Sharing connected objects

In a household, it's common to share lots of objects. From appliances to furniture to toys and media and more, what are the design opportunities that await when we share connected objects?

On the whole, you find wealth much more in use than in ownership. — Aristotle1

Living together means sharing objects. The circumstances where we feel comfortable sharing depend on the relationship and personal preferences. Different rules apply among families, partnerships, roommates, etc.

Be it the TV remote, a book, the dining room table, or the dishes, the home is filled with objects that might be used by multiple people—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes asynchronously, sometimes even without the owner's permission.2

Through personalization and modularity, we can prepare for more shared usage. By switching accounts, the software layer can adapt the object to our preferences. Think of a connected object as an equivalent of a game console where you log in, and the systems has your customized digital spaces ready.

Trust management can help to better navigate who can use what object. Is there a way to provide transparency to who used the objects and how?

Learning algorithms can start to mold objects to better fit each of their users. The collected data can be used to improve the service for both for the individual user and for the overall group of users. In some cases, it might make sense to contribute data to a data pool or commons, where usage across many users can be compared and service improved.

Connected object collect a data "patina" from use. If designed right, they get better through use, gaining value and delivering better services the more they are used. This trend in turn could lead to more sustainable physical goods.

Rival vs. non-rival goods

Connectedness could make physical goods "less rival."

Historically, physical objects are rival goods. That means if one person has it, no one else can have it. For example, I'm reading a paperback book, and unless you're comfortable reading over someone's shoulder, it's not possible for you to read the book at the same time.

However, digital things are often "non-rival goods." That means if I'm reading a digital copy of this book, you can also have a copy on your device that you're reading at the same time.

When we add connectivity to an object, could we start to use physical objects in a non-rival way?

When we imagine objects being shared, what if we consider usage beyond the household—neighbors, friends, the broader world? What if an object could even be used by several of these groups at the same time?

How can we build and use objects in the connected home so that others can use them as well? Is there a way to build shared resources in the connected home, for example through pooling and sharing computational capacity when we don't need all of our processors' full capacity?

There are many questions to further explore here. The early days of collaborative consumption and the sharing economy can provide some useful pointers in the right direction.3

Some of the key concerns we see:

  • Trust management. If we have pseudo-non-rival goods being shared thanks to their connectivity, how do we facilitate trust among users?
  • Value add through usage. How do we design connected objects to improve, rather than degrade, through use? Algorithmic learning seems to offer promising avenues to explore.
  • Modularity. Because shared connected objects will get a lot of usage (hopefully), they should be built to be easily maintained and repaired.4
  • Privacy. In connected objects, multiple users means that we need to firewall against data leaks between users. If user or aggregate data is to be shared back into larger services or the commons, that data needs to be squeaky clean5 to make sure it cannot be linked back to individual users if they have opted out.
  • Decision-making and resource coordination. Do we need technological or design solutions to make decision-making and allocation of shared resources easier, or is that a social challenge in need of a social solution? Can a connected object be designed to facilitate this resource coordination?6

Connected objects offer a great opportunity for designers and technologists to explore how sharing could add value and increase usage and lifecycle of physical objects.

1. Supposedly. Citation needed. Sounds great, though, doesn't it? Kidding. Property and Ownership by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a fantastic resource around the philosophy of ownership: plato.stanford.edu/entries/property
2. If it is even clear who the owner is. As anyone living in a long-term relationship or family will confirm, the lines of ownership tend to blur over time. If anything, we expect this effect to grow stronger as learning objects will start to mold to their users over time, potentially making even the question of ownership in this kind of setting pointless.
3. See Michelle's 2010 post Designing for collaborative consumption for an overview: michellethorne.cc/2010/12/designing-for-collaborative-consumption/
4. The Fairphone is a great example of a device that uses modular design to enable repair and upgrades without having to toss out the whole thing. We should foster this kind of modular design, as it will help make more sustainable objects as well as objects that are more shareable: fairphone.com
5. Totally a technical term.
6. With his Addicted Toasters project, creative technologist Simone Rebaudengo explored this in a playful way: When his connected toasters felt under-utilized, they tweeted publicly to find a new owner who would use them more frequently: simonerebaudengo.com

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