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IoT – More Real by the Minute (Or Not)

July 6, 2016
Enlighted Inc.

We’re in a classic Red Queen scenario, running as fast as we can to stay in one place: sometimes it seems virtually impossible to get any perspective on IoT because it’s moving too fast.

Not everyone is completely bullish: Suzanne Frey posted June 23 on The Motley Fool website an appropriately skeptical piece entitled Why the Internet of Things Might Not Be the Next Big Thing. Citing the very real issues of security and standards, Frey claims that how IoT in fact gets real in the near future will be pretty much impossible to predict, and I concur. And if history is any guide, which it usually is, most certainly it will turn out differently than we expect in many important ways.

Excellent perspective is available in a 1998 book by Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, which details the rise and fall of the telegraph, from the mid 19th century to the beginning of the 20th. The telegraph was then what the internet and IoT are today, and its impact on the economy, society, and other technologies was arguably far more dramatic compared to the internet’s impact in recent decades.

The telegraph was the beginning of the (literally) online, wired world, out of which the internet eventually emerged. Like most technology, it was a product of connective (rather than disruptive) innovation- advances in electricity, magnets, code, standards, electrical theory, and eventually automation made it possible, just as today the combination (and collision) of many technologies, discoveries, and social patterns created IoT.

Some of the difficulty arises in defining IoT in the first place. In his podcast, Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s Dean of Digital Learning, proposes it’s useful to think of IoT as a design language, a process, rather than a single technology or even a technology stack. He feels that when we can understand it with a simpler metaphor, we can begin to use its potential more effectively.

I tend to agree with this viewpoint, since so much application of any technology or idea depends heavily on a design process, whereby human problems take priority over technology. He feels that we need to “unpack” the sensors and other technologies in our smartphones, as our phones are good for communicating over distance but tend to drive people apart who are physically together.

And I love the idea that we should be moving beyond controlling everything over our phones- all of the sensors in our phones are now cheap and readily available for imbedding into the built environment to facilitate IoT. And of course now what we really need to work on is user experience.

David Rose, in his book Enchanted Objects, argues that we respond to data when it’s easy to understand, creating a behavioral feedback loop that enables a system to learn. An instructor at the MIT Media lab and founder of Ambient Devices, Rose is the creator of some very innovative early IoT devices, the Ambient Orb, which made home energy use easy to visualize, and the GlowCap, which helps patients to monitor medications. He believes that smart products must create delight in users, which is definitely not a characteristic of most building control systems today to say the least.

PNNL’s Naomi Miller posed a question at the DOE’s Connected Lighting Workshop June 8-9 in Santa Clara: “should engineers design the user experience”? Most panelists and audience members (myself included) seemed to feel that the answer was decidedly “no,” but after the session, I had second thoughts. To be sure, if we judge by most examples of UI and UX designed by engineers – like TV remotes, parking pay stations, phone bills, and other lemon-juice-in-paper-cut aspects of modern life – they would seem to be the most misanthropic bunch on the planet.

But rather than keeping engineers away from UX, we need to redefine engineering, as it’s certainly a design activity. Especially with IoT becoming embedded into everything, engineering now must be not only about objects and mechanical things but about humans and how they feel, make decisions, and interact with machines and devices.

In an attempt to get a handle on the very uncertain future, some, like Akash Goshwami at Cisco speculate that IoT will only take off when there’s a “killer app” on the horizon. While broad adoption and widespread utility is certainly required, IMHO the “killer app” meme is a much oversimplified view of history that ignores the interconnected effects of every key innovation and the fact that none of them ever evolved in isolation or were invented sole by one brilliant crazy genius like Thomas Edison. Lighting was indeed something of a killer app for electrification, but there were others, most notably the telegraph (with which, before he developed the light bulb, Edison got his start, first as a telegraph operator, then by improving upon the basic technology) and the electric streetcar.

During the span of electrification, there were multiple killer apps, with overlapping periods of development, all impacting each other and depending on many contributions from many different inventors and technicians. The same is true today- IoT will see many killer apps, depending on the organic and thoroughly unpredictable way in which it will evolve. In fact, many feel that the entire ecosystem will derive its value and growth from a multiplicity of applications.

It’s also far too early for the emergence of “gorillas,” and not for lack of trying by firms like GE, Cisco, Amazon, Intel, Google, and Apple, to mention a few. Peter Thornycroft, posting on NetworkWorld, makes a convincing case that the emergence of dominant industry players in IoT is not necessarily inevitable. Some of the long list of reasons for this are: the ecosystem is simply too complex; too many companies and products have created choice paralysis and perception of risk with buyers; standards and interoperability are nowhere where they need to be; the proprietary protocols which most gorillas need to adopt in order to insure dominance are anathema to growth and shared resources; and scale problems and insufficient data architecture persist. He suggests that IoT may develop a larger number of “chimps” who own parts of several markets rather than gorillas.

If true, this would be counter to the trend of very rapid growth to dominance that software and network companies have taken in recent decades (think of Microsoft, Google, Apple & Amazon). Could it be that “gorrilification” will not be the model for IoT evolution? Interesting question.

One thing that does need to emerge soon is useful metrics to quantify “non-energy” benefits from IoT. While it makes sense that initial funding for IoT implementation typically comes from energy savings, in the commercial office market, the 3-30-300 rule prevails. Productivity increases are far more valuable than energy savings, but counterintuitively, energy saving projects often unintentionally result in improved environmental quality, which positively impacts employee productivity.

What’s been difficult so far is in quantifying not only this effect, but productivity itself, although progress is being made. Casey Talon in Energy Manager Today presents the current understanding of the applications most immediately apparent to facilities managers and building owners – space optimization and employee engagement – that demonstrate clear ROI to corporate financial decision makers for IoT beyond energy savings. Space optimization has quantifiable metrics, and IoT solutions are now providing very valuable data to enable better results here, but productivity and employee engagement still need better widely understood metrics.

But even energy efficiency in commercial buildings still needs better metrics. According to Ellen Bell of the EDF, reporting on the DOE’s Better Buildings Summit in May, energy efficiency is still not an integral part of key business decisions regarding building finance and operations, and is still rarely a driver of loan demand, despite the fact that efficiency projects routinely show excellent ROI .

This was surprising to me, as energy efficiency has been a primary focus of so many changes in building for the last two decades. Bell argues for the creation of a metric for valuing efficiency within the finance community. By providing distributed metering and more control over building systems and equipment, IoT solutions can help to implement this metric by collecting, aggregating, and analyzing relevant energy use data for buildings.

I’m fond of quoting Stewart Brand in his book How Buildings Learn: “all buildings are predictions, and all predictions are wrong.” Our brains evolved to value predictions, and also, curiously, to ignore the fact that they’re usually incorrect. We prefer an explanation, a narrative – any explanation or story, even an obviously incorrect one – over no explanation at all. With the future of IoT we have all the explanations and predictions we could hope for and then some.

Today we’re very much trapped in a Red Queen narrative that things are changing faster and faster all the time and it’s all we can do to keep up, but we don’t often step back and connect today’s events to historical patterns. Perhaps things aren’t changing quite as fast as we think they are. Certainly our brains and bodies aren’t evolving as quickly as our technologies, and the more attention we pay to them the better we’ll be able to make use of tools, systems and IoT. Like Josh Bradshaw of WorkTechWork says: “don’t work for technology, let Technology work for you.”

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