Knowledge Institute Podcasts
Alex Sonsino on Corporate Innovation Culture
What are the ingredients necessary to create a space possible for innovative thinking? How can we make “better IoT?”
Alex Sonsino, author, consultant, public speaker and entrepreneur, takes us inside corporate innovation culture and traces the evolution of IoT product design and function.
Hosted by Jeff Kavanaugh, VP and Head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute.
“Not everything that can be measured will count and not everything that counts can be measured. I think that our ability to put fencing equipment and technology does not necessarily mean that we're specifically able to utilize that information in a way that makes sense.”
- Alex Sonsino
Alex is trying to tackle the complex mixture of physical setup, digital tools and social dynamics. What got her interested in this?
What's Alex’s unique perspective? Is it the work, the workplace, the people?
Alex is a part of the “IOT Community,” start-up community in London. Alex talks about Arduino board distributorship and what it is. She explains how that actually became a catalyst for innovation in London.
Alex had used Adruino to assemble and grow a group of start-ups in the London area. Alex comments on what that turned into.
Alex talks about her experience and observations in the IoT meetup. How seeing all these startups, influenced her view perspective on the innovation process itself in getting an idea or launching a product?
Alex is talking about her own product “Good Night Lamp.” She talks about the lamp’s background, her experience in launching the product and how that has also shaped her perspective.
What are some specific things mid-level business managers can do to make sure that they take advantage of where IOT is going and also, they can make sense of it?
Alex talks about over-reliance on corporate objectives and trying to get the right balance for people.
IoT in the workspace. Alex comments on the dark side of measuring employees’ performance.
Who or what has a major influence on Alex’s life?
Jeff Kavanaugh: Alex Sonsino, your upcoming book on corporate innovation culture delves into the challenges faced by companies as they try to navigate the digital age. For the book, you're researching a lot of examples and companies. Is there one that stands out to you as especially relevant?
Alex Sonsino: Wow. Well, thank you, Jeff, for having me. I am in the middle of writing this book and so now I'm in the research phase. What I'm really interested in is how much the Rand Corporation has influenced how people think of innovation space. The influence of both Rand, Xerox, and to a degree, Apple and Google, how they have created an aesthetic for innovation, how that drives how people build innovation spaces now.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, that's what we're going to be exploring in today's conversation, but first let me introduce Alex. Welcome to the Knowledge Institute Podcast where we talk with experts on business trends, deconstruct main ideas and share their insights. I'm Jeff Kavanaugh, head of the Knowledge Institute at Infosys. Alex Sonsino is an IOT author, consultant, public speaker and entrepreneur with a background in industrial and in interaction design. She wrote, "Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life," and is the founder of the Good Night Lamp, which is the permanent collection of the London design museum. Her projects are also part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and she has been running the London startup community for IOT since 2012. Alex, thanks for joining us.
Alex Sonsino: Thank you for having me.
Jeff Kavanaugh: When we spoke before, you'd mentioned that you're trying to tackle the complex mixture of physical setup, digital tools and social dynamics. That's a mouthful. What got you interested in this
Alex Sonsino: When I wrote, "Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life," I looked at these things. I looked at what is the physical fabric of your home, what are the products that you introduced to the home, but also how people live at home and how they use those products and I think the same applies to the workplace. I was working as head of innovation at an energy company in the UK. After years of being a consultant working for innovation departments, I was actually running an innovation department and I got very interested in what makes innovation tick, what are the ingredients, let's say, that are necessary to make a space the best space possible for people to have good ideas, but also to take those ideas and actually grow them with partners internally, with partners externally. These different ingredients are the same types of different ingredients I tackled in my first book, but I am looking at the workplace now.
Jeff Kavanaugh: There's a lot out there on future of work. Our company's done some research, I think. Most companies are looking at it at least a little bit. What's the unique perspective you're taking? Is it the work, the workplace, the people?
Alex Sonsino: I think it's a combination of those three things. I'm very interested in the physical setup that we provide people in work, what we think makes a place for ideas. I think there's a lot of what some would call, innovation theater, out there where we overinvest in physical spaces and over invest in great looking furniture over the time and space that we provide people to actually think. I think that there are also some fundamental misunderstandings that we have built innovation spaces on top of, whether that's their layout, how they connect to the rest of the business, how teams are considered, the tools that people are led to believe are the best tools for innovation. There's a lot of, in a way, bad science underneath those things. So I'm interested in that complexity. I'm interested in teasing out some more clarity and some opportunity spaces for people, but mostly talking about the complexity of having a bunch of people exist in a space and expect them to come up with new ideas. I think it's massively challenging.
Jeff Kavanaugh: You mean it isn't just about having an open concept and a ping pong table in the corner and some barista?
Alex Sonsino: Exactly. The ping pong table, the open plan office and the neon signage is signaling, it's part of the signaling the some companies will use. But exactly how it works and exactly how it connects to the business is really the nitty gritty of what innovation actually means. The trouble is that that space can have an impact on the ability for a team to do their work well. So it's not just signaling and it's not just theater, it actually can have a negative impact.
Jeff Kavanaugh: So not only is it not enough to do these things if it's not done in concert with perhaps an alignment or the right objective, that might actually do harm. Is that what you're saying?
Alex Sonsino: Absolutely. These spaces can be very detrimental to people actually getting work done. So each and every individual space is different. Each building is different. Each building management structure is different. Each team is different and the tools that that team has access to are different, but there are trends and there are ways in which people are copy pasting off of each other. I'm interested in what people think those trends are and why they're so meaningful to them to copy and questioning them when they are copied for the wrong reason.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, let's back up a little bit. One of the other things that you'd mentioned, and it's always interesting to look at where someone is today and by the foundation and some successes in the past, you were part of the IOT community, startup community in London. One of the things I found interesting in your bio was this Arduino board distributorship. Could you comment about how that came about and how that actually became a catalyst for innovation in London?
Alex Sonsino: Absolutely. I started a business called Tinker London, which was the first UK distributor of the Arduino. Arduino for those you don't know what it is, is an open source hardware, open source software prototyping platform aimed at beginners. You might've heard of the raspberry pie or countless other platforms. But the Arduino was really the first one to be very accessible price wise and open source all the way. I had come from a master's degree in interaction design in Northern Italy where that board was actually designed. Arduino is an Italian word. It's also the name of a former King of Italy and for the coffee aficionados amongst you, you will recognize it because it's also used as the brand name for one of the barista machines.
Alex Sonsino: This board became a way for people who were technically capable and sometimes also just very creative; software engineers, web development type people or architects, jewelers, graphic designers to start experimenting with electronics. This was between 2007 and 2009. We sold the platform in the UK, eventually grew that into a business that had multiple distributors and we ran workshops around the platform that were open to the public that were also corporate and we offered design services with the platform so people could commission my business to build solutions either very early stage prototypes for product development or fully fledged final products that had a little bit of intelligence or something for the advertising sector or something for an R and D department somewhere. So this was very early in the community and these are the early days of people referring to the sector as the internet of things. But in essence, if today you had an idea about a connected product, you would buy an Arduino or something like it in order to get going. Even today, it's still a relevant tool in your discovery phase as a founder.
Jeff Kavanaugh: You had used this platform to assemble, grow a group of startups in the London area. Can you comment about what that turned into and that experience?
Alex Sonsino: Well, in 2011, I started running the internet of things meet up in London. Meet ups for those of you who have not attended our free events, they're generally in the evenings. We run ours on Tuesdays once a month. They are opportunities for people to meet. I was interested in being able to continue the work I had done and I had started with Tinker in a more informal way. Now, we're almost nine years later and hundreds of people have come and spoken at those events. So it means I sort of know everyone in town.
Alex Sonsino: A lot of people have also used the meetup as a way to champion the product that they've developed elsewhere and as a way into the community, as a way in to get their product known, to get their product known by either other startups or independent contractors or find talent. There's lots of ways in which the community has been useful and has activated other things. Someone described it this morning as the meetups that launched a thousand startups, which I think is probably not true, but it sounds great. I think that that's one of the things I'm most proud of, I think.
Jeff Kavanaugh: How did that experience, or the things you've observed in the meetup and seeing all these startups, how has that influenced your view perspective on the innovation process itself in getting an idea or launching a product?
Alex Sonsino: Well, I have my own experience of launching and commercializing my own product, which is the Good Night Lamp. In a way, the meetup exposes me to other people who are doing the same or has done the same or have tried to do the same in growing their hardware based idea. Having a view on them, sometimes being very close to that because people will come to me at the meetup and ask me for help or support or ask me for, do I know anyone who can help them or who can help them technically or can become a CTO, and I'll make those introductions.
Alex Sonsino: I ended up meeting people very early on in their journey and sometimes very... Then I don't hear from them for years until they come back and speak again at the meetup and have a completely different story to tell. So I think that that's always influenced how I see the process of designing complex system, both in terms of who's involved, but also what their story is and what their motivations are and what their energy levels are. I think all these things are really very personal to every founder. Meeting founders every month, 11 times a year is a real privilege.
Jeff Kavanaugh: You mentioned Good Night Lamp. For those that aren't aware of it, can you give the background and then how that has also shaped your perspective?
Alex Sonsino: Sure. I had the idea in 2005 for a family of lamps that you could use everywhere around the world. So you have a big lamp and little lamps. You give the little lamps away to a family member in a different time zone and when you turn the big lamp, on the little lamps, no matter where they are, also turn on. The time, it was a very simple idea of being able to reach out to people in your family who are in different time zones and who you want to feel connected to in a way that's kind of an infant and non-intrusive. Turning a light on mean something as simple as I'm around right now if you want to call me or the kids are going to bed if you want to call them to tell them a bedtime story because your parents who are elderly live somewhere else or someone who is living on their own and a little bit isolated, and wants to share their day to day routine can just use the lamp that way.
Alex Sonsino: Between the idea and actually the execution, was over a decade and that took a lot of energy, a lot of time, a lot of money, but it came an example of a way of using technology in the physical realm that wasn't particularly... It doesn't touch any of the security concerns that people have. It doesn't put you at risk in any way. It really is kind of an open product. So it was commercialized in 2015. We have customers around the world and now, those customers are being taken care of, but no new orders are being taken on because as part of every story, there is also, and I guess that's the learnings for me, the absolute mountain of nightmares related to technically implementing very complicated systems. For all its clarity and its simplicity, it's a product that's extremely difficult to implement.
Alex Sonsino: We used to 2G technology at the time because that was around and available and those systems are now being shut down in parts of the world. We have customers that are in countries where that's not being shut down, but the next few years, that landscape is changing. I learned a lot about what it means to actually put one foot in front of the other and have not only an idea, but something that works, that makes money, that's, in England you would say washes its own face, covers its own longterm costs and lots of physical digital products have extremely high longterm costs. So I definitely learned a lot this way.
Jeff Kavanaugh: The reason I wanted to bring that up, not only to emphasize the importance of good design, it's in the permanent collection. It's been noted for his design. As you said, the unintended consequences. The good news about IOT is it extends a product and its relationship, company's relationship with their customers, which is fantastic. The burden that you mentioned is it also carries your responsibilities much further, deeper and more complex. Could you talk about some of these additional burdens of longterm, like maybe privacy?
Alex Sonsino: I think just being able to support longterm a product, which lives in people's homes and actually that they have an emotional relationship, is a really completely different kind of support. Many companies give up before actually committing to longterm support. They'll specifically say, "We won't give you any support after X period of time," and that was never something I was interested in doing. I was always interested in making sure that people would find support if the product failed them in any way, very long term. The product can fail in lots of different ways, ways that are, in my case, related to GSM systems and GSM systems fail all the time. We have drops in connectivity to the lamps continuously because our partners who actually provide the infrastructure changes. There's a difference between springtime and winter time because of the trees. The leaves and the trees create more noise in those networks.
Alex Sonsino: This is kind of great landscape of things that can happen to a product as it goes through its natural life, both with the owner, but also with the technology landscape around it. I think that that's unavoidable. There are more stable technologies you could claim, WiFi, et cetera, but they meant that people needed to have a certain set of technologies on site and they assume a technical literacy that I never wanted to make the assumption that the only people who could buy the Good Night Lamp would be middle-class people who could do their own IT support. I wanted to make sure that this could be given to someone's grandmother without thinking about it too much. That's part of the burden that you take on is you have to make sure that you're able to provide both the customer, but also their family because they are the ones who end up with the product halfway across the world continuously.
Alex Sonsino: Of course, security is one of those concerns and securing the data. The nice thing about the Good Night Lamp in our case is that I specifically designed it so that the data in itself is meaningless and in itself has no unintended consequences per se. You can't ascertain that someone is not home because one of their lamps is not functional, so it's simple that way and I think it's safer that way. But these are things that you do need to consider when you're starting your own adventure and you're starting your own business. It's not something that you're just going to sell and forget about. It's something that you're going to sell and support for really long time.
Jeff Kavanaugh: When you think about mid-level business managers and they're trying to make sense of design and IOT and going forward, what are some specific things they can do to make sure that they take advantage of where IOT is going and also they can make sense of it.
Alex Sonsino: I was responsible for spearheading something called betteriot.org, which you can have a look at. This is a sort of checklist if you will, of things that people should be doing when they're thinking about building kind of complicated IOT product. I think that managers should be looking at those kinds of things. Some of them relate to how you treat design as part of that equation. The life cycle of your product is partly related to design. How you allow someone perhaps to disassemble the product or repair it themselves or recycle it; those are all design considerations. You're also going to be possibly helping someone reset their use of the product because you know that that product is going to end up on eBay within six months because people will have gotten bored and want to give it away. So having a button that says, "reset," that helps someone delete all the data created and does a factory reset of that product is also a design consideration. It's a hardware consideration, it's a physical enclosure consideration.
Alex Sonsino: Then of course, you have much more complicated design issues which are around how you market this, how you explain to people how information is being gathered. If this is a product that is always on, do you have an LED that always indicates that this product is always on. How do you communicate to someone the complications around GDPR, for example, the fact that there is data being collected by this, say smart toothbrush and that that data can actually be retrieved, archived and deleted from a place? At that place, they can always remember because it might be printed at the bottom of the product. So lots of these things, whether it's packaging design, physical product design, enclosure design, [inaudible 00:18:51] has absolutely a role to play in making sure that those products become products that are easier to support or at least easier to exit if we think of the customer relationship as something that could be exited.
Jeff Kavanaugh: When you and I met over in Berlin, you'd mentioned about over-reliance on corporate objectives and trying to get the right balance for people. Is that something you can speak to as well?
Alex Sonsino: Well, I think that in IOT, there is an interesting conundrum which is; do you really plan for the end of the road when you're developing a product? Most people don't particularly, but I think that all the war stories that we know are related either to security breaches or they're related to the end of a particular company's life and therefore, the end of their support of a product or the acquisition and then the shut down of a product by the acquiring party. I think that those are complicated questions to strategy. They are the complicated questions of knowing that you're going to develop something that will end up in people's homes, but might be maintained by someone else entirely in two years or even worse is bricked remotely and they're complicated conversations to have, but they should happen quite quickly inside an organization.
Alex Sonsino: The problem is often that they don't happen because people don't expect their business to fail. They don't necessarily expect an acquisition to take place very quickly and things are cemented in the design process very quickly, very early on. I don't know whether that answers your question directly, but that's what I think of when I think of over-reliance on a corporate environment. You're also partly over relying on a story of success that not happen and you don't build a lot of other options, I think. You don't build plan Bs, Cs and Ds for yourself.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Yeah. It's hard because all the extra complexity. It doesn't translate to more revenue reconnect to support it, so the viability goes out of whack in a hurry. The second part of the question I did mention, one was looking externally the impact of IOT on this. Internally, these devices need the ability to measure is great because you can measure employees. In your talk in Berlin, you'd mentioned that there's a dark side to that though. Can you talk about your concerns and your perspective on that?
Alex Sonsino: I think measuring things, it's a part of our Cartesian world of thinking that because you can measure something, it is by definition, then controllable. I think that what we know about the workplace is if we think of a workplace environment and we think of what we might be able to measure in that workplace, then things get quite dark quite quickly. Measuring the levels of occupancy inside a space gives you in no way, shape or form any idea of people's actual feelings around your business. But it's something you can measure. Measuring the activity, whether that's the online activity and the keywords that people are using inside of their own chat environment and overseeing that as a manager; is that really fundamentally going to give you a sense of how people are working, how they're working together, how successfully they're working together? No, but it can be measured.
Alex Sonsino: So I think it's the usual, not everything that can be measured will count and not everything that counts can be measured. I think that our ability to put fencing equipment and technology does not necessarily mean that we're specifically able to utilize that information in a way that makes sense. My example, and the example I use a lot in the context of IOT is often air quality. You can measure air quality until the cows come home. If there's no one to make decisions around what policy should be taken, whether that's to eliminate the source of pollution, whether that's cars or other things, if no one's willing to make that move, well you can continue to measure air quality for the next 50 years. Nothing will change. So it's a very tricky assumption to make that because you can measure something then you automatically things will get better. I think it's really important for anyone who's considering the internet of things, is considering technology in their workplace or their work life to think about what they'll do with what they measure and whether it's actually worth investing in a measuring device to begin with.
Jeff Kavanaugh: One question I like to ask people is who or what has a major influence on your life?
Alex Sonsino: I think that the most major influence on my life professionally has been the art world. It's kind of odd, but walking around museums and collections has given me more ideas about technology than anything I could have researched or read that related directly to technology. I think that I've learned a lot about how people work across sectors and how they influence each other and what ideas can circulate and how from the art world. So that's an unusual one, but I really can't recommend it more.
Jeff Kavanaugh: For a designer, I don't think that's unusual at all. Great response. How can people find you online?
Alex Sonsino: You can find me usually on Twitter @IOTWatch. Or on firstname.lastname@example.org, if you're an email kind of person,
Jeff Kavanaugh: Great. You can find details on our show notes and transcripts at infosys.com/IKI in our podcast section. Alex, thank you so much for your time and a very interesting discussion. Everyone, you've been listening to The Knowledge Institute Podcast where we talk with experts on business trends, deconstruct main ideas and share their insights. Thanks to our producer, Catherine Burdette and the entire Knowledge Institute team. Until next time, keep learning and keep sharing.
About Alex Sonsino
Alex Sonsino is an IOT author, consultant, public speaker and entrepreneur with a background in industrial and in interaction design. She wrote, "Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life," and is the founder of the Good Night Lamp, which is the permanent collection of the London design museum. Her projects are also part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and she has been running the London startup community for IOT since 2012.