The Internet is failing society: New principles for the design of the Internet of things

David Langley and Frank Berkers
March 14, 2017


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.

Make no mistake about it: the Internet, with its websites, social media and mobile apps, will enter the history books as a societal catastrophe. Historians will write about how hard-won civil rights, such as privacy, were suddenly abandoned without a fight. They will write about how digital apparatus had an increasingly damaging effect on the environment at the beginning of the 21st century, and about how the Internet’s primary use to stimulate hyper consumerism further increased the damage.

Yes, we enjoy all the fun features of Google, Facebook and WhatsApp. Tumblr is adorable! These free applications are simply the diversionary trinkets of the digital colonists. The real progress is in their innovations for ultra-targeted advertising: the impressive surveillance systems for making money out of our private data. Take the time to install Ghostery in your browser to see how much you are being watched without your knowledge or consent. Another disastrous effect of the social Internet is the ever-increasing impact on the environment. All those computers, chargers and data centers produce as much greenhouse gas as the entire airline industry. And our data usage is growing exponentially. Added to this, the personalized advertisements stimulate high-waste consumerism more than ever.
But most countries and regions do not even benefit from this digital revolution since the real value – both in terms of finance and knowledge – mainly flows to a few high-tech giants in the US. Together normal hard-working organizations pay billions to Amazon, Google and other dominant platforms, just to be able to go about their business. As we said, for most of society the Internet is a disaster.
And now we are at the beginning of a new digital revolution. Following the social Internet comes the Internet of things, whereby doors, street lights, cows and just about anything is being connected to the Internet via new wireless networks. This is creating an explosion of new products and new revenue models. But, unless the way we develop and implement our technology changes drastically, we will fall into the same trap as before. And the trouble has already started: your smart TV has a microphone that can eavesdrop on your conversations in your own living room!
The whole problem arose because most IT developers are preoccupied with what is technically possible. And not what we want as a society. With the Internet of things an awful lot is possible – much of which we will not want.It is time that we develop digital technology for the benefit of normal citizens and entrepreneurs. We need to break away from the current dominant model that enables a few huge companies to freely do what they want with our data and our environment. I advocate a new design for the Internet of things, based on two social principles. 

Basic Social Principle 1: the business model and its underlying technology follow human patterns of behavior, and not vice versa. This means that we – citizens and entrepreneurs – are able to determine which data we want to share with which specific stakeholders for which specific reasons. Do you want your Internet-enabled mattress to pass data about your private bedroom behavior to Google, Apple and Cisco? Without the new direction that we advocate, this nightmare scenario will quickly come to pass. The Internet of things must be designed differently. For example, we need new platform architecture and protocols which will prevent firms from freely accessing our data. Which will put people in control. Which will allow them to determine whether and with what firm they want to share which parts of their data, and what specific benefit that will give them. Such a real alternative to the current model can compete in the marketplace: ordinary people will opt for services based on this new model when they know exactly what they reveal and what they get in return.

Case description: precision farming in the Netherlands
How can firms own and control the data they generate? A step in this direction is illustrated by a Dutch Precision Farming project. In order to prepare for the emerging flux of real-time sensor data flows from various IoT applications in and around the farm, TNO and project partners designed and set up a data sharing platform (information broker) to stimulate the creation of new data driven innovations for precision farming.
But the farmers clearly voiced their concerns about the way their data would be managed: “We don’t want our data roaming about, and eventually be sold back to us!” So, instead of taking the approach of acquiring that data via the equipment providers, the initiative searched for an alternative solution and, together with TNO and other parties, developed a scalable data sharing platform that does not hold data itself, but acts as a registry. The data stays where it is. It is only passed on with explicit consent. Furthermore, for companies participating in this ecosystem, the initiative applies the principle that farmers cannot be charged twice for the same data. This bypasses the discussion on ownership of data.
Although there are still many hurdles to overcome, this example shows that ethical principles can be accommodated – by new technology and by changing organizational conduct.

Basic Social Principle 2: the business model and its underlying technology enhance environmental sustainability, rather than damage it. This means that the products that come online need to make use of the connectivity to optimize the efficient use of energy and raw materials. The social web has had limited success in this area: Via eBay old products are continually given a new lease of life. But overall, our use of fossil fuels and other raw materials is increasing all the time. According to a recent study in the leading journal Science, one in six species of animals and plants are at threat – through our actions – of being lost forever. A better design of the Internet of things can contribute to the solution by enabling producers and consumers to make optimum use of raw materials and energy: from the design and use of products, to the disposal and recycling of materials. We can achieve a circular economy, and we can market it as a commercially viable alternative.
It is possible for us to develop a wholly new Internet of things. One that forms the basis of a healthy digital society and, at the same time, one that is economically attractive for us all.

David J. Langley
 works at TNO, the largest applied research institute in the Netherlands, as senior scientist in the field of internet, innovation and strategy. He received his PhD in 2009 and is also Associate Research Fellow at the department of Innovation Management and Strategy at the University of Groningen. Since 2015 he is columnist for the Dutch Financial Times writing about the societal implications of internet technologies. He is acting chair of the European Alliance for IoT Innovation (AIOTI), Ecosystems working group. Working in the area of internet innovations since 1991, he has set up and led research projects in a wide variety of industries, including telecoms, energy, banking and the public sector. He is the inventor of an award-winning method to predict the adoption of innovative products and services at an early stage of their development. His scientific research has been published in leading journals, including Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Journal of Interactive Marketing and Journal of Product Innovation Management.


Frank Berkers MSc
 also at works TNO Strategic Business Analysis dept. in The Hague as is senior scientist in the field of business modelling and strategy. In context of innovation Frank analyses and helps to set up business ecosystems in several (cross-) domains (e.g. Cooperative Mobility, Agrofood, Smart Cities, Smart Industry and Internet of Things) as well as strategic consultancy projects with both business and government actors – in total over 450 project initiatives. Frank holds a master’s degree in Econometrics from Maastricht University and currently pursues a PhD at Eindhoven University of Technology in Information Systems. Before joining TNO, he has held positions at ABN AMRO as consumer intelligence analyst and at marketing research agency SKIM where he advised and set up preferred supplierships with McKinsey and Monitor on the field of computer aided choice experiments.