The joy of teaching the impact of emerging technologies at Birkbeck, University of London

Slide1The module “Blockchain and Its Impact on Innovation, Management, and Policy” is at Week 4. In 4 weeks, we have covered the fundamentals of DLT and blockchain technology. We have looked at the philosophical fundamentals of blockchain with Prof. Hugh Tancred from the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck College. We have introduced all the main concepts of blockchain technology. We have seen the concepts in action with the phenomenal demo of Cosmin Stamate using the blockchain demo anders.com. We have explored the problems of blockchain and the responses to those problems. We have discussed one of those responses with Michele Nati from IOTA. We have then looked at cryptocurrencies and their dynamics, opportunities and problems. We have moved then beyond cryptocurrencies looking at the convergence of blockchain with the IoT and further with the AI. Students fantastically run research on blockchain applications in IoT-related sectors (supply chain, energy, environment, retail), but also on how blockchain can face society problems such as transparency, exploitation, human rights, banked versus unbanked.

Four weeks of incredible work and unbelievable enthusiasm! If emerging tech are going to change our world, then the technology community need to tell the story. There is an important necessity of talking about emerging technologies putting aside the technical aspects and looking at the implications for society and economy. On the other side, there are students eager to learn about all that and many others willing to do so. In our module, we will continue that mission for other five weeks with more exceptional guest speakers from Venture Outliers, Digital Catapult, Ocean Protocol and the Big Innovation Centre. Stay tuned!

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The problematic relationship between the technology community and citizens and SMEs

“As a poet and as a mathematician, he would reason well; as a mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all.” Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter

Last week I had the privilege to contribute to two events. The first one was IOTHINGS 2019 in Milan (www.iothingsmilan.com) at the future Milan centre of innovation, MIND. Since 2003, Innovability runs the best show on the Internet of Things in Italy. They do that with a profound attention to the evolution of the Internet of Things providing the attendees with the best view on the Italian IoT ecosystem. This year, more than other years, the event was open to the encounters between the IoT and emerging technologies. I opened the first day highlighting those encounters arguing that we are entering an era of convergences and the combinations of those convergences can be diverse.

The second event was in Turin. It was the Peer Review Meeting of the European Observatory for Clusters and Industrial Change (https://www.clustercollaboration.eu/eu-initiatives/european-cluster-observatory). It gathers the European Commission and 10 European Regions discussing how industrial cluster policy could drive economic growth. The day was structured around 4 mega-trends for regions: demographics changes, climate change, SME internationalisation, and digitalisation. I run the session on digitalisation trying to understand the state of digital technologies in the regions, their adoption from SMEs, and how challenges can be solved through cluster policies

I will discuss some specific topics coming from the events in separate blog posts. But there are two points coming from a comparison between the two events that deserve to be highlighted.

1)      The language of the technology community is almost incomprehensible. In Milan, we discussed the IoT, 5G, AI, blockchain and their modes of converging. In Turin, those were terms known, but just on the surface. They were perceived as important but considered almost science-fictional! That is not because the attendees in Turin were not interested in those topics, but because they are not easy to grasp. The language used by the technology industry is almost impenetrable, and the technology industry does not make major efforts to simplify it. But, if the IoT, 5G, AI, blockchain and so forth will transform our way of living, then citizens and policy makers, above all, need to truly understand that transformational power. We clearly have a strong communication problem to address.

2)      SMEs are struggling to embrace the Industry 4.0 paradigm. In Milan, the President of Confindustria-SMEs (the industry association for SMEs) gave a very frank view on the level of adoption of digital technologies from SMEs in the Lombardy region. It is important to stress that Lombardy is one of the wealthiest regions in Europe with an exceptional and world-class industrial and innovation capability. Despite that, on average, SMEs from Lombardy really struggles to embrace the Industry 4.0 paradigm. They are moving towards it, but slowly. We all know that embracing the IoT vision is an arduous journey, but the pace of SMEs is generally too slow. In Turin, the picture did not change. It got even worst. And when I argued that it is important for SMEs to move along the Industry 4.0 paradigm, even if slowly, I was told that I was asking too much from companies that have Excel as main IT tool.

The two points discussed are not new, but too often they have been moved under the carpet! But, as technologies become more refined and the pace of technological change more rapid, the issues simply exacerbate increasing the distance between the technology world and the society they want to serve. Resources should be dedicated for reducing that distance making the technology elite less elitist and the society more technologically aware.

What Can Minecraft Teach about the Internet of Things?

Minecraft Sensors

Minecraft is a huge success among kids. At the moment, my children are having debates on the best way of building houses and villages. Dragged by this enthusiasm, I have put myself in the shoes of one of those villagers. And in the attempt of understanding more about Minecraft, I have also found that there is Minecraft Education. The subscription is a bit expensive, but it is used in several schools worldwide as a supporting educational tool for different subjects.

I am not that good at Minecraft as my kids are, but I started to get intrigued by the question: What can Microsoft Education teach regarding the Internet of Things? The ideal answer was Smart Village or the application of the IoT in rural areas. Perhaps, I am dreaming here! But the concept of sensors and a network of sensors can definitely be introduced. In Minecraft, there are some sort of lighting sensors, security sensors and some others could be built. And, in fact, there is the Minecraft Education lesson “Sensors” published by Shyni Sudheer from The Westminster School in Dubai. Shyni is a Digital Leader at her school and with the lesson on Sensors, she want her students to:

  • “Learn about sensors.
  • Understand how sensors are used in day to day life with examples like pressure and light sensor.
  • Be able to discuss and evaluate about different sensors.
  • Be able to use at least one sensor in a working mechanism and understand how they work.”

Sensors are just a part of an IoT solution, but the outcome of the lesson can then be used for introducing other concepts. An interesting one to address is how to use the data the sensors gather. I could not find a lesson directly connected to a potential IoT solution, but there is an interesting one on the manipulation and interpretation of data. That is “Dangerous Data Sets” by Garrett Zimmer, educator who use Minecraft as an education tool. Garret’s lesson aims to reach the following objectives:

  • “Collect and compile numerical data sets within Minecraft
  • Create visual representations of data sets |Build Frequency Tables
  • Understand how Data can be used to analyze and plan”

I did not experience the two lessons. It would be interested to hear the students and the teachers talking about it. But, they could provide an engaging introduction on concepts, not easy to grasp, but at the core of any IoT solutions around us.

 

Punctul.IT – Teaching IoT to Children via a Smart Garden Kit

punctulit

The first article on solutions for teaching the IoT to school kids was well received. Following that, other interesting approaches have come to my attention. The story of Punctul.IT and its founder, Robert Brezoaie, is an interesting one to share.

I met Robert at IMWorld 2018 in Bucharest. After my talk on the IoT, he asked me about teaching IoT at schools. He was very enthusiastic about the topic as I was. Since then, we have had exchanges. During a very recent one, he discussed his new venture, Punctul.IT. His idea of a smart garden kit for teaching the IoT to kids attracted my imagination a lot. There are plenty smart urban agriculture and garden solutions in the market, but I have never heard about a smart garden kit for kids. Bringing technology and nature together in the eyes of young people is a strong educational combination. But, let’s hear directly from Robert his story.

Saverio: Robert, tell us your journey to Punctul.it?

Robert: Punctul IT is a company that I started 3 months ago. It is based on my experience as a teacher of IT and on my almost 3 years experience working on education for kids in my old startup. I wanted to create a concept that would motivate gifted children and teens to learn more about programming and technology. The project is doing very well. In just 3 months the company has reached 100 members. We already have 3 locations in Romania and we are growing quickly. At the moment, we are focussing on VR technology and program 3D spaces for VR. We will then start creating applications for Android and then we will apply all that information to the IoT.  Third parties, willing to teach programming and technology to kids, can actually purchase our resources and start a course in their town. With that, they get my full support in teaching kids about programming.

Saverio: Which are the best programming languages to start engaging the children with the IoT?

Robert: The best languages for kids to learn IoT is anything based on blocks like Blockly, Scratch, and Appinventor.  My idea is that for the first part of the learning process kids should concentrate on simple implementation and fast results because that will keep them interested and excited. As soon as they get more familiar with the programming languages, the activities can get more complex and, therefore, rewarding. They could start using traditional programming languages and then be able to compare what they already know, in a simplified way, with what they are about to learn in a more complex language.

Regarding IoT capabilities, AppInventor already has the possibility of creating apps that connect with basic devices (sensors, Arduino drives, Microbit drives etc). However, it is a bit more complex and requires familiarity with the programming language. Scratch needs plugs-in to have the possibility to connect to third party software and hardware. But Scratch is adding more updates quite often. Therefore, there is hope to program IoT applications in a simpler way with Scratch.

Saverio: And tell us about the Smart Garden Kit.

Robert: The Smart Garden Kit represents the next level of activities, once children have become familiar with programming IoT applications with the languages described above.

The overall idea is to have a single object that can be hard to break and easy to look at. The object will contain all the hardware and sensors into one piece. Children will “plant” the Smart Garden Kit in the plant pot and connect to it via Bluetooth or WiFi (depending on the programming language used after) . The kit will have video lessons included to support the programming of basic functions such as monitoring humidity levels,  send notifications to the phone or flash small lights for alert when the plant needs to be watered.

We are working on the Smart Garden Kit. Therefore, new ideas can come, but the objective is to show kids the real case of an IoT application, but also how technology can work with nature and can help nature.

 

Exploring the Impact of Blockchain on Organisations and Society through a Masters Course Module

Slide1

Studying blockchain technology, its relationships with other technologies – particularly the IoT which I am more familiar with – and their impact on organisations and society has been an exciting journey of more than two years. DLT, blockchain technology, and all the alternatives and inclinations are not easy topics to master. On-going research and analysis are required to remain in the right path.  

However, that journey is not over, but the time to share it with others has come. Sharing it is important because there is a strong need for education around the impact of blockchain on organisations and society. Because of that, in May and June, during the academic summer term, in collaboration with Prof. Klaus Nielsen, I will deliver a module on blockchain to Master students in innovation and management studies at the Department of Management at Birkbeck, University of London. The title of the module is: “Blockchain Technology and Its Impact on Innovation, Management and Policy.” The overall objective is to provide students with an overview of the fundamentals of DLT and blockchain in order to be able to address and analyse the impacts and the challenges that this emerging technology is posing to public and private organisations.

The module is composed of 9 lecturers. The lectures can be grouped in four main topics:

          The main concepts, terms, and functions behind DLT and blockchain technologies;

          The use of blockchain in business contexts and in government contexts through the analysis of existing projects, alliances, and companies involved in the field;

          The organisational, innovation management, and entrepreneurship issues raised by blockchain;

          The impact of blockchain on society and the debate on related regulation and technology policies.

In a blockchain spirit, the course will be heavily open and multidisciplinary. Scholars from various disciplines specialised in areas related to the blockchain will contribute to the module. There will also be external speakers from the market place and the public sector to tell their experiences and share their ideas on blockchain.  We are also trying to create further engagements between students and companies at the level of the coursework. Without disrupting companies’ activities, small research projects can be designed in collaboration with companies, which can provide some forms of mentoring and supervising. In this way, we want to highlight the strong multidisciplinary nature of blockchain and its relationships with other emerging technologies and stress the important and vital connection between academia, business system, and public sector.

We are working on the content, materials and readings for the 9 lectures. Therefore, if you want to know more, follow this blog for future updates. For further questions, please, e-mail me at s.romeo@bbk.ac.uk

There is a perception of 5G as alien. Let’s face that!

There are quite few cities in the EU Digital Cities Challenge initiative, which are either 5G test-beds or are involved on specific 5G-enabled application projects. Those are not large cities, but small and medium-sized ones such as L’Aquila in Italy, Patras in Greece, Sunderland in the UK and others.

At L’Aquila, as it appears in the other cities, the work done on digital transformation for the city has been strongly influenced by being a 5G test-bed city. And, after one year of work on designing a digital transformation strategy that takes into consideration 5G, it seems that the major challenges for making 5G a fundamental part of the city strategy are not technological. Instead, the key challenges are related to the social perception of technologies, public sector digital capabilities and the business system of the cities. Consequently, the 5G community needs to reflect on four main issues in relation to the development of 5G in cities.

545246-oulu-feature-oulu-finland-is-5g-town

Source: PCmag.com

5G is unknown to citizens

The knowledge about what 5G can do for the quality of life in the city and which benefits can bring for the city economy is very poor. 5G is then seen as a piece of science-fiction technology in the hands of few people able to understand it. That brings considerations on the investment in 5G such as “we could spend the money spent on 5G on real city problems such as improving urban mobility”, without knowing that one of the major 5G applications in the city is to improve urban mobility!

5G is seen as a threat

Because of the previous point, 5G is perceived as a way of wasting resources of the city and the citizens. The attitude towards 5G becomes then very negative or, at least, strongly sceptical. The view, then, that 5G is a mean for various threats to the citizens’ life just exacerbates the sentiment against the technology. There are two common threats associated to the development of 5G:

  1. Security threat. The pieces of news about links between Chinese 5G manufacturers and national cybersecurity threats are common in the media. The official positions of various governments on the matter validate that threat in the eyes of the citizens.
  2. Health threat. During 2018, various publications have raised the issue of electromagnetic radiation on wildlife and human health. On the 20th of December 2018, the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) of the European Commission highlights the potential risk on its Statement on emerging health and environmental issues (2018) claiming that “the expansion of broadband with shorter wavelength radiofrequency radiation highlights the concern that health and safety issues remain unknown.” (https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/scheer_s_002.pdf)

The role of the public sector in 5G in cities is not clear

Local authorities, particularly the ones running small-sized cities, do not have the resources and the experience to have a proactive role in 5G test-beds. They strongly rely on collaboration with other bodies, particularly universities. But, even with that, they struggle to design future policies around transformative technologies such as 5G. At the basis of that, there is the lack of a governance for digital policies that can guide the city along a digital transformation trajectory. The Digital Cities Challenge initiative is trying to encourage the creation of that governance.

The role of local SMEs in 5G test-beds is not strong

The consortia behind the 5G test-beds are made of important organisations – universities, mobile network operators, telco operators, software companies – To the city, they appear like giants able to look at the horizon, but with difficulties of looking down. And down, there are several local SMEs that could benefit of the magnificent work of the giant, but the giant struggles to engage them. Local SMEs are not sufficiently involved in the development of 5G in cities. The result is a frustrated local business system that needs to innovate and can do that grabbing the 5G test-bed opportunity, but that opportunity is too far to reach.

Let’s engage with those sentiments about 5G

To sum up, 5G is seen as a top-down idea brought to cities. It is an exogenous entity difficult to understand because no-one is really trying to explain it. At L’Aquila, and for sure in other cities, there are various ideas to change that perception. Various city stakeholders are working on three 5G-enabled applications to show case them to citizens and SMEs. There is also the intention of creating a “5G city lab” open to citizens and SMEs for understanding, playing and experimenting with 5G. The reason of those initiatives is to increase the level of knowledge about 5G in the community showing the potential of the technology and openly discuss the challenges that the technology can pose. Perhaps, those are small answers from a small city, but they are an invite to the entire technology community to engage with critical perceptions of 5G, perceptions that can affect the development of the technology.

Teaching the IoT at Schools – Ideas for Preparing Children for Connected and Intelligent Environments

In 2013, I had a little 5 years old eager to learn. We used to read a lot of books together. And, we still do, but the electronic devices were more exciting than daddy! Therefore, I explored ways of creating an engagement between him and the electronic devices. And, at that point, I decided to participate to the crowdfunding campaign for Kano Computer (https://kano.me/uk) on Kickstarter.

Kano arrived. This very nicely designed box with all these bits inside to build your own computer and start coding and playing was in front of us. I was excited, my son a bit less. I guess the old software developer in me was coming back, but for my son the all story required some intellectual effort that, perhaps, was not there yet. I did not force him, but slowly the interest came.

My interest in engaging kids with technology remained. The school my kids attend has also fed that interest. The activities in their science and tech lab are very diverse. Coding is an important activity, but also trying to play with devices, particularly wearable devices, is entering the lab and attracting the enthusiasm of the kids. Therefore, inspired by that, I have run a little research on what is out there for teaching the Internet of Things in primary and secondary schools. Here, I share some insights.

Initial ideas of taking IoT at School

Systematic way of bringing the Internet of Things at school started to appear during the period 2013-2015. Two projects happened during that period that deserves attention.

  • Project Distance in the UK, promoted by Innovate UK, brought together ScienceScope, a specialist in introducing technology in schools, with other stakeholders such as University of Birmingham, UCL, Xively, Intel and others. The project involved 8 schools in the UK. Each school was equipped with the following components: an environmental logging box containing various oxides, a weather station, a generic logger, and various sensors. Dataloggers were developed to upload data form the sensors to the cloud to an IoT platform designed for the purpose, the Distance Exploratory. These resources were used for teaching and learning activities. Sciencescope is continuing to engage with other schools worldwide using the same model.
  • Project IoT-Desir in Sardinia, Italy, used a similar approach to Project Distance. A consortium of player worked with 14 secondary schools involving 200 students and 25 teachers to work on problem solving using IoT technologies, primarily using Arduino

Today ideas for teaching IoT in schools

Arduino and Raspberry PI have become very common IoT educational tools. Arduino has a dedicated educational team (https://www.arduino.cc/en/main/education). The team provides teaching kits from middle school classes until university classes. Other IoT companies have faced the challenge of attracting students in the IoT space. The experience of the “IoT Spartans Challenge” run in 2017 by Libelium and supported by companies such as Bosch is a good example to mention. However, educating school children at what their world will be remains a challenge. That challenge requires an effort from the IoT community, and that effort has not been seen yet. But there are projects and organisations that work in that direction. Five ideas used today are shown in the picture below.

IOTSCHOOLS

Conclusions – The IoT community should be at the centre of teaching IoT in schools

Starting from different angles, the projects briefly discussed in the picture introduce the kids to the concepts behind the IoT and to how a world made of connected and intelligent objects could look like. But there is much more to explore. For example, the use and the role of data in a connected world. And, with that, all the implications related to security and privacy.

The IoT is vast from a technological point of view and its impact in economic sectors and different levels of society is tremendous. It is important to prepare the future generation to that. The IoT community should increase its effort in educating the youth for enabling them to understand the world the IoT and other technologies are shaping.