Decentralising the Internet of Things (IoT)

Quicksand is working with the Open IoT Studio at the Mozilla Foundation to explore alternate narratives for the Internet of Things.


How Open or Closed is the IoT Currently?

The narrative of IoT is currently dominated by discourses set by large for-profit organisations. These discourses tend to revolve around closed systems where the touch points for casual users are usually appliances. Even in such cases as the Google Cloud Platform, which are technically open source, the channels of innovation and usage tend to be very narrow.

For example, at present the narrative around the Internet of Things is closely linked with the narrative of Big Data. The Google Cloud Platform, which on the surface appears to be a fairly open set of tools, including a developer hardware kit, is in fact a fairly closed narrative around sensors streaming data through Google Cloud servers. Therefore, while the systems may have diverse and scattered inputs, the data collected is channeled into a narrow utility zone of monitoring and only through the Google Cloud pipeline.

Even this, however, is a fringe component of the IoT ecosystem as it exists today. For most people, interactions with IoT systems will begin (and perhaps end) with mainstream appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, ovens, automobiles etc. An average user perhaps will understand IoT in her home as the communication paradigm between these appliances. The idea seems to be that these appliances will be able to communicate with each other and with a larger system architecture.

This seems to be not only a benign but also a fairly decentralised system where each household forms a contained whole capable of intelligently making the lives of their owners more convenient. However there are large systems and protocols in this ecosystem that are definitely not decentralised and perhaps not so benign either.

For an average user these systems and protocols may be invisible. However, they are apparent to any kind of careful consideration. A fitness device for example, is a closed electronic system collecting user data and communicating with proprietary servers while giving the user a narrow window into the data collected through an interface. Not only are these devices closed systems built with proprietary technologies but they often communicate with centralised server architectures that are proprietary as well.

Learning from ‘Disconnected’ Communities

It is in this context, that we are seeking to understand and learn from decentralised models of production, distribution and control. The world of technology is often silo-ed, and works under the assumption that innovation emerges primarily in systems that are largely urban and often Western- in aesthetic, in function and in their inception.

The other aspect to this is the nature of the Western world being more ‘dependent’ in an intrinsic way on technology; the daily lives of people being more inter-twined with technology in a way that has maybe led to even surreal comical scenarios of dysfunction. Maybe there is a lot to learn from alternate contexts, in places like India, where some marginalised peoples, that are seemingly ‘disconnected’, continue to sustain communities of practice.

These communities are involved in a diverse range of activities such as traditional crafts, sustainable harvesting of forest produce and water body restoration. They often feature a decentralised structure, a keen awareness of contextual needs, local participation and a deep connect with the context at large.

The premise of our research is to explore what we can learn from these communities. What is it that enables them to be resilient to shocks and be able to serve local contexts and needs better?

It appears that resilience is closely connected to the nature of control in such communities; in that it is contingent upon the community experiencing genuine agency outside of any control imposed by an outside agency. A community organised around restoring water bodies in a village will not be able to preserve traditional restoration practices unless the external implementing agencies build around the community’s recommendations.

Centralised technology narratives that are disseminated by large corporations offer little agency to the people consuming and scaling these narratives. The relevance of the Internet of Things is often narrowly defined in terms of collecting, analysing and reacting to big data where it could equally be about a seemingly unrelated challenge like empowering farmers to preserve crop diversity. An ecosystem of connected objects offers a far larger spectrum of possibilities than is currently recognised by the mainstream IoT narrative. A broader scoping is required to make this narrative itself more sustainable, resilient and relevant to large groups of people.

Technology companies often seek efficiency through specialisation and formal hierarchies. This setup compromises flexibility, thus making the core proposition of these companies more certain and predictable. For publicly held companies the organisational rhythms and product visions are dictated by the market. The communities that we seek to learn from often have a more organic form, evolved, as they have, through natural circumstances and not solely as a response to a market or business need. These communities thrive on shared and flexible notions of power and responsibility.


Seeking alternative narratives for IoT

The problems of the real world are complex and largely evolve unpredictably. Lack of food diversity, for example, is a global problem that involves responding to climate change, soil preservation, nature of production systems and markets among others. These problem are perhaps more aptly addressed by the values and qualities of decentralised communities rather than those of the current technology ecosystem. These values that may appear chaotic and messy are also flexible and organic and are therefore well suited to grapple with these complex evolving challenges.

In some of our initial conversations with practitioners and participants in some of these communities, we are discovering that while they could inform practices outside of themselves, they continue to deal with real challenges that they face within their context that impact their lives very directly.

Accountability, mutual responsibility, care and trust are prerequisites for any successful community of practice. These could potentially be seen as guiding principles that serve as a framework for resilient and sustainable systems. Maybe technology could be well-served to learn from these messy human systems that have evolved in an innately people-centered way. They allow for diversity to thrive, are more sensitive to the irrevocable scarcity of resources and recognise the limitations of scale.