Oct 22, 2019 | 8 min read

Spotlight Series: Building Engaging Spaces of the Future

This series highlights the key insights and lessons from our Digital Leadership series of podcasts. We spotlight the important takeaways from our interviews in an accessible format. The following insights come from Usman Haque, Founder and CEO of Thingful and Founding Partner of UmbrelliumStay tuned for the full podcast interview with Usman, in the meantime, take a look at our full library of podcasts.

What are some of the experiences and influences that have led you to your current role, and the work that you’re doing?

I got into all of this in perhaps not a very typical way, although one could also say there isn’t really a typical way to get into the Internet of Things. 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.

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, 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, that’s great for a closed 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.

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, particularly when it veers towards 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 when you have created this smart thing.

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 a 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 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.

As you’re looking to apply a bit more intelligence 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?

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 more of a Scandinavian approach where there’s a lot more public transportation investments. 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. 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 SaaS model type of system'.

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 when we do a project with technology, and I should say that pretty much all of our projects are technology-based, because 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.

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 Thingful.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 Thingful as a separate company from Umbrellium. 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, looking at ground-trooping satellite data, with relatively inexpensive soil monitoring sensors in the ground, that the farmers are taking care of.



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