Internet of things we never knew we needed

Most people working in the digital and technology sector have heard talk of a new club. It’s called the Internet of Things and is promising to deliver on the prophecy that the geeks will inherit the earth.

What is this new club?

For a start it’s not really a club, and disappointingly there is no secret handshake or uncompromising Tougher Mudder style initiation ritual. Put simply Internet of Things is a collective term to describe all of the possible physical ‘things’ that can be virtually connected to the ‘Internet’ to provide better service provision and better connectivity. The term is also used to refer to the growing collection of creators, innovators, and the mildly curious who want to use the internet, and all the access to knowledge, information and resource that it brings, to create new service solutions.

Analytics firm Gartner recently gave a very conservative estimate that by 2020 more than 26billion devices could be connected to the internet providing services we never knew we needed in an innovative new format. This view is contested by the technology giants with Cisco placing this figure at 50billion and Intel predicting as a high as 200billion. Cisco seems particularly excited by the prospect of this new club and goes on to predict that the market will be worth $14.4 trillion by 2022. Business analysts are tipping the growth of ‘Internet of Things’ to surpass that of smartphones and tablets by as early as 2017, making it one of the fastest growing clubs in history.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2014, 38 million adults (76%) in Great Britain accessed the Internet every day, 21 million more than in 2006, and access to the Internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, from 24% to 58%. The rise of smart phones and tablets, coupled with access to high quality broadband on the up, and the cost of connecting to the Internet on the decline, setting the conditions for Internet of Things to thrive as a future industry.


Membership to the club

With its impressive growth rate, imaginative anything-is-possible attitude and slogans of a bright new future, soon we will all be members of this exciting new club. But how do you or I get involved? And what are the benefits for us ordinary people going about our business? Is it worth the investment?

Consider our current health care service, where you have to book an appointment using one method, turn up to said appointment and then receive a service or treatment using another method. Internet of Things suggests that by connecting medical devices or communications devices such as your phone or tablet, to the internet this whole process could be managed from the comfort of your home. From monitoring the various levels and stats related to your illness to changing and administering the medicine and care required to manage conditions.

Sounds like a great way to save time and improve efficiency in a health care industry under pressure. However it does have its detractors who believe that care forms a vital part of social interaction for elderly and vulnerable people in society. For some Internet of Things is seen as a modern day incarnation of industrialisation, replacing humans with machines.

Victoria Betton is Programme Director for an innovative new programme working across two NHS Trusts in Leeds called mHealth Habitat, “The work that we are doing mHealth Habitat programme isn’t about replacing human and social interaction but enhancing it by using technology, better connectivity and shared information and knowledge”, she says.

Dr Victoria Betton.jpg

“The project is in its infancy but has already seen great results. We start with the patient and the every-day needs of a particular condition such as stroke that could be self-managed in part. We then look at what the challenges are around that condition and try to find a digital-led solution to support the patient and overcome those challenges. This could lead to less time in hospitals for some patients but as with any programme of care other patients may prefer a less digital approach.” She adds, “It isn’t about creating a one-size-fits-all solution, but acknowledging that as an institution we need to become more efficient and work smarter whilst maintaining a high standard of patient care and ensuring greater independence for patients as the population ages.”

Health and social care is a complex area fraught with ethical and emotional challenges blended with technology and science. The application of the Internet of Things seems to be just one strand in the continuing advancement of medical technology, but what other areas can Internet of Things be applied to that are less controversial?

Nest is Google’s foray into the world of Internet of Things, taking old household items and digitally repurposing them by connecting them up to the Internet to help you manage everything from your energy consumption to your smoke alarm. Their first prototype, the Nest Learning Thermostat, records your activity while you’re at home, tracking when the house is full and empty, when you sleep, when you’re active. This clever every day item, so often forgotten about, then programmes your heating to reflect your daily routine making sure that you are warm when you are home, and saving energy when you aren’t there. Launched in 2010 Nest has already attracted the attention of venture capitalists and where Google leads others follow.

Leeds-based electronics product and services manufacturer Premier Farnell, best known for manufacturing the £25 micro-computer Raspberry Pi, is hot on the trail. The global electronics giant recently established a partnership with Leeds Beckett University to provide an electronics laboratory dedicated to testing and prototyping the Internet of Things. The laboratory, based from its offices in Armley, will provide twenty student the opportunity to

Test new technologies and learn core skills for the electronics industry from soldering and circuit board assembly, the project-based learning will include activities such as testing of circuits and sections of boards

The results of these experiments will be posted on Premier Farnell’s global community site, Element14 which became the first of its type when launched in 2009. The site has a world-leading position, with over 270,000 registered users and over 5,000 new registered users being added each month.

Steven Webb, Company Secretary, Premier Farnell, said: “We are delighted to extend our partnership with Leeds Beckett University by offering our facilities to the students.  Supporting the education of engineers is vital to ensure the next generation has the talent to drive our industry forward.  Our expertise can add to that of the University to create a unique learning experience for the students.”

With universities, major global technology and electronics firms and small-scale technologists and futurologists all rolling up their sleeves to take on the Internet of Things challenges, it seems the forecasters could be right about this new club.

The secret to smart

Despite the fanfare heralding its arrival the Internet of Things is still a relatively new phenomenon tied up with the race to develop Smart Cities (covered in our Autumn issue). As we’ve seen there can be huge benefits to business from huge efficiency savings leading to profitability, to placing them in front of their customers in a responsive, dynamic relationship building better customer service, again leading to greater profitability.

That said the industry has a lot to learn and before the technologist and futurologists get carried away on a sea of connectivity and innovation there are those who remain to be convinced. This industry relies heavily on data which bringsa minefield of complexity from data protection and issues of trust between the market and the customer, to, at a base level, the logistics of handling such high volumes of content rich data. Added to this is the culture shift needed across industry. The word ‘fail’ is generally not welcome in the boardroom but this is new approach relies heavily on prototyping, testing, and failing fast to find the best solution. It’s a highly creative and innovative space that can’t be constrained by the need to be right first time, every time. Businesses across sectors will need to adapt and be willing to invest in new forms of R&D to truly unlock the benefits of the Internet of Things.

Putting this quandary aside for a second, in reality the Internet of Things is already here and has already infiltrated our daily lives without us knowing it. From fitness apps to smart systems on our cars we use these services daily. The geeks got in with it while no one was looking, they didn’t wait to inherit the earth they took it by stealth, creating a new, fast-paced, high value market for themselves that will out shine any that went before.

The Internet of Things has achieved in its infancy what eludes most industries for a lifetime – becoming a service that can encourage audiences to not only use it without knowing but to demand it as standard, making Internet of Things a very smart idea indeed.


This article was first published in The Professional business magazine in March 2015.
Main image: Image: Cienpies Design&Communication
Second Image: Dr Victoria Betton, taken by Shang Ting Peng for The City Talking