I’ve found again and again in projects is, you build up new connections between people, you reinforce the sense of, if you like of agency, reinforce the sense that you can actually achieve something, but you also get people feeling much more responsible for the outcomes. So, in other words, when we do a project for example in East Durham in the North of England which is ex-coalmining territory, we worked up there for about two or three years with the local community, and after a series of prototypes and exercises with the community, we basically ended up creating a totally public social radio. It literally looks like a radio box that goes into people’s homes; it connects to everybody else on the network. So, in some sense this is a bit of a scary situation, the idea that everyone can speak to everyone else in their homes is a bit of a radical one. But we wanted to say, ‘What would happen if you could speak to people that you don’t know, but who you know are in your neighborhood, are part of the same phenomenon as you?’ And, of course the big question that came up almost immediately is, how do you govern that network with all these people who could potentially be talking with each other, or saying things, or what have you. Essentially our entire focus on this project was to say, ‘That’s actually not our decision, that is your decision, the community. How do you govern this, how do you decide what should be censored? We will help build the tools that you need in order to govern the system, but ultimately you need to figure out how you want to govern the system, and how you want to also curate or encourage certain types of interaction, or what have you’.

What came out of that was, of course there was a lot of discussion, political discussion, discussion about religion, discussion about the older generation, the younger generation, how they interact. But much of that discussion was on the network itself, if you see what I mean? I’m not saying necessarily that this is massively scalable, if we look like something like Twitter, I think they made a lot of mistakes in trying to scale-up civil discourse. But for the context, what this enabled was a community of people that in some case, even though it’s a small town they didn’t even know people across the road, it enabled them to start to have these dialogues with each other. What came out of it was, some people would use the voiceover network to give bedtime stories to the entire neighborhood. Kids would use it to tell knock-knock jokes with each other, some members of the older generation would tell stories about the old coalmining times which the younger generation have very little idea about.

So, there’s a very difficult moment in almost all of these projects, where we as if you like the kind of meta designers of the system have to trust as you’ve handed over to the community, that they will be able to figure out for themselves how best to govern it. This is not just a push it off the cliff moment, there’s a lot of interacting and communication that goes on, to ensure that handover happens, but that’s absolutely key to it, that they’ve been involved from the beginning, through the testing, through the prototyping, through the deployment itself, and then they have the tools to take it forward from there.

That’s a really fascinating case-study, the idea you can connect community in ways they might not have been able to in the past and opened up opportunities for serendipity, I think that’s a great example. You were talking about a project in a smaller city, or smaller community, and you’ve also worked in large cities. I was interested, I saw that Umbrellium has developed an urban innovation toolkit, and in some prior discussion on smart cities one of the characteristics that jumps out of course, is that every community is different, and every community is unique, and in many cases there’s either a lack of understanding will, or experience and confidence to try out new ideas. I’d love to get your perspective on the origins of why you put together the urban innovation toolkit and tell us a little bit about what it enables the users to accomplish.

Probably one of our biggest earlier projects was in 2011 in the City of Bradford, where we ended up creating an operating system for public space, and it was essentially a technology stack that connected together all the different technology in the public space, that we could reach. So, everything from lighting, to fountains, there was a camera system, sensors, LEDs in the floor, there was [inaudible 40:56] machines, there was a pool, weather station data and what have you. That was our first large scale permanent installation of a technology stack that took probably about three years of work, not just on the technical side, but working with the city to figure out what their needs were. At that point I could say that we were essentially flying blind in terms of, how do you do a large-scale urban innovation project? What are the things that you might not think of when you do this, which would be important? So, we took down some notes about the learnings, we try to do this with every project, what did we learn/what could we do better next time.

So, each time we did a project somewhere we would take the learnings from doing that process, from going through the urban innovation process. Some themes started to emerge that did seem to take place again, and again, and again, in different cities when they’re embarking on urban innovation. One of the reasons these themes would emerge is because the way that urban innovation has tended to take place, is frankly the federal or central government has a big funding pot, opens up some kind of innovation programme, and then cities scramble to say, ‘Here’s what we’ll do with that pot of money’, and it becomes very much a funding-led process. But because of that, because of actual consideration of what impact do you want to have, comes right at the end if you see what I mean? It’s not led by the impact; it is led by the funding call.

One of the key things we realized when you’re doing urban innovation, is that you need to define from the very beginning, what impact is it that you want to have? How are you going to measure it, and who gets to assess that? So, for a while that essentially was our methodology, ‘Okay, let’s start from impact and work backwards’. But over time we filled in a few other things, and we ended up basically putting this together into what we call the urban innovation toolkit, so that others can use a similar framework. I compare this a little bit to the checklist that a pilot uses prior to take-off in an airplane; in other words, it’s a toolkit that makes sure you don’t forget things, to make sure that you don’t make things up, to make sure that the things that need to be connected are connected, and that you’ve considered the contingencies. It doesn’t teach you how to fly, but if you know how to fly then it makes sure that you are thinking about all the things that you need to think about.

The five things that it centers on, and it goes back to these five things again, and again, and again, you basically have to do it five times for all five things, is we look at…

  1. What are the problems that we want to tackle, or to manage, or to deal with, or at least to recognize?

 

  1. Who are the stakeholders that might be involved? That is both the stakeholders that caused the problems, but also the ones that are impacted by it.

 

  1. What are the actual methods that are under consideration for dealing with those, and how do they relate to the stakeholders and to the problems?

 

  1. What evidence do those methods either need to prove that they’re successful, or evidence that they generate, to prove that they’re successful? What evidence might you look for in somebody else’s deployment that’s relevant to your needs? What evidence would you be looking for within your own deployment, to prove to yourself that it actually works?

 

  1. Finally, what impact do these things have? How do you measure it? What happens if you don’t reach the goal that you’re trying to reach or have that impact, what will you do instead?

So, the toolkit is basically a methodology, but there is also a software interface for tracking a kind of workshop, or ongoing conversation if you like, or brainstorming session around urban innovation that asks very hard questions about those five things, again, and again, and again, getting deeper and deeper each time. Getting into not just the problems but the root causes of the problem, like why have you identified this problem, but you are not tacking its root cause? An example there might be, you might be doing an air quality or pollution project, and the question will come up, ‘The cause of pollution is diesel vehicles, why don’t you just get rid of diesel vehicles? Now, for obvious reasons you can’t just get rid of diesel vehicles, because we had inertia with all of these things, and there are a lot of systemic effects. But when you explain why you are tackling the problem without going deeper into it, that’s totally fine as long as you recognize and are able to take account of the fact of where you are trying to have an impact, and where you’re not.

So out of going through the urban innovation toolkit process, essentially what you’re doing is, you’re building up a shared understanding between all the different stakeholders who are discussing the project. You are identifying areas of risk and uncertainty, and what we always say in an urban innovation project is, there’s no real problem in having uncertainty, or having big gaps in your understanding, as long as you know where they are. The risk increases dramatically when you don’t even know the unknowns, so once you’ve gone through this process you have a much better understanding of what needs to be done, and also the rationale and the consequences of everything you’re doing. So, we now use that in our projects all the time when we engage with the city.

That sounds really useful. One more of your innovations that I’d love to dive into is, your search engine for data, Thingful; could you share a bit of the origins behind that, and the vision for what Thinkful.net can do?

Thingful actually came about because after my time working on Pachube and then Xively, this is around 2013, I realized at that point there were loads of data platforms, there were loads of IoT infrastructure plays, almost every city started to have its own data platform. We basically started thinking if everyone’s got their platform, how can we actually make all the data that’s out there a bit more useful? So, we ended up basically creating a search engine for IoT that would go around indexing all of these platforms, in some cases normalizing the data, or at least putting in the same semantic descriptor or data format, and make it possible for example for you to let’s say search for air quality in your neighborhood, and then find not just the AQICN network, but also the Air Quality Egg network. London has its own air quality network, all of these data platforms are generating data with a geo location, but it’s just very hard to find where it is.

So, we ended up spinning out Thankful as a separate company from Umbrellium. Originally our thinking was that this would be, if you like a data brokering platform that was founded on managing permissions for access to all of this IoT data. So, a couple of our bigger earlier initiatives with it were around connected vehicles, and particularly autonomous vehicles where the Thingful kernel if you like, was able to interact with and broker access to, not just the data around the vehicle but also within the vehicle, so the owner could control where their data went to and who could find it, and the vehicle could get access to environmental, weather, or even traffic information that might be otherwise private, but which through the search engine is brokering access to it. We did a couple of projects that were focused on the vehicle.

Interestingly, what we’ve found the best use for Thingful again is like back in Umbrellium; Umbrellium doing its own projects with cities uses Thingful now as a tool itself to deliver a project. For example, in Asia we’re currently building an IoT experimentation platform, I don’t think I can say the country yet, but for all of their universities to find, access, and then experiment on IoT data from around the world. In a couple of other projects that we’re involved in are in soil monitoring across the EU, where we are part of a consortium actually, looking at ground-trooping satellite data, with relatively inexpensive soil monitoring sensors in the ground, that the farmers are taking care of.

The last one is, we’re involved in something called Decode, which is again an EU-wide project looking at citizens controlling their data, and have it build services both IoT as well as other kind of services on top of that data but keeping citizens in control of where their data goes to, and how its used.

That’s really remarkable, you’re involved in so many different types of projects. I’d like to take a view to the future, and ask about forces or technologies, or developments that you see as important to the evolution of smarter, more engaged, more connected urban environments, and what you’re most optimistic about looking forward?

I think the thing I’m looking for which I kind of mentioned earlier but in technology, is how can technology help us make decisions, and not make decisions on our behalf? In other words, not dropping us out of the loop. Now, in the context of artificial intelligence, and algorithms that are starting to make decisions on our behalf in many cases, I think the issue arises for me when we have no idea about what kind of training data was used to generate the assumptions that go into those algorithms. So, if there’s anything I’m looking for in that sector, its for the technology to be involved in such a way that there is capacity to inspect or understand, by people outside of the creation process, what’s actually going on and what assumptions were made behind it.

In terms of being optimistic, what makes me optimistic is seeing people actually starting to get mobilized to take control of these things, to really be aware of, and have an opinion on, and to a certain extent influence some of the technological decisions that are being made. If you look 10 years ago, there was often this kind of assumption that technology is a bit too complex for people, let’s just make things simple, don’t worry people with the details. But what’s really interested me is just how willing people are to get involved in the details, and particularly as we start to realize that technology is not just some totally neutral artefact in our lives, it’s very much influencing and influenced by how we live our lives.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much people do want to be part of inspecting those processes, and even better in some case creating those processes, so people get more involved in designing and deploying these kinds of technological systems. I think we’ve seen them make a movement, which was an early manifestation of this, but I think it’s almost become bigger than that in terms of people actually wanting to do things and be part of defining and delivering the future.

It’s really exciting. I guess I’m so inspired by how you’ve managed to tie together these different disciplines, coming back to the concept of design thinking, to architect and to build the future in a creative way, and taking spaces that many people have taken for granted, rethinking them, engaging people and create connections that hadn’t existed before, and create new ideas, I think its tremendous the work that you and your team are doing.

I would wrap up just to ask you if there’s a recommendation you might be able to provide for our listeners, or provide any information if they want to learn more about the work that you’ve been doing?

First of all, thank you very much for your kind words, it’s really nice of you to say that. As I think I said earlier, it’s been somewhat unwitting, I can’t say that I got this big 20-year plan! We just try to do good work and try and figure out how to do the next thing, and make sure we do it slightly better than the last one, kind of thing.

In terms of a book recommendation, the one that springs to mind is a book that I keep coming back to again, and again, and again, which is a book called, ‘Our Own Metaphor’. It was written by Mary Catherine Bateson, who was the daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, I think it was probably around ’68 or ’69 that this was written. She was basically writing up the conference proceedings of a conference that her parents had convened to discuss… and I’m going to try and get that full title right, I might not, but I think the conference was titled something like, ‘On the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation’. Essentially the conference was about my layman’s description would be, the conference was about, okay, now that we know we can affect the world, what are we going to do about it?

The book is incredible for a number of reasons, first of all because it layers in loads of complex thinking about social systems, natural systems, environmental systems, political systems, all these things and the interactions between all of them. But it’s also notable because I think the debate that they were having then, are so similar to the ones that we’re having today, and the ideas and concepts that they were grappling with are very similar as well. All of which is to say, I think the inspiration of that book is we do face some issues that technology can play a part with, but really it’s about us figuring out how best to share our stories and insight, and just rolling up our sleeves and getting on and do stuff. That’s what makes me optimistic for the future.

That’s a great recommendation, I’m really looking forward to checking that out, and we’ll have a link in the show notes.

With that, I think that winds up our time. Again, we’ve been speaking with Usman Haque who is founding partner of Umbrellium, as well as a catalyst for many-many other projects that we’ve touched on in the conversation.

Again, this is Ed Maguire and this has been another episode of the Momenta Podcast. Usman, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you, thank you so much for taking the time.

Thank you so much Ed. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, thanks for having me.

 

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