The Internet of Things is not a technology

  • Written by Lorna Goulden, at 03-09-2013
    - Tuesday September 3, 2013

This is a story about the Internet of Things . . . from a designer’s perspective.

This is also a story about the impact of the Internet of Things on business development, highlighting some emerging trends that provide insight into how the Internet of Things is already playing an active role in shifting the entire business value chain.

But first how did I, as a designer, get interested in the Internet of Things?

In the late 80’s, as a student in Design and Technology Education I developed a control-box for children: connected to a BBC Micro computer, children could attach, program and control sensors, motors and switches. A few years later at the Royal College of Art in London I used Radio Frequency Identity (RFID) Tags to experiment with the relationship between physical and digital interaction – using tags donated by Texas Instruments that were originally developed for livestock registration. During a summer internship at Xerox Europarc I also worked with researchers using the PARCTab, a handheld PDA device, to investigate how the continuous registration of a person’s movements and related activities could be used as a personal memory aid.

And so I began, and with numerous projects over the years I have seen the possibilities and realities of technology supported connectivity developing and maturing over time.

But what is the Internet of Things?  In essence it is ‘simply’ an evolution of the Internet.

We are in the middle of a shift from connectivity anytime for anyone, anywhere . . .  to also include anything

Billions of things connected to the Internet. Intel predicts 31 billion things will be connected to the Internet by 2020. Cisco predicts that it will be closer to 50 billion. And according to IBM, the increasing level of connectivity and communication means that the planet has in effect developed a central nervous system.

This highlights for me an important aspect of the Internet of Things: While predicting the large number of Things that are being connected to the internet may serve to impress the sense of ‘scale’, it is the Data; the information that is being gathered and communicated between all of these devices that will ultimately enable the truly smart and relevant applications to be developed.

But what has interested me even more, for some years now, is what the Internet of Things will mean to people. If you ask most people about the Internet you will likely hear enthusiastic responses featuring Facebook, Linked-in, Amazon, Flickr, Spotify, Netflix and of course what they are able to do with their smartphones. Or you might hear how a loss of connection meant that they were no longer able to find their way with their navigation app, were unable to Whatsapp an important message, post a photo or Google on time. And we also see a new generation of verbs entering into our vocabulary.

But if you ask about the Internet of Things, most people respond, “what is that?”

Confused Sm

And if you ask if they have heard about Ardiuno, Raspberry Pi, (multi-path) TCP, IPv6, RFID, NFC or Zigbee they generally have no idea what you are talking about, despite there being a considerable amount of information available on the internet about these and other technological building blocks that are frequently mentioned as the key ‘enablers’ of the Internet of Things.

But the Internet of Things is in my view not about the technology . . . So what is it ?

During a workshop that I ran in 2009 entitled Accelerating the roadmap to the Internet of Things @ home, it was interesting to note that only a handful of the expert participants predicted that the Internet of Things would have found its way into our homes within the next 5 years. It also proved a challenge to predict the potential applications that would bring the benefits of the Internt of Things closer to the consumer.

The Internet of Things is ultimately about having the ability to create insights, develop meaning and react accordingly. Enabled by enormous amounts of data and information, the computing power and algorithms to analyse this and support the development of deeper insights into what is happening in the world around us, and having the ability to decide how to respond to this and what level of influence we want or need to have.

And as with the Internet the scope is huge. As Rob van Kranenburg - author of The Internet of Things in 2007, and founder of the international ThinkTank Council: Internet of Things - puts it, The Internet of Things is in its essence a “seamless flow between the BAN (Body Area Network), the LAN (Local area Networks), the WAN (Wide are Networks) and the VWAN (Very Wide are networks).” Carla Diana from Smart Design highlights how this is enabling us to develop knowledge about ourselves, of others and of the world.

Which introduces what I believe to be a third and equally, if not more, important component of the Internet of Things – People – true insights will come from people supported by these systems, not the other way around, as will the intelligence about what kind of influence these insights should trigger.

Insight – information, correlation, knowledge, understanding and meaning

Influence – choices, decisions, reactions, interactions, automation and control

The Internet of Things is much more than a new product you can control with your iPhone.

I recently bought a couple of Furbies for my children; cute toys you can feed with an app, or have them dance to music and even translate what they are saying in their Furby language. It was however a remarkably short period of time before the Furby’s were no longer interesting . . . they have been sitting sleeping for a couple of months now, failing to deliver a sustainably engaging experience. And we seem to be moving into a phase where there are a growing number of these kinds of products; with a level of monitoring and control relocating to the mobile device. A valiant attempt to be innovative perhaps ? But also running the risk that if more attention has been given to the technology and too little attention to the users experience and the creation of truly, long term added value –  there will ultimately be a lack of sustainable business or brand value creation as interest quickly wanes.

Our Furbies will soon be joining an apparently thriving second-hand market.  

Furby Crop

One example that I find rather interesting is Lively. Soon to be launched and targeted at the elderly market and their carer-families, it reminds me very much of the Xerox activity monitoring work of 20 years ago. 'Lively' sensors will make it possible to monitor and share ‘healthy’ living patterns, with an interaction flow that is designed to promote independent living.

Another interesting example is the Philips Hue, an innovative coloured LED lamp that can be controlled and programmed via an app. wherever you are. There is also a community of users sharing different lighting scene settings. But what makes this more than just a product you can control with your iPhone is the official developer programme. By using the Zigbee standard for home automation Philips have effectively made it easier for other products such as sensors, switches and cameras to be added to their system. And by taking steps to open up core parts of their bridge software interface (the Hue API) and more actively supporting third parties wishing to develop apps and hardware to further expand the Hue, the flexibility and longevity of this system is more likely to be assured (note I no longer refer to it as a product). I am not sure if new additions will remain in the home-automation and control domain, but with sensors, connection to the Internet and the creativity of users it has the potential to develop into a whole lot more.

This approach highlights for me a core design strategy for the implementation of the Internet of things – Open Tools

Open Tools as a design strategy

Open Tools Sm

Open Tools = The deliberate launching of a product or service that is not deemed as ‘finished’ and where the original developer and producer will have an increasingly diminishing level of influence or insight into how the product or system will develop and how it will eventually be used. The open nature means that the ‘tool’ will be further developed after it has been launched, ideally by core users themselves, until something is created that fits more ideally within their world and their lifestyles. Adaptation involves both technical development iterations as well as functional and experiential improvements. And when the original manufacturer actively supports this, as Philips is doing with the Hue, then this has a stronger chance of developing into a ‘win-win’.

Modularity, scalability and sustainability

A key requirement enabling 'open tools' to more effectively develop and scale-up (expand and grow) over time is a sufficient level of built-in modularity: A 'lego-blocks' approach. A particularly inspiring example is the Phonebloks concept which also highlights the potential gains from a sustainability perspective. Dutch designer Dave Hakkens was inspired by a desire to tackle the currently 'wasteful' approach to mobile phone production by proposing a modular mobile device platform along with an 'app store for hardware' to enable users to continously configure and update their mobile devices to more specifically suit their needs (and wallets) and avoid unecessary obsolescence. Dave is using Thunderclap, a crowdspeaking platform, to try and generate a critical mass of public support and raise attention with potential companies who may be interested in getting involved in developing his concept.

Open means not only an open technology system, but also open to serendipity, and open to co-creation.

Internet of Things and the Business Value Chain 

Up until now I have been predominantly referring to end products and services. But openness, co-creation and multi-stakeholder developments are interesting trends impacting the entire business value chain, trends that are also evolving as a result of the Internet of Things.

Porter’s familiar Value Chain framework, published in 1985 describes the chain of activities that a firm operating in a specific industry performs in order to deliver a valuable product or service for the market (Wikipedia). And while some may argue that this no longer an applicable framework, or becoming less relevant in the current connected-technology era, I still find it useful to illustrate how the well established and often segregated business activities are being impacted, in some cases quite dramatically, and how the Internet of Things is playing a key role in this shift. I am also not the first to discuss the evolution of Porters value chain, with inspiration coming from sources such as Xavier Comtesse and Jeffrey Huang in relation to the participative economy, Crain and Abraham applying value-chain analysis to discover customers' strategic needs and Nilofer Merchant discussing social era dynamics in an interesting Harvard Business Review blog series.  

Porters Value Chain Extended NEW 01 

This value chain shift is also having a direct influence on the way that businesses are being run and how value is being created. The comfortable walls of segregation between the different business activities described by Porter are breaking down, with a wider range of stakeholders from outside the organisation also becoming involved. As business practices strive to become more efficient, agile and customer oriented, competitive positioning is enhanced through more focused differentiation and faster innovation rounds, with new business models emerging where value is created not only in the form of increased margin but also growing brand equity.  

Supply Chain Innovation 

The most familiar and technologically established example is of course the advancements in supply chain management and logistics. Walmart is probably one of the most famous success stories, implementing RFID technology over a decade ago as part of a sophisticated inventory tracking system enabling them to cut the volume of excess inventory in their massive supply chain and slashing out-of-stock occurrences by almost one-third. However, efficient supply chain management is apparently not the only reason why Walmart, and a number of other success stories, managed to shoot ahead of their industry. According to Hua L. Lee (2004), agility based on insight and collaboration has been a key factor; supported by the ability to react quickly to changes in the market, sharing up-to-date demand and supply data, tracking key patterns and being able to identify structural shifts, sometimes even before they occur. Developing collaborative relationships with suppliers and customers and a more flexible approach to product development are also identified as key strategies, with some firm’s even postponing ‘finishing’ their products until they have accurate enough information to match it with consumer preferences.

Fast Fashion

Zara is also a particularly interesting example, pioneering a unique and highly successful supply chain strategy with the help of connected technologies, sophisticated data management and perhaps most importantly their staff and customers. Buying behaviour and opinions of customers are gathered daily by personnel in each store using customised hand-held devices and sent through to a central design team which uses this information to create 1000 new designs every month. An agile approach to product development is directly supported by an innovative approach to supply chain management; which in turn has an impact on both marketing and sales. A state-of-the-art distribution facility in Spain, with 200km of underground tracks and optical reading equipment sorts 60,000 articles of clothing per hour to ensure a fast and efficient supply of new designs to their retail stores – enabling Zara to design, produce, and deliver a garment in fifteen days. Fast and limited production rounds means that customers soon learn that they can always find something new in the store, encouraging more frequent store visits, and the limited supply also creates a tantalizing level of exclusivity, customers who find an article of clothing interesting know that they should probably not take too long to decide whether or not buy it or not.

Internet of Things Analytics

This brings me to another interesting development in the domain of the Internet of Things, comparable with Zara's agile response to continuous feedback from customers, and also comparable with website, social media and e-commerce analytics. It is also possible to develop insight into how users are interacting with physical connected products, in the home, professional environment or on the move. Companies like Motomics from the US and UXSuite in the Netherlands have specialized in a field that some refer to as Internet of Things Analytics (IoTA) – (not to be confused with Internet of Things Architecture (IoT-A)).

Particularly useful for beta testing in product development, IoTA can provide immediate insight into which functions of a (connected) physical product are being used, or not, or what the user was doing when a problem emerged. Usage pattern analytics can be utilised to further focus qualitative interviews with users and speed up the path of research, development and innovation towards more relevant solutions. In other words more effectively enabling the active involvement of users in early research and product development phases. The question of course remains how far this kind of interaction monitoring can go, with privacy questions making it less suitable for launching consumer products. However with the right agreements in place, openness and transparency with data storage and usage, or by even placing the data ownership, analysis and management in the hands of the users themselves – as I assume that 'Lively' will do – this could be utilised for the development of considerably more relevant and meaningful services to enhance a system of ‘connected’ physical products. 

Open platforms

And these kind of developments are also not restricted to larger companies with healthy IT enterprise budgets. A whole host of open hardware and software platforms have been steadily opening up the possibilities of the Internet of Things to independent developers and creative start-up potentials. Arduino is probably the most famous open-source hardware platform amongst creative developers, developed in 2005 and inspiring further open-source evolutions such as Netduino and Nanode. One more recent favourite of mine is Raspberry Pi (wikipedia); developed to promote the teaching of basic computer science in schools, it is apparently inspired by Acorn's BBC Micro, the computer I connected my 'school control box' design to over 20 years ago! 

Libelium is an interesting company with its Cooking Hacks open hardware division, actively supporting co-creation with their technological building blocks which they also adapt in response to feedback from their developer community. Libelium's e-health sensor platform is an interesting example, providing tools to support the development of new e-Health applications and products, and they also have a Smart Cities platform and a range of other industry focused sensor applications. Creativity with IoT applications, data storage and analysis is also suported by open platforms such as ThingSpeakOpen.Se.nse, Nimbits and a growing number of service providers such as XivelyThingWorx, ThingSquareDeviceCloud and SensorCloud, significantly contributing to reducing entry barriers into the Internet of Things. 

Getting to the market 

The step from tinkering with cool enabling technologies to launching on the market is still a huge one; risky and prohibitive for large and small companies alike. One interesting launch strategy attracting a number of IoT startups is Crowdfunding, essentially bringing the customer – or at least the 'early adopter' – closer to the development process by asking them to financially back development. Sites such as KickstarterAppbackr or CrowdFunder enable entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to attract the funds they need for development. The most famous example is probably the Pebble Smart Watch, which went 'viral' and garnered a record breaking 10 million dollars backing. Other IoT related projects such as the medical platform Scanadu, sensor platforms such as Ninja Blocks, SmartThings and Twine and 'cloud' oriented products such as SparkCore and Lima have garnered support ranging from 100,000 to over 1.5 million dollars.

An interesting twist recently emerging with the growing popularity of crowdfunding is the small number of companies turning to sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo after raising considerable private investment. Rather than searching for financial backing they are using crowdfunding sites to find users and reviewers of their technology or in the case of Lively to get valuable feedback on the kind of communication needed for their target audience - Lively's Kickstarter campaign failed to generate enough interest from the 'crowd' to meet its launch target despite it already having funding from investors.

Lean Startup and Lean Analytics

And as the boundaries between the different business activities begin to blur so does the distinction between 'secondary' and 'primary' activities fall into question. As a greater connection between ongoing customer development practices finds a growing relevance across the entire business value chain, the role of IoT systems in supporting, and often demanding, a complementary data-driven, iterative and co-creative approach emerges. Focusing on customer development is a key defining factor of the growing Lean Startup movement initiated by Steve Blank and Eric Ries, a philosophy that brings principles from lean manufacturing and agile development to the process of innovation. Further practical support is provided by the Lean Analytics approach of Alistair Kroll and Benjamin Yoskovitz "Lean Analytics gives you blunt, practical advice and proven approaches for learning from the abundance of data all around you".  

Porters Value Chain Extended NEW 01

Creating insight

The challenge for developers therefore still remains in how to shift the focus of attention beyond the capabilities of technology into truly meaningful solutions, how to communicate this to the market and perhaps even more challenging, how to develop sustainable business models. The quality of insights generated by IoT solutions, how closely and accurately this relates to the users context and experience, and how it is designed to develop and evolve over time, will be key to advancing beyond the automated, functional gadget or gizmo level. A similar risk is also emerging in the Big Data context if too much emphasis is given to managing the huge amounts of gathered data with computing capability alone. According to Mikkel Rasmussen and Christian Madsbjerg "Big Data focuses solely on correlation, paying no attention to causality. What good is thin “information” when there is no insight into what your consumers actually think and feel?" going on to point out that critical and interpretive thinking skills are essential. For the time being at least I think it is fair to say that people are still the best candidates for these capabilities.

The Internet of Things is about Things and Data but most of all it is about People !


© 2013 Lorna Goulden

image credits:

networkingcable@Vladimire Grekov : bowlwithgreenapples@Chertanova : confusedmanandquestionmarks@Skvorbusinessman@Yuri Arcurs : child@Ekaterina Staats : confusedsoman@Bryan Creely : hiphopman©Nikita Buida : seniorwoman@Michael Gray : openbox@©Sergey Ilin : mancarryboxonback@Sergey Ilin : openboxwithglobe@Sergey Ilin : mansrollstheglobe@Sergey Ilins : conceptcommunication@Sergey Ilin