An Internet of Narrative, Making Sense of the IoT
Presentation by Marcel Mauer at the Vision Olympia Conference in London on the Internet of Things and the future of the Built Environment.
First question, where is the IoT coming from?
The IoT is the result of the combined development of hardware, software and networks. The story starts a long time ago. Ahead of the US 1890 census some statistics experts in Washington realised that the human powered processing of census data would have taken 13 years – not a particularly timely delivery given the fact that the next census was pencilled in for 1900, only 10 years away. At that point an American inventor called Herman Hollerith came up with the electromechanical punched card tabulator, which automated the reading of census data and marked the beginning of modern IT along with data driven license based monopolies. The Tabulating-Recording Company founded by Hollerith is known today as IBM and the stronghold on data management is as tough today as it was at the end of the 19th Century.
Why is IT archaeology relevant for the current IoT debate?
Because history repeats itself. Hollerith never sold machines nor technology to the US Government, until he was legally forced to, but instead he offered the data management service on a pricey lease, made commercially feasible due to the total lack of competitors. Now, this should ring familiar, doesn’t it? Moving swiftly along, we shall skip through two world wars and land softly in the roaring fifties when packet networking began to be tested in the US, UK and France. It was only in the 1960s that the ARPANET, the grandfather of the Internet, was awarded as a piece of public tender procurement by the US Ministry of Defence. A number of different communications protocols were tested during the 1960s and 1970s until the familiar Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP protocol) was introduced as the standard for ARPANET. Well before the military experiment was decommissioned in the 1990s, commercial traffic was already a reality, largely thank to the work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee on linked hypertexts and the fast paced development of the World Wide Web.
Why did the WWW grow so rapidly?
Because it was simple. A clear set of standards and an accessible language. This is the reason why it grew so quickly. Starting from static linked hypertexts, the internet began to offer fertile grounds for the blossoming of other and more intuitive forms of data exchange such as near-instant communications, emails, messaging, VoIP, video calls, social networks, e-commerce and m-commerce. As the network grew in bandwidth, diffusion and speed another equally important evolution moved fast forward. The one of processors. The 1950s saw the emergence of a number of alternative numerical processing systems exploring the potential and issues of base-10, base-3 until the breakthrough of binary codes, which are common today. Next the industry figured out how to make programmes built for one machine also able to work on other machines, with drastic reduction of start up costs and longer lasting relationships between customers and manufacturers. Finally in the 1970s microprocessors made their first entrance. Minicomputer-like processors were embedded in terminals, printers, cash registers and industrial robots and applications went as far as missiles cruise control. The Intel 8080 was the first widespread microprocessors and it was released in April 1974.
From that moment the story goes on with relentless chase of improved performance, smaller memory requirements, multi/threading and multi cores. Smaller processors allow more and more mobile devices to be embedded with computational capacity. The key ingredients of the Internet of Things are mainly these: distributed computation, affordable sensor technology and heaps of information packets running smoothly on radio frequency networks through RFID, Bluetooth and Local Area Network LAN. Ideally the system should retain the same simplicity of the WWW.
What is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things is nothing more than the entirety of devices connected and communicating to each other through the Internet. The term ‘IoT’ was first used by Kevin Ashton in 1999 when referring to a global network of objects connected to radio frequency identification (or RFID). The IoT is often mentioned along other cyber/physical systems such as Smart Homes, Smart Grids, Intelligent Transport Systems and Smart Cities. The larger group of system monitoring technologies also make use of the same technologies as IoT although the specific use of sensors and actuators in the IoT makes it possible for the devices to affect the system through M2M protocols as well as to monitor the system’s performance.
In 2008 ‘things’ have exceeded humans in terms of number of connections. As we speak there are as many as 5 billion connected things, 1.5 billion of which are just smartphones. Gartner predicts that there will be 26 billion IoT devices installed in 2020. One of the most impressive acquisition in the Internet of Things history is the $3.2 billion snatch of Nest Labs – the famous smart thermostat company – by Google. Last year the market for wearable devices has grown 223% with Fitbit and Apple Watches leading sales at 4.4million and 3.6million transactions. The market for RFID is expected to almost double between now and 2020. China and the US are expected to lead in terms of M2M market. CISCO believes that the IoT could generate something in the region of $4.6 trillion over the next 10 years for the public sector and over $14 trillion for the private sector.
By 2020 250 million vehicles will be connected reducing costs and increasing accessibility of automated driving services.
And also make cabbies redundant.
The case for the IoT is compelling to say the least. In 2006 Ashton explained that “if we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things – using data they gathered without any help from us – they would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.” Your phone GPS signal can talk to your microwave, fridge, thermostat whilst marketing web cookies and traffic control sensors monitor your latitude and longitude in real time. The flash flood sensor system can talk to the traffic lights system avoiding the flow of vehicles and pedestrians in affected areas before the flood reaches critical height… and so on and so forth. M2B and M2M protocols can create real time data banks of system performance and system to system optimisation. The sky is the limit… I am sure that somewhere on the Internet it is possible to find IoT toilets that talk to your GP (imagine if your health insurance provider got hold of the data stream)! When it comes to the IoT, the list of staggering stats and jaw dropping figures is endless and not too hard to build. Perhaps, a more tricky and interesting question would be:
What is the narrative of IoT?
None, is my personal opinion. We understand that the IoT has tremendous potential for improving efficiency and reducing waste and that it offers a great opportunity to share the savings between demand and supply sides of the market. It has also a tremendous potential to demolish free will and privacy for good. What narrative should we follow to ensure the best possible outcome for the IoT? If we look at Sci-Fi literature and films for inspiration, I would tend to argue that the dystopian picture of George Orwell’s 1984 is to be taken more as a warning message to save us from the consequences of a digital Panopticon than as a tutorial manual on how to give up our freedom, quick and easy. Similarly I am pretty sure that Stanley Kubrick depicted Al not as his idea of mankind’s digital best friend and Ray Bradbury didn’t actually want critical thinking and freedom of expression to be burnt as they are in the pages of Fahrenheit 451.
Still, despite the many warnings that art raised for society, it would seem that we may be about to jump both feet into a data driven dystopia of NSA scale with legalised privacy infringements, illegitimate sales of personal data and uncontrollable smart devices there to be hacked. As technology gets more complex, only who can master the language will retain power. From the beginning of writing on clay tiles in ancient Sumer, to the Roman communication infrastructure, to the historical invention of Guttenberg’s press and the directly opposite contribution to society that censorship around the world had and still has on knowledge, we should all agree on the fact that information is power. Access to such power is linked to literacy and, more specifically, data literacy can only be shared through deliberate transparency aimed policies i.e. open data, open standards and open source software. We know that transparency and openness are good for business as they improve offer and reduce price but we also know that transparency may trigger security and confidentiality issues.
So, as our thermostats, mobile phones, fridges, smart watch, intelligent car, CCTV cameras etc start firing off petabytes of data filling up ever increasing data centres, how do we track and deliver value?
Understanding your clients. In terms of value creation, IoT data is no different from any other data. In itself, it has no value. Value is related to the specific use and application developed from the data.
Motion sensor data can be linked to automatic lighting controls to bring together employees towards concentrated hot desking areas thus reducing energy bills. Schools’ food stores data can be remotely checked by parents smart phone apps, which may send notification alerts only in case of potential allergies and stay silent otherwise. Smart wayfinding signage could be connected with motion sensors and CCTV data to optimise the position of passengers along the platform at rush hours according to incoming train occupancy data. Monitoring patches and smart pills can physically embed sensor technology into our bodies ensuring faster, cheaper and more effective response to patients’ critical conditions. Client first means to remain anchored to a solid value proposition and prevent the overwhelming offer of generic IoT solutions. The wider understanding of Client first also involves the acknowledgement of the complex profile of users and stakeholders affected by the output and the outcome of the built environment. We plan cities and design buildings and infrastructure for future generations to enjoy. IoT brings great power and, quoting Peter Parker aka SpiderMan, with great powers come great responsibilities. On that note, I would argue that the narrative for IoT should be to provide real time evidence for Social Value and Sustainable Growth.
Will the IoT save the planet?
The answer is no. The IoT is a sensor-powered data gathering system coupled with automated actuators and monitoring. Unfortunately it possesses no economic, social or environmental awareness. The risk of selective data aggregation and bias system solutions is by no means any lower with the IoT than with any other market product. The large players will try and do exactly what Hollerith mastered with its automated punchcard technology, which is to become the sole provider of a binding integrated solution. Great examples are the RFID U-Chip for the City of Songdo in South Korea by LG or the Smart City Control Hub developed by IBM for the municipality of Rio de Janeiro.
Equally, the like of IBM, Cisco and Siemens should not always be blamed, as they possess the capacity to deliver at scale. As for the rest of the built environment the responsibility sits with clients, public clients especially, to quickly gear up for smart procurement in the age of the IoT.
The other end of the spectrum is the grassroots movement of civic hacking. The untold heroes of the civic hacking story have friendly and unassuming names: Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Arduino is an open-source electronic prototyping platform, which allows creating interactive electronic objects. Raspberry Pi is a single board credit card sized mini computer, which has made DIY computer science a reality also in developing countries. The Internet is full of inspiring solutions created with Arduino and Raspberry Pi and I would recommend to run some Google searches and find out.
Sadly, also the opensource IoT movement on its own won’t save the world either. The world is just too complex for the IoT. Reality is made of complex, interwoven, non linear events, which are almost impossible to model. Non linearity is a way to accept that things are related to each other although we don’t quite know how to quantify their relationship. In the 1960s MIT meteorologist Edward Loren popularised the notion of the butterfly effect. The scientist argued that an infinitesimal shift in the weather – say, the turbulence caused by a butterfly flapping its wing – can set in motion atmospheric events that climax in a hurricane
It is difficult to model the effect of a butterfly flapping its wings. It is equally difficult to demonstrate the impact on GDP of good accessible education system. Both could be described as non linear events and so could be the effects of improved biodiversity on the national health budget or the effects of an increased social integration on the costs of anti terrorism policing or the effects of economic equality to global competitiveness or the effects of limiting deforestation on the cost of energy and so on and so forth.
In brief, the systemic domino effects of Public Good investments are described by complex non linear events. The IoT data and big data science can help us improve the modelling of non linearity and certainly help us saving cost reducing waste and sharing resources. Still, we cannot wait for an IoT Generic Artificial Intelligence Singularity to resolve the pressing issues of Climate Change and spiralling demographics. Data, particularly IoT data, is an enabler for change but change can only be triggered by a vision.
My vision is to combine Smart City, Local Development and Urban Regeneration to deliver change and to use CO2e and Social Value are the key metrics to benchmark the quality of our Industry’s outcome. Marcel Mauer and CAIRE Consortium have developed a proproetary Social Value Spatial Analysis tool called Potenziale, which has been run for numeruous urban planning applications in the EU.
The final question. and the one which I am not going to answer is, how can IoT help deliver sustainable growth?