On the hunt for equitable models of progress

Over the years, designer and strategist Marcel Schouwenaar (35) has gradually become more and more radical. Initially he made dozens of ‘cool’ IoT applications for SMEs, corporates and startups. Together with business partner Harm van Beek, he is now on a mission to make the world a more equitable place.

When he realized that his industry wasn’t concerned enough about user privacy in general, Schouwenaar felt the need to make a change. Until then, he and Van Beek – with whom he founded design agency The Incredible Machine in 2012 – had been making prototypes for a wide variety of clients for quite some time. ‘Everything we did, revolved around the internet of things (IoT)’, Schouwenaar comments. ‘Researching, experimenting with new technologies and making cool stuff and products.’

It earned them a great deal of work. Because of the virtually unending flow of assignments, they have been able to widely experiment. From a security company tool for locating missing sets of keys to the interactive interior of an optical shop. They would easily make thirty prototypes a year.

NEXT 15/2015/Germany/ Image ©Dan Taylor

Cameras all over

But after a while they stopped doing that. The last drop that caused the bucket to overflow was a potential collaboration with a system integrator that supplied face scanning cameras for an extremely personalized retail experience. ‘All sorts of data was to be analyzed and stored’, Schouwenaar recalls. ‘The system integrator didn’t have any problems with this.’ The Incredible Machine eventually declined the assignment.

In a broader perspective, Schouwenaar noticed that data ownership raised severe issues on discrimination, exploitation and manipulation. He wasn’t alone in having problems with this, it soon turned out. Not long thereafter, the first ever IoT manifesto was created together with Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken, Frolic Studio and Delft University of Technology. It consists of ten basic principles for the responsible design and development of IoT applications. They presented the manifesto at the 2015 ThingsCon conference in Berlin. ‘With this manifesto we repositioned ourselves’, Schouwenaar says in retrospect. ‘We were no longer the company that only made cool stuff.’ Their focused shifted towards helping companies to design and implement responsible technology.

Responsible

They have been working on this topic for about three years now. Their client portfolio is quite impressive and includes companies such as: Lego, Lego Education, Zodiac Aerospace, Festool, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alliander, ElaadNL. As far as Schouwenaar is concerned, these are all companies looking for ways to use technology in a more responsible manner. The Incredible Machine is researching, for example, how Lego can use tech to create new, interesting playful experiences. They also have been experimenting with blockchain in a project called Fairbike. It’s a concept for a decentralized, autonomous bike sharing model as a very local alternative to big bike rental companies flooding cities worldwide.

Another recent project is the Transparent Charging Station, which won a 2018 Dutch Design Award. It’s an experiment to demonstrate what happens if smart city algorithms, like the smart charging of electric cars, are transparent to everyone. Schouwenaar: ‘It makes people think about what happens when algorithms give others a different treatment, in order to achieve a certain goal. In this case, an optimal use of the available energy.’

The Equitable Project

This summer, the entrepreneur wants to take it one step further. With Van Beek and two others, he’s planning to reinvent the ownership of real estate. It is part of their bigger objective to pave the way for a more honest, inclusive economy: The Equitable Project. ‘We have organized our current economy in such a way that only that what goes fastest, survives. While soft intentions usually do not’, he argues. ‘It is important that a bigger group of people is able to do some prosperity-building.’

The housing market is bothering him especially. He sees it as a prominent example of unequal wealth distribution, and wants to change this. Schouwenaar (a homeowner) clarifies his motives by comparing himself to co-founder Van Beek (a tenant). ‘Each year I earn a lot more than him because my house is – so to speak – working for me. I save up every month, while he flushes money down the drain.’ Schouwenaar wants tenants to become owners of the houses they rent.

Tenants become shareholders

To get the job done, Schouwenaar and Van Beek are working together with a team of co-founders, a.o. Gijsbert Koren. As of June 1st, the group will spend eighty percent of their workweek on the project. The basic idea for their startup, called House.coop, is to buy real estate with the help of investors, starting off with a small housing portfolio in the neighborhood Bospolder-Tussendijken. These will all become part of a yet to be established housing cooperative, which will hopefully eventually attract tenants. By paying rent, they become co-owners of this newly formed organization. Like buying shares from a company. Technology will be used to organize and manage House.coop in order to create a replicable and ‘equitable model of progress’.

The stakes are high, since the housing market is greatly overheated. Also, it presents many risks. ‘We don’t promise those typical real estate returns on investments’, says Schouwenaar. ‘There is also no benefit from mortgage interest reduction.’ This is probably going to scare off a lot of potential investors, he thinks. But he isn’t worried. Currently, the small team is having talks with several interested parties, from housing corporations and the municipality to investors and banks.

Equal opportunities

Schouwenaar has big plans. Besides housing, he also wants to start a project aimed at the labor market. Especially the generally opaque organized application processes of companies concern him. ‘The fact that there are still no equal opportunities for applicants is problematic’, he says. According to Schouwenaar, making these processes transparent should actually be a ‘no brainer’ to organizations. The same applies to certifying them.

The team’s third future venture is able to build on the idea of the Transparent Charging Station, which until now has only been implemented as a gimmick/game. According to Schouwenaar, this project is about much more than just charging electric vehicles in a prioritized manor. ‘We want to further explore the question of how to safeguard democracy in both technology and smart cities. What if we automate all kinds of processes? What values do we want to incorporate and how do we control this?’ The first Dutch city to install a real transparent charging station, will be announced later this year. It is going to be a small scale pilot.

Strategic advice

In the future, the entrepreneur would prefer to act more and more as a strategic advisor to (local) authorities. Forever leaving behind The Incredible Machine’s former image of creator of funny, high-tech prototypes and products. The company has clearly grown up. ‘Overall, many optimizations are possible. But it is always at the expense of something’, Schouwenaar concludes. ‘That’s why we really need to think carefully about the consequences technology can have.’