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Towards a healthy society

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woman runningSource: iStock/lzf

Recently, the European Commission announced a new funding round for the Horizon 2020 programme, putting aside over €139m for development in the IoT sector. One of the application areas will be wearable technology, and how IoT developments offer opportunities for better healthcare and wellbeing.

Roy van den Heuvel

Roy van den Heuvel received both his Bachelor (2012) and Masters (2014) degree in Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven. The direction of his work focuses around the development of intelligent and interactive products, systems, and services in a societal context. Roy currently works at the Designing Quality in Interaction (DQI) research group in the faculty of Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven on the topic of Participatory Health & Wellbeing.

Currently, we see a surge of “smart”, internet-enabled products intending to make our lives better, more efficient, and healthier. The advances in sensor technology and wireless networking enable us to develop systems that constantly capture data of almost everything. In the case of wearables, these systems can show us how we move, what our heartrate is and if we’re sleeping right. But can these systems really make a difference?

Fitness trackers, health-apps, and connected devices are all the rage at the moment, and while offering enticing features and helpful information, such as step-count, heart-rate measurements and feature-filled home-automation, it’s becoming ever clearer that these technologies will not make the big impact we thought they would. That is because we’re failing to understand that Awareness Does Not Equal Action. Presenting people with data does not automatically mean that they will implement the things they learn from that data.

In the case of fitness trackers, 50% of people stop using them after about 15 months, and one third even after 6 months. And these were people that had fitness trackers in the first place, or where at least interested in them. Even then, most of these devices apparently fail to drive long-term sustained engagement for a majority of users.

This is the primary problem that human-centered IoT and wearable technology need to overcome if we wish to truly make an impact towards society.

"Designing IoT-enabled systems that try to improve health should include methods to understand behavior and to create a sustainable behavioral change."
Roy van den Heuvel

From data to wisdom

To move towards an active and healthy society, we’ll need to take human behavior into account, especially if we look at chronic problems such as obesity and diabetes. Designing IoT-enabled systems that try to improve health should include methods to understand behavior and to create a sustainable behavioral change. To do this, we need to move away from capturing data and towards creating meaning from that data. You can recognize four stages to do this. Data, information, knowledge, and wisdom.

Consider the fitness tracker. It uses an accelerometer to capture movement data. This data is converted into a useful metric, such as steps. This is information you can use. What you do with this information and how you can derive value from it is knowledge; it takes into account the temporal, social and cultural aspects that enable you to apply the information in the context that suits you. This knowledge can then be used to form a lifelong view towards your personal health; how you can adapt your behavior to sustain a healthy lifestyle and create routine. This wisdom can transcend the initial device that triggered the behavioral change.

Dealing with these global societal issues

More insights

  • Ledger, Dan, and D. McCaffrey. “Inside wearables: how the science of human behavior change offers the secret to long-term engagement,” Endeavour Partners: Cambridge, MA, USA (2014).
  • Peeters, Michel, and Megens, Carl. “Experiential design landscapes: how to design for behaviour change, towards an active lifestyle,” Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, NL (2014).
  • Desmet, P., & Pohlmeyer, A. “Positive Design: An Introduction to Design for Subjective Well-Being,” International Journal of Design [Online] 7:3. (Nov 27, 2013).

To start embedding complex human behavior in technology development, we’ll need to realize that disruptive innovation through complex interactive and intelligent systems requires thinking about the “why” (human values, “wisdom”) rather than the “what” (technological means).

In their publication “Experiential design landscapes: how to design for behaviour change, towards an active lifestyle”, Carl Megens and Michel Peeters describe a design methodology that follows a research-through-design approach which generates knowledge through the act of designing. The method, called Experiental Design Landscapes, is an approach towards bottom-up innovation where the design process allows people to embed their behavior into “an experienceable proposition”. It’s based on the notion that human behavioral is not a moment in time and that designing for it requires a longitudinal process. By letting these prototypes learn from the behavior of their users through an open, networked and sensor-enhanced (often IoT-inspired) system, data patterns emerge that engineers and designers can use as a source of inspiration for the development of future systems. This inspiration then forms the basis of a product service system that complements a user’s behavior, instead of replacing it.

In the creation of systems that try to implement a sustainable behavioral change, we also must take into account the way the system is experienced and interacted with. In Pieter Desmet and Anna Pohlmeyer’s research at the Institute of Positive Design (TU Delft), they explain an interesting approach called Positive Design in which they address the question of how design can contribute to the happiness of individuals – to their subjective well-being. They discuss the importance of pleasure (evoke positive feelings, reduce negative feelings), personal significance (goals & aspirations) and virtue (“Am I behaving honorably?”). If we’re building rich, sensor-enhanced environments or intelligent products, we must think about the human values we design for; we must think on how we let people flourish.

As engineers, developers and designers we have responsibility towards society; what we build affects us all. It is therefore important to consider that the systems we create are not merely trying to solve a short-term problem. We must also look at long-term, fundamental problems and offer people opportunities to change their behavior themselves.

What future are you building?

The world of IoT, big data and the connected world is ultimately a human one, one where we should strive for meaningful innovation, for a healthy lifestyle and human flourishing. I ask you to reflect on this and ask yourself: What can we do to really build an intelligent, sustainable, and socially relevant product?

More on consumer IoT

Odometer fraud no longer: The Bosch IoT Lab is exploring if blockchain can help build trust in car data.

How do you revolutionize urban traffic? COUP with its connected eScooter might have an answer to this question.

With the help of the IoT we made eating lunch at the Bosch canteen in Singapore more comfortable.

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