Perspectives

Interoperability in the disconnected world of connected things

WIRED article by Eric Openshaw and John Hagel

The possibilities are wide open for the Internet of Things to transform our personal and professional lives, not to mention the way our large institutions operate and interact with us. These opportunities hinge on interoperability–the ability to connect data collected by devices and sensors across disparate systems. But what challenges are introduced by interoperability and how will we tackle them?

Building the Internet of Things, challenge by challenge

In February of last year, the City of Los Angeles hired its first-ever Chief Innovation Technology Officer to harness technology to improve the lives of residents and create the infrastructure for a thriving economy. Inspired in part by the innovative ways that cities like New York are using technology and data, especially the “big” data being generated by an increasingly sensor-rich urban environment, other cities are following suit.

Cities are where the open data movement and the Internet of Things (IoT) are converging. Already we get interesting glimpses of potential futures and also gain insights into what people worry about in a connected and instrumented world. For a city like LA, traffic is ever and always a target for a breakthrough disruption. For other cities it might be crime or monitoring blight or planning code compliance. The common thread has been a solution that combines the contextual information provided either actively or passively by individuals with consumer devices, often smart phones, with the vast systems, databases and decision-making or enforcement authority of institutions. Organizations like Code for America, a non-profit that engages individual developers in exploiting government data sources to find solutions, have proven that citizens and consumer technologies are an important part of the puzzle. The opportunities are not insignificant, but neither are the challenges.​

Gartner predicts IoT to include nearly 26 billion devices, with a global economic value-add of $1.9 trillion by 2020, while the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that devices connected to the Internet will generate nearly $9 trillion in annual sales by 2020.​

Of course, it isn’t just city governments that are interested in how a connected world, an IoT of smart and dumb devices collecting and sharing data to make decisions, might change the world. Higher speed networks, cloud storage and computing power, the proliferation of inexpensive sensors, and advanced analytic capabilities to make sense of the data are ushering in a resurgence of optimism for IoT across the technology and telecom industries. Gartner predicts IoT to include nearly 26 billion devices, with a global economic value-add of $1.9 trillion by 2020, while the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that devices connected to the Internet will generate nearly $9 trillion in annual sales by 2020. Such growth has implications for providers (of devices, infrastructure, software, and services) as well as potential adopters (e.g., retailers, equipment manufacturers, and healthcare organizations).

It’s worth noting that the real value of all the data that is captured by these devices and sensors hinges on being able to connect it with other data across disparate systems. But in addition to the question of interoperability between systems, connecting data creates two big problems: privacy and security. The challenge is to connect and share data across silos to make it useful and generate new, actionable insights while still protecting privacy and security. This is a challenge shared by potential adopters, providers and individuals--whoever figures this out will reap the benefits and create great value. The resolutions—to interoperability, privacy, and security--will determine whether the optimistic predictions become a reality.

“…we need to create space, test beds, where a variety of players from the IoT provider ecosystem can safely experiment, fail fast, and figure out what is going to work and what is not.”

We recently gathered leaders from industry and academia to discuss these challenges and how they might be overcome to create an IoT “ecosystem” where everyone benefits. The group largely agreed that, rather than try to define standards and regulations in advance, the protocols and societal aspects around issues like interoperability and security can only be worked out through trial and error. That doesn’t mean “no rules” or open season on businesses, says Dr. Richard Soley, Executive Director at the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), an independent industry consortium, “we need to create space, test beds, where a variety of players from the IoT provider ecosystem can safely experiment, fail fast, and figure out what is going to work and what is not.”

Embedded in this concept is the idea of a time window of permission during which participants can make mistakes without being penalized as they experiment and iterate through possible solutions. Within these test beds, a variety of organizations can come together to work out solutions for problems no one group has the expertise or access to solve alone.

It is within these test beds that public-private partnerships can also develop and mature. For example, local governments already collect a lot of data through sensors and reports that can be anonymized and made public for participants to work on to solve civic problems (traffic, crime, livability). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has proven the value of such challenges to rapidly advance technological understanding and foster collaboration in areas such as shared semantics (e.g. DARPAnet).

What Next?

How do we create IoT test beds and what do they look like? “Grand” challenges have proven to be a good starting point for bringing collaborators together around a specific problem for a defined period of time. Potential areas of focus include energy management, transportation, safety, and healthcare, but what makes a good challenge?

  • It must look impossible and engage the imagination in ways that incremental industrial improvement does not—perhaps a problem that has been intractable for years but might be reachable now as a result of advances in cloud, mobile, processing performance, and storage.
  • It should have the potential to become self-funding and is immediately relevant, ideally by addressing a need shared by the defense or public sectors to garner resources and urgency—for example, transportation solutions that can almost immediately generate cost savings that fund further development of traffic solutions that save lives.
  • It should be crafted such that the solution will be disruptive—the most exciting growth potential for IoT is through disruption rather than uses that lead to incremental cost improvements, and these types of challenges will make the collaborative effort worthwhile by advancing the entire industry.

The possibilities are wide open for the Internet of Things to transform our personal and professional lives, not to mention the way our large institutions operate and interact with us, but many questions must be addressed. Will laissez faire prevail in the near term or will regulators and legislators try to control the risks before the industry itself understands them? Who should create the test beds and who will bring collaborators together to resolve interoperability, privacy, and security?

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