Internet of Things & Design Thinking Pave the Way to Digital Literacy

By Walter Knitl and Nilufer Erdebil

We now live in a digital world, immersed in lakes and rivers of digital information not just generated by humans but also by bots and other autonomous systems. This is made possible by a wide range of exponentially advancing technologies such as AI and ever-increasing digital connectivity and Internet capacity.

As if that wasn’t enough, the situation is compounded by the digitalization of the physical world through the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT pushes the info rivers and lakes into digital tsunamis by hugely adding to the number of data generators, the volume of data, and types of data.

This exponential advancement in digital technologies and information is not matched by advancements in digital literacy in different quarters of society, economy, and governance. Lagging digital literacy not only prevents us from fully reaping the benefits of these advancements, but it also stifles the de-risking of their negative impacts. Often, it’s a case of not knowing what we don’t know, and what questions to ask. 

What is Digital Literacy Anyway?


To better understand Digital Literacy, it’s useful to first look at literacy in general. Being literate means, you have the ability to know, understand, and use information toward a desired end.

Knowing means having access to information or data, and the ability to decode its symbols (letters, words, acronyms) to form and retain mental dictionaries of individual concepts and meanings. It includes the ability, through thought, to remember, identify, and access them.

Understanding means having the ability to find patterns, associations, and comparisons between point concepts and meanings. It includes the ability to critically analyze, interpret, gain insights and infer consequences and conclusions from information.

Using information, more precisely using the understandings from information, toward a desired goal can take many forms. It could be innovating or creating new value in the form of products or services. It could be synthesizing and deriving new information and higher-order knowledge. Or, it could be making more informed decisions, policies, and processes by evaluating the relative merits of diverse knowledge and understandings.

Digital Literacy includes the above aspects of literacy applied to the Digital – the digital technologies and information we are immersed in. And, that involves just about everything except for our direct human bodily senses. It includes human-generated information in the form of e-books, blogs, videos, podcasts, social media, email, and other. It includes computer generated information from bots, games, UX interactions, and autonomous systems. And now it also includes information about the physical world manifested through the Internet of Things. IoT extends the legacy Human-Compute digital paradigm into the Human-Compute-Physical or the Cyberphysical paradigm.

While Digital Literacy in many quarters also envelops skills needed to use digital-era tools and applications, the critical aspect for business leaders and policymakers is knowing about and understanding Digital in its various dimensions. It means attaining intuition about digital technology, its capabilities, drawbacks, and impacts to be able to drive or protect business or develop informed governance.

Knowing and Understanding the Internet of Things, coupled with Design Thinking to facilitate Using, is an important path toward overall digital literacy.

Internet of Things – Knowing and Understanding Digital

The Internet of Things paradigm is an extension of the Internet, which newly interconnects Things (devices), analytics, control, applications, autonomous systems, and humans over a common communications infrastructure. It increasingly underpins economic activity and societal function, creating economic value across a spectrum of verticals, such as connected transportation, connected manufacturing, wearables, drones, smart cities, smart buildings, and other.

IoT is digital end-to-end and greatly overlaps with the overall digital space. As such, it largely uses and leverages the common underlying digital technologies and infrastructure, including analytics, AI, Internet connectivity, algorithms, cloud and other. It also shares the impacts of the broader digital space, including efficiency and convenience benefits, as well as privacy, cybersecurity, and human agency concerns, to name a few.

There are, however, important distinctions between IoT and the rest of the digital space – stemming from the inclusion of Things. For example, at a very personal level, IoT augments our bodily senses with greater information about the world and extends and amplifies our motor capacity within it. That alone presents greater bodily risks from potential malfunction or malice. IoT also breaks the default notion of having only inanimate objects in our physical environment over which we have direct control. Because IoT extends and distributes computation and algorithms into devices (or the edge), our physical environment is becoming animated almost as a default. Whatever concerns there are around cybersecurity, privacy, and AI-based autonomy around current relatively centralized autonomous systems or personal devices, these are significantly amplified by IoT. IoT offers a greatly expanded surface for launching cyber attacks and autonomous behaviour. In addition, new technologies such as 5G networks are needed by more demanding and stringent performance needs of devices, compared to human-generated information.

Digital literacy that only includes human-generated information and centralized autonomous systems is not sufficient to deal with the new reality that IoT brings to the digital space. Conversely, by knowing and understanding the Internet of Things from the start, the broader digital literacy is also attained due to the technology and effects commonality with IoT.

Design Thinking – Using and Understanding Digital


The Knowing and Understanding abilities are necessary but not sufficient for digital literacy. The ability to purposefully Use them to solve challenges with people at the center makes literacy whole. But, simply creating digital products, services, or policies without knowing the people’s real needs and challenges is unlikely to have them used or adopted, diminishing their value. We need a way to ensure the attained knowledge and understandings are usefully applied. This is where Design Thinking steps in.

Design Thinking gets at who will use digital and how they will benefit from it. It’s a journey that takes us from Empathizing and Defining real needs, through Ideating and Prototyping solutions and Testing their use. As creators of digital products and services we don’t always know, nor can foretell how they will be used, so it’s important to take users along for the journey. Only by incorporating diverse perspectives of user needs and testing the prototypes can we ensure the usefulness of the attained knowledge and understandings to ultimately fulfill digital literacy.

Design Thinking is not restricted to product and services solutions. It is equally important for making use of attained digital knowledge and understandings for developing digital governance, and economic and social policies while involving citizens and industry along the way.

It is also part of how we can de-risk challenges around digital literacy and IoT. By understanding the challenges better and the people involved in the challenge, we can co-create solutions with the end users. The outcome of applying Design Thinking to IoT challenges will be to drive or protect business, and develop informed governance and policies

In addition, applying the Design Thinking process to different digital use cases further bolsters our understanding of the Digital, consequently increasing our literacy. Also, Design Thinking naturally elicits information on human needs and requirements as part of its process, again adding to the Knowledge aspect of literacy.

Summing Up


Digital Literacy – Knowing, Understanding, and Using Digital – is key to growth, governance, and relevance in today’s age of exponential digital advancement. The Internet of Things, while hugely overlapping the overall digital space, also presents one of the largest and fundamental digital literacy challenges. At the same time, Design Thinking is an important method for innovating, de-risking, and creating solutions. Digital Literacy is greatly advanced by Knowing and Understanding IoT, in combination with Design Thinking for Using the attained knowledge and understanding – ultimately enabling growth, governance, and relevance.

About Authors:


Nilufer Erdebil – CEO at Spring2 Innovation

Nilufer is the award-winning founder of Spring2Innovation and a leading innovation and design thinking consultant experienced in telecommunications, application development, project management & information technology management.  Her firm focuses on strategy and vision development, design thinking, creating and managing innovation programs, and change management.

Walter Knitl – CEO at Praxiem, Chief Business Development Officer at IoT613

Walter is founder and consultant at Praxiem, empowering organizations to discover and deliver the right product to market, leveraging his extensive technology Product Management and Product Development experience. He is also a co-founder at IoT613, enabling the IoT community to learn, interact, and connect, including at the IoT613 Conference.

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