Interview with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

This is the second in a series in which we interview people whose work we admire. This time, we speak with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, of Good Night Lamp and Designswarm.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (@iotwatch on Twitter) is an interaction designer and entrepreneur, and has been focused on the “internet of things” and its implications in the design of everyday products since 2005. She is the founder of Good Night Lamp, a family of internet-connected lamps. She also leads Designswarm, an “internet of things” design studio and consultancy, and works with clients who want to design next generation connected products. She uses her expertise to help shape early business ideas around smart products. Her work has been exhibited at The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

From 2007 to 2010, she co-founded and ran Tinker London, a smart product design studio. Focused on creating connected product experiences that linked the digital to the physical, Tinker was the first distributor of the Arduino platform in the UK, ran workshops around the world and offered design and consultancy services.

Alexandra is involved in organizing technology and design community events in London such as the Internet of Things meetup and This Happened London.

What are the issues you’re currently fascinated with, or problems you’re currently trying to solve?
I’m like two people in one at the moment, where I have a very successful consultancy, Designswarm, and my startup Good Night Lamp, so mostly my problem is not having enough hours in the day. : ) But seriously, the big challenge for me is to make Good Night Lamp into a credible and successful business that can inspire others to start their own “internet of things” startup. I think there’s a lot of value in making and building businesses as a measure of success of an idea. Tinker London, my first business, suffered from trying to do too much at a time. We were part Arduino resellers, part workshop designers, part consultancy, part production house. It was a nightmare to try to market what we did. The Good Night Lamp is an opportunity for me to do just one thing and do it well.

Explain what Good Night Lamp is, and how it is relevant.
The Good Night Lamp is a family of internet-connected lamps. You turn a Big Lamp on in your home, and a network of Little Lamps you’ve given away to friends of family is turned on too. It’s a physical social network you can collect to keep an eye on people you care about who might be living in another town or country.

You work in East London, which is considered one of the European hotbeds of tech innovation. How does that environment influence your work?
I’ve been working in and around Shoreditch for about 4 years and I really enjoy the mix of tech startups, ad agencies, fashion and art studios that meet in this area. Every time I go for lunch, there’s a chance I might meet someone I haven’t seen in ages and have a quick catchup. It’s really a dense area with a lot of people crammed in, all doing amazing things. If I wasn’t next door to MakieLab and near Berg (who are making the Little Printer) I don’t think I would have had the impetus to get Good Night Lamp off the ground.

Share the most important thing you learned while building physical, networked products.
It’s hard. There are generally more single points of failure than if you were making a regular product. The software that talks to the hardware as well as making sure your product is beautiful all become part of the equation and a world of problems you have to be ready to deal with. It’s a world I’m massively excited by regardless.

What’s your coffee setup at home?
I’m not a coffee fascist as I recently became lactose intolerant. So it’s Americanos for me. It’s really easy for cafés to screw up an Americano, sadly…

At home I have the small Bialetti Italian coffee maker I bought when I was a student in Italy back in 2004. I mostly use Illy or sometimes Lavazza coffee, rarely anything else. I got used to the taste in Italy when I started drinking coffee and old habits die hard. I only have one coffee a day though and rarely at home, so it’s a weekend treat.

Interviews in this series:

  1. Caroline Drucker
  2. Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino


More interviews coming soon – stay tuned.

Week 89

After almost two weeks of constant travel, I’m reporting back from two fantastic conferences, Foo Camp and the Open Internet of Things Assembly, as well as a few days in the Bay Area.

Foo Camp, San Francisco, OpenIOT

After near to two weeks of constant travel, I’m writing this on the plane back from London, both exhausted and exhilarated. What a trip! When I received my invitation to Foo Camp, O’Reilly’s invite-only un-conference at their HQ in the Bay Area, I was as surprised as I was stoked. It’s an honor to be invited, and certainly felt like a rite of passage in some ways. So last week I went, and found the gathering of smart folks simply mindblowing. I put up a few impressions on my personal blog.

Invisible economies #foo12

For a few days afterwards I got to spend time in San Francisco, meet a bunch of people and also visit some offices, like the EFF and Mozilla, both who kindly hosted me for awhile. Of course there was also time to check out some fancy coffee – in fact I spent almost two full days at Ritual, who don’t mind laptop dwellers and produce some mean brews.

Working with this view, courtesy of the lovely folks at Mozilla HQ

To round things off, on the way back I stopped by London for the OpenIOT Assembly that our friend Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino had put on. The assembly aimed high – we tried to write the next iteration of a Bill of Rights for the Internet of Things. You can find and undersign the current document online as it’s evolving. It was a great crowd, both the speaker lineup and the audience, with a pretty darn impressive in-depth knowledge of all things IoT.

Wrap up at #openiot. Good day!

Stepping in for Mark Shephard, I hosted a session on the city aspects of the Internet of Things. The session notes are up for discussion on the platform, and I posted my notes over on my blog for easy skimming.

city session at #openiot

New faces

Just when I left we also grew a bit. We mentioned this before, but also posted a brief introduction for our summer intern Jasmine (one more for our new trainee Doro will follow shortly), so make sure to say hi!

What else?

A few weeks back, Prof. Faltin, who researches and teaches entrepreneurship at Freie Universität Berlin, had invited me to an ongoing series of talks and interviews, the Labor für Entrepreneurship. You can find the video online now.

What we read this week (20 Apr)

Our articles of the week: why you might want to get some of your daily news from Fox, the twisted logic behind e-book publishing, an Ikea-made HD TV, democracies and internet freedom, and meme management as an emerging profession.

Quotes of the week

There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself.

Adrian Tan

More information does not make a more informed population.

danah boyd

Articles of the week

  • Cory Doctorow: A Whip to Beat Us With
    Author and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow sheds light on the twisted logic connecting publishers, e-books, DRM and certain platforms’ nasty habit of locking users in. For related material, see Charlie Stross’ related article on Amazon’s e-book strategy and its consequences.
  • Wired UK: Ikea’s “Uppleva” integrates TVs and sound systems into furniture
    Ikea is a great example of a company that knows how to extend their range of products. Their latest endeavor: making their own HD TVs. And it seems that they’ve done well on the product, too. This will be interesting to watch. On a grander scale, the company is also planning the construction of an entire neighborhood in East London.
  • The Boston Globe: How democracies clamped down on the Internet
    The openness of the Internet is threatened – unfortunately not only by nations and regimes that we expect to go against freedom, but also by democracies. This article is a good reminder that we can’t take the net for granted.
  • Mashable: Meme Management: Meet the man who reps internet stars
    In times when user-generated content can become more successful on the internet then professional productions, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that at some point they also get professionalized. Still, “meme manager” is a job title not many would have anticipated, and yet it is very much an expression of the zeitgeist.
  • danah boyd: Getting the News
    danah boyd, internet researcher, tells News.me how and where she gets her news fix every day. She discusses the importance of finding points of view as different as possible from one’s own, and what it means to be well informed.

Additionally, should you like to catch up on our series of articles on our social media strategy framework, the collection is now complete.

The New Aesthetic

We’ve been fascinated by this thing called New Aesthetic. If you want to know what it’s about, check out this annotated collection of links.

Something is happening. We haven’t fully grasped it yet. But it already feels like one of the more exciting things happening these days. And it’s spearheaded by nice people from East London who keep inspiring and challenging us. It has been dubbed The New Aesthetic (NA).

The Beginning

It first appeared almost a year ago with this post by James Bridle of RIG: The New Aesthetic.

For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.

This turned into this tumblr blog: The New Aesthetic.

Bridle has been the main voice for the New Aesthetic. Watch his closing keynote from Web Directions Sydney 2011 for a great primer and check his blog. Also watch his talk from the Lift conference this year and read this interview Rob Walker did with him for more of his thinking.

As always, others from the network of people around the “Silicon Roundabout” have picked up this concept and are exploring it further. BERG has been reflecting about the ‘Robot-Readable World’ (RRW) with Matt Jones giving a talk and Timo Arnall producing a video visualization of the RRW. Also read Jones’ thoughts on Sensor-Vernacular.

This all happened last year and was mostly noticed by people following the thinking of RIG and BERG.

#sxaesthetic

A whole new level of attention came in March with the #sxaesthetic panel at the SXSW festival/conference in Austin, Texas. Bridle brought along some of his friends and fellow thinkers to approach NA from different perspectives.

A lot of great thinking coming from this group of people. But the biggest thing for the NA was that Bruce Sterling was sitting in the audience. Not only did he gather a lot of the tweets about the panel and mentioned Bridle and the panel very favorably in his closing keynote for SXSW.
He also published a 5000-word essay about NA, analyzing and criticizing it in depth. Besides the amazing amount of new ideas, approaches and next steps he has given the movement with this, he also has put it on a much bigger stage, giving it a new level of attention.

Reactions to Sterling’s essay

The web has been buzzing with reactions to the essay. It’s beautiful to see so many bright minds picking up the concept and investigating it from all sides. Here are only some of the writings we came by:

Sterling keeps posting links and writing articles as a reaction to the reactions. Here’s another take from him: Still FREAKING OUT!!!

A year later

On Sunday, May 6 2012, exactly one year later, Bridle has closed the NA tumblr for good.

The project will continue in other forms and venues.

On May 8, HuffPo posted an interview with Bridle.

One of the things about New Aesthetic was that it was very much supposed to be not ‘post’ anything else and not ‘pre’ anything else, it was an observation about something hopefully grander, of which these are some current examples of. But as soon as you start trying to ground it in that way, in manifestos and in particular works then, then yeah that’s the natural reaction to it. One of the things the internet should be able to do is be less reactive than that.

All these things are imperfect means of communication, there will always be that but I’m happy to end by saying it’s been a deeply odd and occasionally distressing experience. Some responses to it have been fantastic and extraordinary and interesting and a lot of the other responses have been extraordinarily aggressive and misguided and simply wrong. It’s a very odd experience that a lot of people out there have basically gone ‘the New Aesthetic is wrong’ and it can be many things but it can’t be wrong because I just made it up.

More Material somehow connected to NA

If you’ve found something that we should add, let us know.

Closing remarks

We’ve deliberately avoided defining what the New Aesthetic is. We kinda enjoy that it’s pretty fuzzy right now and still open for future definitions that might emerge from the current discussion. This is why we, instead of defining it, provided a ton of links so anyone going through this can make up her or his own mind about NA.

Bruce Sterling:

The New Aesthetic practice would be to unwrap it, post it, and leave it there all ragged with retweets, favorite buttons, permalinks and an open-API, so that somebody on the network can do something with it.

Warren Ellis:

What I will say is that, although there is no one future to be predicted or inferred — that the idea of the consensus future is resolutely 20th century and should be put to rest — it’s really nice to see people looking for what’s next again.