Background story

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Five years ago the Dutch research organization TNO, started working on a new type of app store. They called it ‘Transient Apps’. At first, the project was fuelled with the ambition to become the antidote to the ‘app jungle’ on our smartphones that Google and Apple created with their app-store based distribution model. The small team within TNO was trying to tackle the problem that scientist identified as ‘ineffective human decision-making caused by choice overload in the digital age’.

In our, evolutionary-speaking, ‘abrupt’ switch from an analog world to a digital world, our cognitive ability to make decisions based on limited available information in the offline age, is still adjusting to the unlimited amount of available information in the online age. In that transition, people often experience ‘choice overload’ which influences our ability to make effective decisions. The hypothesis of the TNO-team was that our smartphones had become a huge source for people to experience choice overload because of the number of apps available for any given situation.

They believed our smartphones have the potential to become a tool to help us limit our choices and make better decisions by automating app distribution based on the physical context a person is in. Their solution: the Context Engine. It’s an algorithm that can predict what kind of information and functionality is relevant for a user’s physical context and facilitates an infrastructure to distribute the needed software programs to a user’s smartphone seamless and in real-time in the form of lightweight web applications. Depending on the real-life situation you are in, it made the right apps available for you. 

The prototype of the Context Engine was promising and had a successful first test. However, the research showed it was very unlikely that the algorithm would be allowed or supported by the app stores for IOS and Android. Moreover, Google and Apple also introduced similar ideas with Google’s ‘Instant Apps’ and Apple’s push for ‘Progressive Web Apps’. It was 2016 and it was clear that the project was on a dead-end, unless they found a way to pivot. This was the point I joined the TNO team as an entrepreneur who was engaged in the endeavour to create his third startup ‘LiVE!: connecting you with Life’. I was intrigued by the core idea of the Transient App project that our environment could help determine what is relevant for us and what is not. My big idea was to create a social network that would connect people to the live events they were visiting. One app for all your live-event experiences. People would get all needed functionality if they were at the event. I have always been driven by ideas that could cause people to come together. In the end I just truly believe that the key is to make people meet, talk, discuss, dance, work and help. On our streets. Where we should have trust. There is where we stay or become human. At first I tried by enhancing the experience itself. It turned out it is more about causing the experience to happen. The three years that would follow, with the insights I would gain from working together with a talented group of people, let me to that conclusion.  

The pivot was not that easy though. Most of all because the new media landscape was changing rapidly and issues about our privacy, personal data and the trustworthiness of media, exposed a bigger and deeper-rooted set of problems in our online world that are causing real and lasting problems in our physical world. The team didn’t just want to make another social network that was built upon those same set of problems. We wanted to tackle one of those deeper-rooted problems and be independent of the developments of the tech giants. We wanted to create our own frontier, where we could set our own rules. Oddly enough, we found this new frontier in our near, immediate world. We analyzed that one thing most technology providers had in common is that they all are making products and services that are connecting individuals with a service in the online world. We figured we’d imagine a social network that does the opposite: one that connects groups of people with their immediate world around them, with the moment wherein they share time and space together. Where ‘traditional’ social media stimulates human interaction in the online world, we would stimulate human interaction and encourage dialogue and the exchange of ideas, in our own communities, on our own streets. We pivoted from ‘transient apps’ to ‘transient social networks’. 

A transient social network (TSN) is a community of users with mobile devices engaging in social activities of common interest within a specific temporal and geographical locality.” -

Lateef Yusuf, Umakishore Ramachandran, School of computer science, Georgia Institute of Technology. 

In 2017 new research started. Seven Dutch business organizations joined and would function as potential clients and would supply us with feedback and input as we pushed forward with the research. The project was dubbed ‘Onlive: the social network for the real world’. The goal of this research was to answer the five most challenging research questions related to the feasibility of the technical and business case. When possible, a Minimal Viable Product would be the end result. The context engine got a new role. Instead of determining what functionality was relevant for a user at any given moment, it now determines what groups are relevant for a user in a certain physical context. Each group is a Transient Social Network where group members have access to the same group-specific web apps that we dubbed ‘plugins. What plugins are available in each group depends on the purpose of the group. In essence, what changed was that transient apps would determine what functionalities are relevant to people, while Onlive just determines (and creates) the relevant groups and let the group itself determine what functionality is relevant for the group. As the research progressed and we working on User Experience Design, all the abstract ideas and code finally got a face. When we looked at it we realized we designed an operating system (OS) for groups of people to interact with their immediate physical world and most of all, with each other. An OS that connects you with the people, organizations, and technologies around you in real-time, offering relevant information and functionality for almost any conceivable situation. Our project resulted in a prototype application for Android, a solid back-end architecture, an UX design and a thorough research report on our findings. 

In the beginning of 2019 the research was concluded. Now it was up to me to take this project to the next phase: creating a Minimal Viable Product (MVP), find the funding and set up a startup. The thing is, founding a startup might be considered the ‘logical’ next step, but is it the ‘best’ step? I think this new type of OS is something special, and has the potential to offer needed counterweight against the dominance of traditional social networks and their effects on our societal structures. Moreover, I grew more and more receptive to the scientific call for a fundamental system change if we want to rise up to the environmental challenges that are storming at us. I felt that Onlive might be able to contribute to one of the thousands of solutions that are needed in that queste. From that point on I knew that the question of how to create Onlive, was maybe even more important than what Onlive could become.  

That's why I designed a new type of business that I call the Smartup. In a Smartup we can own, create and govern technologies like Onlive, in a self-sustainable online community where people can work together and nurture the best ideas to best versions of themselves. It uses the passion, knowledge, and will to work for open-source principles combined with democratic structures to create the best circumstances for a technology to come in the life of people. A Smartup makes sure a technology becomes the best version of itself. It serves the need of the people and the planet, instead of shareholders’ bank accounts.

The result is Smartup Zero: a blueprint for disruption.