Negotiating New Business Models and Culture in an Age of Connected Machines

Jen van der MeerBusiness Model Practice

Negotiating New Business Models, Ethics, and Culture in an Age of Connected Machines  

This is the first in a four-part series.

What do these recent events have in common:

In all of these cases, connected devices are reshaping business models. These new models are in turn shaping the cultural expectations for what we expect of the things in our lives. We used to just think of things as we bought, owned, controlled. Things that were silent. Things that didn’t talk back. Things that didn’t keep a record of everything we say and do.

But now these things are things of the internet. The concept of the internet of things, #IoT, is misleading. It sounds like we’re still in charge of these things, who now are connected to the internet. Instead, the nature of these newly connected device business models questions the nature of ownership, access, and who’s in charge.

We change the business model first, without thoughtful intention for how these connected things change our lives.

How do we expect the things in our lives to behave?

In this first post, let’s take a look the Police Body Cam, and how this connected device business model and how new behaviors shape our ethical understanding of people and things.

Police Body Cameras brought to you by Taser

The business model pitch: give police departments free body cameras. We’ll collect the largest dataset in policing to create and own the digital evidence market. Freemium devices meet data-as-a-service.

Taser is changing their corporate name to Axon, which will continue to sell Tasers under the Taser brand, but is reinvesting cash to become a software and data company. The freemium camera product is an opportunity to sell “evidence seats” within their growing services: Evidence.com, records management, fleet services. Axon found that the adoption of their body cameras was slowed down by inertia and regulatory issues. They are offering the camera for free, for one year, including infrastructure to handle the footage and online training.

The customer experience: the promise of the body cams is not just the opportunity for evidence collection. The founder and CEO Rick Smith  told Techcrunch that the real opportunity is in reducing dreaded desk work. “Cops spend two-thirds of their time as a data entry clerk,” Smith said. “And when it comes down to it, no one trusts those reports anyway! We have much better information coming from the camera. It contains everything you would put in the report.“ “We believe we can cut that bureaucratic load, and if we can do that, we’ll effectively triple the world’s police force.”

The cultural implications:  The rise in body cams was in part fueled by controversial police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, and was proposed as a way to hold police accountable. Michael Brown’s family campaigned for every police officer wear a body camera after a grand jury acquitted the police officer who shot their son.

Yet the cameras are on the cops, facing us. “The reality here is that the camera is not pointed at the police. It’s pointed at the public,” Malkia Cyril, Director of the Center For Media Justice told The Verge. Local NYC community groups have protested a recent plan to start a bodycam pilot program. “Structurally, it provides mechanisms to protect abusive police officers and not the public,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director for Communities United for Police Reform, as reported in at PoliceOne.

We can look to philosophers from two centuries ago and futurists to describe the cultural conundrum of today. In 1838, philosopher Jeremy Bentham imagined the Panopticon: a system of perpetual surveillance. Bentham imagined changing the architecture of prisons, schools, factories, and hospitals. How it works: in a central tower the watchman can turn and view everyone in their cells.

Panopticon

In 1975, Francis Foucault described the asymmetrical power dynamic of the Panopticon. For the prisoner, “he is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.”

Jump forward 40 years + later and the panopticon is present in nanny cams, NSA data surveillance, security cameras, and CCTVs.  But the advent of handheld video cameras and cellphone cameras happened. From Rodney King to Philando Castile, bystander videos turned the cameras on power itself, filming police action and killing for all to see.

Futurist Jamais Cascio described this multi-way surveillance the Participatory Panopticon. In 2005 he envisioned a world where “what we see, hear, and experience will be recorded wherever we go… We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.”

From Culture back to Business Model

There is no evidence of senior executives of Taser / Axon referencing Bentham or Foucault. The cultural implications of the free body cam pose new questions for our growing panopticon. The business model choice to give the cams away for free is significant: for shareholders and citizens.

To be sure, not all shareholders are buying the business model story. this shift which involved a huge increase in R&D spend and a potentially long and expensive path to breakeven. Gary Milne penned a warning at Seeking Alpha, saying the company was, in fact, building a hugely sticky product with a competitive moat, but that with poor expense management Axon keeps pushing out the horizon of return for the long-term investor. The recent choice to give cameras away for free only extends that horizon.

Nor are all police departments. Taser / Axon failed to win the NYPD’s open bidding process for a pilot program of body cameras. After Mayor Bill de Blasio prohibited “stop-and-frisk” procedures by the NYPD, he then promised that every NYC officer on patrol would be outfitted with a body camera by 2019. Taser / Axon lost the most recent bid for a pilot program of body cameras, which went to Vievu, a startup. Vievu promised more stringent, encrypted and secure cloud storage of evidence, outside of the confines of the NYPD. 

In NYC, the choice of startup Vievu has not mollified community activists, who continue to ask tough questions about the technology, methods, procedures, and implications through legal opposition.

The freemium device move from Taser / Axon is a move aiming to disrupt the disruptor from within. These business model moves between Vievu and Taser / Axon pose new questions. If digital evidence data is stored outside of government in private company clouds, who owns that data? Who can access that data? Who pays each time evidence is subpoenaed from law enforcement, the courts, or requested by citizens?

In sum, connected devices will change how we connect, communicate, govern, and live.

The business model choices we make have inherent cultural implications.

Companies with foresight will need to think several steps ahead in their business model moves. The desired to give the hardware away today may prompt strong community and activist responses regarding data ownership and access. As Facebook struggles to govern violence footage on Facebook Live, how will companies like Taser / Axon and Vievu respond to public criticism of digital evidence gathering?

How are you planning ahead in your business model moves? Is there a cultural shift that implicates your business model innovation process? What foresight or sensemaking activities do you practice as a company to understand these cultural shifts? We’re curious to hear your thoughts.

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