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The Internet of Things Will Affect Data Driven Design

Image © Doug Wittnebel

The popular and quite hefty topic of 2013 was big data. This year the hot and heavy tech focus topic is “the Internet of things” or IoT.

Essentially the IoT is about the machine-to-machine communication and the radio frequency identification chips embedded within an increasing amount of objects and system apparatus. This expanding network provides for the interconnection of almost any daily use object and opens the door to great possibilities. In an expanding universe of machines and objects that can converse with one another, this exchange of information suggests a whole new realm of communication, and it yields data that does not originate from a human observer or tracker.

Devices used to require management by humans. Now devices can manage and manipulate other devices, in increasingly efficient manners. Smart devices translate interconnected, complex data into comprehensible and digestible bits that can be used to make consequential management decisions. Human-to-human communication is mutating into machine-to-machine communication. And so the role of the human manager must change. Supervising the work of machines is no longer the prime directive; understanding how to interpret and use data harvested by the IoT is now paramount to driving innovation.

Image © Doug Wittnebel

So where will this go, and where do we, as humans, fit into this increasingly complex communication network?

All of our cell phones, our lifelines of connections, already are tied to the Internet. Smart devices now include automobiles with built in data connections, light switches on smart grids, adaptive HVAC controls, and other devices traditionally considered passive. It is easy to imagine a smart refrigerator continually activating phone calls to a service provider when the internal ice maker faces problems. Waste receptacles will send out signals when they are full and require emptying.

Retailers are already taking advantage of this trend. They are using beacons, low-cost hardware that communicate with shoppers smart phones through Bluetooth connections, to provide product information, advertise flash sales and deals, and provide a contactless and expedited payment process. They can send this information out automatically, without prompting from a human. Smart chips can, and will, also be used for social good. Imagine disposable cups with embedded chips that send out a signal if they’re thrown into the trash rather than placed in the appropriate recycling receptacle.

What does this mean for designers? First, we need to keep up to date on the terms that our tech clients are using, stay abreast of the rapid changes and the main acronyms (RFID, M2M,NFC, IoT.)

In addition, we need to understand that this growing market will create more positions for engineers and coders, the people that design the language and instructions for smart machines, the language that allows these objects to communicate with other machines and with us. We will design spaces for these engineers, and our designs, if successful, will allow for innovation and cross fertilization. Up this point, we have traditionally created spaces for one of our large clients that allowed for engineers as we know currently know them to work, but that design will become more flexible and specific as we begin to create spaces for machine-to-machine engineers.

We must also respect concerns for privacy and security the millions and billions of objects and devices transmitting information about the patterns of both people and businesses across the Internet.

Image © Doug Wittnebel

Our business of developing select and targeted design strategies has traditionally relied on data collected through observable behaviors of individuals within spaces. Today, the human observer is being replaced with the embedded smart technology, from the building entries and systems to the rooms and spaces used by the employees, to the foot traffic of customers in retail establishments and the meeting rooms in use by the staff. If we are to continue to create data driven design solutions, we must learn how to harness the power of smart technology and task such devices to separate useful data from meaningless information.

IoT is a powerful step in the evolution of technology, but failure to understand its pitfalls and how it works can engender confusion instead of fostering innovation.

Virginia Pettit
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s San Ramon office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at douglas_wittnebel@gensler.com.

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