Wearable technologies, smart and electronic textiles have become a nascent market in recent years. These disruptive technologies open up new possibilities, notably for interdisciplinary collaborations between technology companies with artists/designers with technologists. These collaborations will further develop this market in new exciting directions, by integrating wearable technologies and smart textiles into fashion items or/and everyday clothing.
At the core of the market for wearable technology is the amount of data that wearable technology companies are allowed to collect, in particular over their users’ personal data. Numerous technology companies and startups are working to make the next wearable device or application for body data tracking. The design focus is to connect multiple sensors and apps on the body for a more integrated view of the data (as happens currently between data collected by trackers and corresponding smartphones), called a Body-Area Network of wearable devices, connected with the ‘Internet of Things’, such as smart home appliances to provide a seamless network of humans and things across the internet. A trend for service-based packages that can be observed, which includes wearable technology products, data collection, as well as data analysis and evaluation (Servicefactory Adidas, etc.).
The development of wearable technology will further increase the quantity and the diversity of this data. Currently, wearable technology collects user’s personal (physiological) data, most commonly through medical or fitness monitoring. Technology are becoming more efficient, accurate, and personalised. Hardware becomes smaller, less visible, more connected and the collected data more seamless and ubiquitous. The wearable technology companies own users’ physiological data, collected via mobile apps and devices, with the ability to perform any kind of operations on it, such as analyse it, interpret it, or sell it, without user consent.
This current technology fervour over wearable technology raises important ethical issues concerning the lack of privacy, and corporate ownership of personal data for consumerist agendas. At the core of the wearables business are the devices and applications that collect a growing amount of personal body data. This raises important issues, various in nature: ethical (concerning the lack of privacy, and corporate ownership of personal data for consumerist agendas), but also environmental, sustainability, and aesthetic.
Aside privacy issues, there are significant ethical issues around social, environmental, labour, and supply chain concerns in the fashion and technology industries. WEAR Sustain hopes to contribute to the European Commission’s sustainable strategy which may include ethical employment of labour, workshops for embedding electronics ethically, sourcing locally made components, recycling and/or upcycling of both non-electronic and electronic parts, avoiding waste by fabricating made-to-measure wearables using CAM technology, economical application of new materials, as well as careful separation of new and traditional materials, lifespan considerations of wearables, with a strategy for recycling or disposal, using a modular system of wearable hardware that not only ensures that the garment/device can be worn longer and be washed, but also that electronic technology and carrier material can be separated once one of them outlives the other. Only recently some of these issues have been started to be investigated, either with the aim to optimise customised wearable technology using Computer-aided-manufacturing (CAM) technology, or to engage with recycling using creative practice.
It is timely and urgent that critical questions on the use and deployment of the devices are raised, in a variety of ways, and that their users become more aware and educated about the critical side of developing wearable technologies, electronic textiles and smart fashion, as well as the related dimensions of aesthetics, sustainability, and environmental impacts. By building this knowledge, users can better understand and articulate their rights to access, own, explore, and use their body data, and play a more active role in interpreting or reinterpreting this data, however they choose, which is presently not impossible but not easy. From a strict business point of view, improving awareness of privacy issues would also encourage consumers to use the products more often.
Fairfone (http://www.fairphone.com) is a groundbreaking Dutch example of an ethical electronics project. While not a wearables project, it sets the bar for an electronics company in Europe putting their ethics into practice, which can be a guide to all in the technology industry as to what to be aiming for.
The story behind WEAR Sustain comes from a much deeper motivation from the consortium partners, each being motivated by a passion about changing the way industry, especially the electronics and technology industry and supply-chain, but also the fashion and textiles industries, and how they make their products. We all want to help to stop harming the environment, surveilling on customers and users, and want generally contribute to better ways of doing things for the benefit of society. What drives those of us who initiated WEAR Sustain is: to contribute to innovation with a purpose, with a soul and aim to build a network of like-minded pioneers.
WEAR Sustain has its lineage in another EU project some of the current partners, Camille Baker and Rachel Lasebikan worked on another EU project called FET-Art (a project focussed on bringing artists and technologists together to make new artworks and innovations), and its umbrella initiative ICT Art Connect, which was a follow up study for FET-Art. imec (then iMinds) was a partner in the ICT Art Connect STUDY project. The follow-on projects, initiated by the European Commission’s (ICT) department DG-Connect, are the STARTS Prize and the VERTIGO project. The Creative Ring is another associated EU project that is working closely with the WEAR projects that two of our partners are also involved in to support our activities in Europe. More on the project and partners can be found at wearsustain.eu/consortium-partners.