The Internet of NO Things – Demos Helsinki founder Roope Mokka’s speech at Almedalen Week

Welcome to a journey into the future.

I’ll ask you to enter into a thought experiment. We’ll venture ten to fifteen years into the future and try and make sense of it.

I’m here to discuss the internet of NO things. It is the point where the internet becomes part of our environment and therefore ceases to be. Yes, we think that it is likely that – as soon as in 10 years’ time – smartphones and the internet will have disappeared.

My name is Roope Mokka. I’m a futurist and co-founder at Demos Helsinki. Demos Helsinki is the Nordic think tank. What is Nordic? Well, we’re the only think tank that actively operates across the entire region and we’re also Nordic in the sense that we represent Nordic values, consulting the rest of the world on how to ”Go Nordic”. We’re approached all the time and asked: ”How do you do it in the Nordics?” How come you’re so innovative and stable, rich and equal, community-driven and individualist, high on trust and liberal, and open and respectful to personal autonomy? We tell them how.

So what is the internet of NO things? First, let’s start with a simple exercise. When is the last time you looked at your mobile? Raise your hand if you’re looking at your mobile right now.

[Half of the hands in the crowd go up.]

Who looked at it 10 seconds ago?

[More hands are raised]

1 minute ago?

[A couple of more hands go up.]

3 minutes ago?

[Even more hands go up.]

10 minutes ago?

[All the hands in the crowd are raised now.]

Who hasn’t gazed at their phone at all today?

[Everybody puts their hand down.]

The global average of looking at your phone is six minutes. It means that we disrupt ourselves every sixth minute. And off we go, there’s a red dot in Facebook, someone commented on something, then email, then Snapchat, then a bit of Instagram, then check Twitter. A bit of Facebook again and finally close it all off with a look on Reddit. And start again in six minutes. Life as a gerbil. Back again in six minutes.

This is obviously crazy. But not as crazy as it may sound to claim that soon we’ll never look at our phones again. Let me explain how this happens and why it’s only logical that it will happen.

The reasons behind the internet of NO things are simple. The strongest long-term trend in technology has been the drop in its size and price, along with the convergence of different technologies into one. Things have got smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper. And technology now includes more and more functionalities.

There is technology worth 1 million Swedish krones in a phone. Calculators, cameras, games, music and video players. All of which at the date of release have cost more than the iPhone itself, when it first entered the market. The iPhone also contains memory that would have weighted tons just a while ago.

Now imagine the iPhone getting smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper, and incorporating more and more things, before becoming so small and cheap that it ceases to exist. It becomes part of the environment.

As technology keeps developing faster and faster, all the technologies that are now in a smartphone will become the size of a piece of paper and be available for the price of a piece of paper as well.

What we have to understand is that when technology gets developed enough it disappears, it ceases to be understood as technology; it becomes part of the general man-made ambience of our life. Look around you, there are amazing technologies already around us that have vanished. This house is a very typical example of disruptive technology, not to mention this collection of houses and streets and other infrastructure, know as the city, invented some thousands of years ago around where today’s Iran is, and scaled from there globally. Houses and cities are technologies. Our clothing is a technology, the food on the tables is the end product of masses of technologies, from fire to other means of cooking. These are all technologies that have in practice disappeared: they are on the background and nobody (outside of dedicated professionals) thinks of them as technologies.

Similarly digital technology will be immersed into the environment. So that everything built or manufactured will be digital by default. This means essentially digital buildings and digital cars, bikes, trains, and so forth.

This might sound a bit sci-fi, but it’s actually reality already. We’re right now experimenting with these technologies in our Naked Approach research programme. We are working with labs for printable electronics, which means you can print things such as solar cells, processors, soon even touch screens and so forth. Other labs we work with are in energy harvesting. It means that no one will need an external energy source; things will generate their own energy. Then there are sensor labs that create sensors for measuring everything from movement to particles in the air and more, at an extremely low cost. When you put these things together something wonderful happens. You get totally independently working small computers doing the same things and more than our current computers do.

The really amazing thing behind this is energy harvesting. The sensor will have to work without a power source. They will harvest their energy from their environment. Heat, light, movement and radio waves – these are the four things that energy will be harvested from.

This is also critical to the vision of the internet of NO things. It will either happen without energy, or it will not happen at all.

Then we’ll have pure computing power, that we’ll paint to the walls, print, use and paint them, print them, they will harvest their own energy.

As some of you might be thinking, this is a horrible world. You’re absolutely right. We have to start designing digital policy on a totally new level. It can also be a wonderful world. We can solve a lot of the biggest social and environmental problems if we take to the internet of NO things.

Bits and atoms are joining. Or to be more precise, bits and megawats, everything in this world is either energy or information. And now a new technology is emerging that combines these. It doesn’t mean that the internet will be everywhere. It means that the physical and the virtual world will collide, come together and exchange qualities. Digital will become physical as much as physical becomes digital.

To understand what this means let’s have a look at a few examples where already we can see bits and atoms joining and exchanging qualities. This is no longer sci-fi, it’s already happening. The biggest new companies, the fastest-growing companies all combine bits and atoms.

Some very material things have already entered the internet. Cars are being shared by Uber, houses by Airbnb.

This gives you an indication of the type of disruptive value the internet of NO things can create. Uber is now worth 50 billion dollars by some estimates and Airbnb has been valued at more than 25 billion.

What one needs to understand are four things:

  1. Internet of NO things is already happening
  2. It will inevitably change our relationship to the physical world.
  3. Eventually the internet will disappear and become part of our environment
  4. Nobody knows exactly how, but we know pretty certainly that it will happen somehow

So the question of who controls the internet is no longer just an issue of privacy. Now we are worried about who controls our data. We should be worried about who controls the physical environment we live in, our streets, cars, houses, dark benches, bikes, doors, locks and so forth.

If all the internet-searches in Sweden are made with Google it’s OK, I don’t really care to be honest. But if all the cars are operated by Uber and all the houses are operated by Airbnb, it’s very very different. This is what digital becoming physical means.

It seems there are a lot of trade offs. Security vs. privacy being mostly discussed now: everything can be filmed in the future and thus crime can become obsolete, but should it? Then there’s a lot more: Convenience vs. diversity, price vs. control. Always concrete benefit for an abstract future risk, or just a mildly harmful addiction.

Now let’s vision what else the future could be  the future. Ask ourselves what this really means. There are five quite obvious visions of the future:

1. Post-choice society. You will never choose to take a certain bus or train, but rather, the quickest way from point a to b. Nor the route that’s most beautiful, most romantic or the one with the best fit to ourselves. Also you will never ever forget your keys, your wallet, or your watch, your phone.

2. Super resource-efficient society. Where for example no building is ever empty, but in good use all of the time. Or a car would never run empty. New appliances and machines will harvest their energy. The energy harvesting professors see talk about huge power plants insane as they are working with smallest of the small energy harvesting sensors.

3. Post-ownership society. There is no point in owning anything, in fact ownership might become just a luxury. Instead of wanting to own things we want to own data. Data that concerns us and concerns others. Data might even replace money as the medium of value.

4. Post-market society. Markets are essentially an information system that is efficient in allocating resources. But we all know that it’s a very basic dump information system. It only transfers one bit of information transaction. The person either bought the thing or not, but we don’t know why. All kinds of crowd-buying, owning and commons-based systems may emerge.

5. Post-voting society, since we have the capability to know exactly what people do, there’s less need to vote and speculate on certain things as actions can be considered as a vote. Of course there still will be politics, but how and where they will take place is uncertain.

6. Post-energy society, since we can be almost certain that energy sensor will need to be energy efficient we know that if sensor revolution will happen energy harvesting will become everyday. The ability to collect macro, to micro to nano-generation of energy.

The rather interesting thing about the internet of NO things is in how it relates to climate change. It offers both a driver and a pressure valve for the transition into post-carbon societies that will be made possible by the internet of NO things.

Now what should we do, in the eve of this potentially great transformation? We have two options. We may adopt either a conservative or a progressive agenda.

  • Conservative agenda. Conserve what we have with laws, regulations and incentivising
  • Progressive agenda. Ask what should we do with this new technology, how can harness it, how can we use it solve the wicked problems of our age, from climate change to lifestyles diseases and segregation.

The progressive agenda is obviously what we’re working on at Demos Helsinki; we believe that imagining the Nordic perspective to the internet of NO things is key here. To ask, what is the culture and its inherent values of the Nordic internet of NO things? And that’s why we’re here in Almedalen as well.

This is a new disruption and one that can offer us a window of opportunity to ”update” our societies with new structures that help maintain the Nordic values of openness, equality, trust and pragmatism.



For more cutting-edge ideas on the future, follow Demos Helsinki on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

Also check out some further reading:

The Internet of Things is not about things, it’s about us

– Why you soon won’t own anything and why that’s a good thing

3 things all Nordic governments should know about digitalisation

Can strong foresight make an entire nation successful?

– How Nokia backcasted its way out of a dead-end and why your company should do the same

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