[Info] MIT vs. IDEO: Opposing Approaches Design the Internet of Things


Image: keoni101/Flickr

Image: keoni101/Flickr


Designing for the Internet of Things (IoT) may seem like it is technology driven, but there is another approach worth consideration. Keep humanity at the heart of IoT design.

I learned this approach at the Royal College of Art’s Computer Related Design MA course, which has always been at the forefront of designing for technology trends. One could argue, in fact, that the course is ahead of such trends. I remember Philips Research coming along in 2000, asking us to design services and products around a thing called Bluetooth. The course is now called Design Interactions. Common areas of interest are nano- and bio-technology-driven services, products, etc.

This course has been successfully running for over 20 years. It took most of its approach towards innovation from a company called IDEO. IDEO had made its name as a product design innovator, but has since been expanding its expertise into service design and other areas of culture. The company’s most outstanding achievement is its cross-disciplinary and anthropological approach to design and new technology. IDEO did what Apple does, before Apple was doing it: making technology accessible and easy to use and keeping authenticity, utility, and humanity at the heart of anything it does.

I encountered the other approach after graduating from RCA in 2002. I was hired to work in Dublin, at Medialab Europe, MIT’s European branch at the time. Despite an obvious European influence on the atmosphere, Medialab had a MIT-driven approach to technology and science: Push what’s possible and create some magic.

To understand the level of how technology was pushed there, a little anecdote might elaborate on MIT’s philosophy. Just after I had left, Nikolas Necroponte visited to see how every department was doing. There were two departments focusing on social and human aspects of technology. My department had done some investigation into the merging of non-human and bio-based data, e.g., your credit card behavior and your heart rate as a mash-up. The other department was essentially doing social media research ahead of its time. When Necroponte left, he had scrapped both departments, claiming that those social aspects had no real impact on technological advance. It was 2002 and Facebook had only just started to become a thing.

I have worked in various other places since, but those two experiences showed me the key opposing attitudes towards technology when designing with or for it. The first approach is actively looking at culture, using humanity’s core principles as guidelines for a conscious decision about where technology could take us, and seeing where it could solve problems that couldn’t be addressed otherwise. The second approach is more focused on pushing the features of technologies and creating new things by exceeding previously impossible tasks — and by that creation, change the part of culture that a technology is occupying. This philosophy is best described by the phenomenon that if something is passing the threshold of a certain low price or a certain speed, it will become something else entirely.

Both approaches have their merit. Personally, I am drawn to the first one. Maybe that’s because I discovered it first. Or maybe it is because I am more of a skateboarder type of guy than a 100-m dash kind of guy. I like to recognize my environment and be creative about it, rather than wanting to break a world record.

If you are working on an Internet of Things projects, I am sure you are already part of the forefront of technology. Your MIT-style philosophy is already evident. In that case, why not take a minute or two to explore the human and cultural narrative side of your idea?

Regardless if you do or don’t explore that side, here is the kicker: Being great and leading at the craft it takes to create a service or product will make you confident about scaling it towards an audience of millions of people. But those people will only buy into your idea if they can get emotionally involved in what you have to offer. Martin Luther King said “I have a dream.” He did not say, “I have a bunch of new features.” Apple did good technology back in the 90s, but it was the colored computer casings and a love for music that made everyone buy their products.

In my job as Innovation Director for RAPP, I come across many clients and creatives that focus on technology first. Most solutions and expectations they bring along tend to be mere copies of what’s already out there. Yet once we start talking about why they like what they saw and about what they are trying to achieve, the conversation tends to shift back to human experiences. It is then, usually, that an idea starts becoming unique, richer, and essentially an actual product or service.

There are many times during the development of an idea that things could go either way. Having understood the “why” or “who for” of what you are trying to achieve tends to help make those decisions.

So now go back and create some more magic.

Marcus Kirsch is Innovation Director at RAPP UK.

This article was first published at IoTWorld.com


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