NetGain paper on society, philanthropy and the Internet of Things

This is an except from a paper I wrote with Mozilla’s Mark Surman about the Internet of Things, as part of the Netgain partnership with the foundations Ford, Knight, MacArthur, and Open Society.

The Internet of Things (IoT) describes an emerging global network connecting everything around us: from what we wear to the homes we live in. It encompasses everyday objects as well as complex, connected systems in cities and industries—a world of ubiquitous computing and data.

By 2020, there will be nearly 30 billion connected devices—five times the number of mobile phone connections. Even more importantly, IoT is intricately linked to big data and the rise of decision-making by artificial intelligence and algorithms. Many of society’s digital issues will be amplified with the advent of IoT and these related developments.

NetGain is a partnership of philanthropic foundations seeking to strengthen digital society and advance the public interest. Its members include Ford, Knight, Mozilla, MacArthur, and Open Society, who are committed to tackling challenges and harnessing the opportunities of the Internet age.

In 2015, NetGain focused on strengthening the emerging field of public interest technology. Our goal was to increase the number of people around the world who are using their technological skills to advance the common good. In 2016, we want to understand the public interest issues that arise with IoT, and what philanthropy can do about it.

To this end, we identified five interrelated opportunities and challenges which are explored in this paper and in the NetGain partnership this year:


  • Savings and efficiency
  • Improving public services
  • Enabling citizens with data
  • Democratizing product development
  • Growing the movement for ‘open’


  • Eroding personal privacy
  • Surveillance at a global scale
  • Inequity and reinforcing social divides
  • Threats to safety and security
  • Centralization and monopolies

NetGain is examining these issues from the principles of openness, security and equity, established by the partnership in 2015. Our activities will include events with activists and experts, in-depth discussion papers, and small catalytic grants. This paper provides intellectual foundation and additional context to these actions. We hope the NetGain partnership can contribute to a broad public conversation about the role of IoT in our society and increase investment in IoT-related activities that serve the public interest.

Read the full report.

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