On the potential

(Talk given on March 11th in India at the BusinessWorld IOT Expo.)

I’ve had a lot of friends join large organisations as employees. One of the reasons they cite is often ‘there’s so much potential’ because the brand / business is large, important or global. I always grin.

Since the world of business and technology started taking the internet of things seriously (the Google acquisition of Nest in Jan 2014) it’s very easy to get excited but also complacent about ‘the potential’. We think we can see the potential by extrapolating how we have worked in the past, a convenient future for ourselves.

We think the internet of things sounds like a good idea because in the world of business and technology, we know things (industrial assets, infrastructure, consumer goods) and we also know the internet (infrastructure & services). So we think that the internet of things sounds like a mashup of the two. Like all you have to do is stick the internet on ‘it’. Whatever ‘it’ might be. Indiscriminately and immediately. Bring the two worlds together seamlessly.

I think the reality is far more difficult, and the so-called ’potential’ very different than what we might initially imagine.

Just as a single employee has to reconcile eventually that whatever the potential of their specific role is, they are one of a great many moving pieces, that they may have competing interests to their team and that their team is controlled by budgets that they don’t have control over. So for the internet of things. Noone is an island in the internet of things. Noone has control of the whole equation and furthermore the dependancies are different than the ones we’re used to. Here are some things we will need to get used to when we think about the potential:

Working across industries, divisions and size.

I just co-curated the Bosch ConnectedExperience which took place this week. An event almost 8 months in the making, this was the opportunity for a smaller division of Bosch namely Bosch Software Innovations to bring people across their entire business to the internet of things table. I helped organise a conference track exposing attendees to the wide landscape of the internet of things and different business units offered free and confidential clinics to attendees no matter what their industry, product or idea. Then 4 business units (cars, power tools, sensors and manufacturing divisions) offered a first taste of their developer-facing tools to a group of attendees. No NDAs, open, sometimes even open source. I would have liked to see more business units get involved across the Bosch business, but it was a strong start. A team formed of a UK-based academic and independant software engineers from Switzerland and Germany who had never worked together and only met that day, within a half a day, figured out how to address a small screen on an industrial screwdriver, a component that Bosch buys from outside the business and didn’t have much information on. Suddenly this small screen became a platform for communication to workers as they perform their task. This is the perfect example of what I call ‘lateral work’. It is about a business having the humility to admit that the best ideas in a world of connected experiences may come from an ad-hoc group of people who don’t even work for them. This is hard, and requires an open and collaborative approach to innovation. It requires a business and its stakeholder to have the humility to seek relationships with a world-wide developer community that won’t want to interact with a large business in traditional ways. That’s the potential.

21st century citizenship and city management

When we talk about the potential of the internet of things, the word things often points the imagination towards consumer goods. Things we have in our homes. But the potential sometimes sits with things that are perhaps a little outside of our homes, things that may bring about the city services of the future. A radical change to public utility and what public good looks like. A new sense of citizenship. Bridges that let us know if there’s a flood coming,  an outdoor air quality sensor we might attach to our balcony, a connected geiger counter we might wear, the ability to charge and access the web from a box that has a solar panel, ordering a tractor on demand, these are all products proposed by startups around the world which challenge the way our city officials engage with us and technology contracts. The potential lies, for India perhaps, in being able to take advantage of its historical independant and entrepreneurial spirit to allow a new relationship with its citizens to grow, using new technologies to educate city stakeholders and locally manufacturing the hardware for eg. India can be a model for the world. That’s the potential.

Making the internet of things for everyone

I hate the word niche, it often implies “not middle class white 20 year old men living in California’. That leaves behind a lot of people. Niche can be great for the internet of things. Starting a small company that sells to thousands of customers is what the world is filled with, it’s called the high street and the markets of our cities. Wouldn’t it be terrific to imagine what the internet of things can do for those high street vendors? How many interesting products could be created because they help solve a hyper-local problem with cheap hardware and cheap-ish connectivity?

The Arduino and Raspberry Pi, 2 open source education platforms, have helped people make 1 to 10 of something, but making even just 500 a quarter of something is still very difficult in some parts of the world and incredibly costly. Many incbuators and accelerators immediately think of China when looking to manufacture products but the minimum orders are so high and the linguisitic barrier discourages many. This could clearly be a win for India if its industry is alined and ready to cater to hundreds of something being made for startups worldwide.

The hidden potential of open source

In September 2012 I helped organise the Open IOT Assembly in London. Attendees from all over the world came up with a series of principles which still now feel aspirational. It was called the Open Internet of Things Definition. I don’t know what the state of conversation around openess in India but we can’t talk about standards and interoperability without wondering if we’re not replicating old industrial conversations. Openess as a general principle can allow lots of interesting interactions between companies and their customers. Openess also implies taking responsability and being transparent about how complex systems are built and in an era where we’re not entirely sure where the meat we eat at the local mcdonalds comes from, well there’s a lot of work still to do. We also can’t shy away from wondering what happens to the hardware we deploy when it breaks down or sits there unused. I’m sure Fitbit know exactly how many of us have stopped exercising. Others are taking these principles of openness on around the world and the closed systems of sensor networks and infrastructure are bound to keep an eye on these new initiaties and look for success stories. That’s the potential again, the ability for someone more nimble to change the mind of someone who isn’t. And that, ultimately is exciting for everyone. Big or small. In India or in Indiana.

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iotwatch

Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London.