Internet of Things: where are the people?

Attending several IoT events, such as ‘IoT Tech Expo’, ‘IoT UK Thematic Research Day’ and ‘The future of IoT networks’, left me with the persistent feeling that the conversation around IoT is primarily about Things. More precisely: about connecting Things to Things, and connecting the connected Things to money. Exactly how human beings fit into this picture of a fast-unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution often remains unclear, despite intense interest in questions as regards to ‘monetization’.

I wondered: where are the people in this picture?

Was it my own bias? Being a people-focused researcher, I would say that tech and monetization seem too dominant. And after a few events, I was sure: the talk is mainly about infrastructure and overcoming technical barriers. If value is discussed, it’s used to mean the cost of moving a bit of data from one device to another. Not social value, or even consumer value.

Type “IoT Trillions” in a search engine and you quickly get a sense of the extent of the hype and the size of the dangling carrot. This is not to completely discount the monetisation potential. There are obvious benefits in improving processes and efficiency, especially when it comes to industrial and infrastructure applications.

But the IoT has a long way to go before it works as seamlessly as people expect. And it will have to really work well if consumers are expected to enter the frame. As Amara’s law states, short-term expectations of technology are always too high.

The focus on technology is logical to a degree, but there’s a danger: if people don’t get added into these discussions now, we might wind up with an infrastructure that doesn’t enable us to provide what we truly need and value, much like the early dominance of the automobile assembly line ensured that for generations we’d be stuck to cars with petrol-burning engines.

The ‘Smart Cities’ initiatives take a more people-centered approach, but the beneficiaries are not necessarily the ones directly paying the bill. At the consumer level, there are still few compelling proposals. And there are other more people-centered initiatives, like Organicity, who are trying to find potential benefits by involving citizens in experiments.

Great opportunities may be missed here if innovators don’t focus more closely on the experiences of people. Not only to create social value, but also to realize the much-desired monetisation, which will only happen if people experience real value, and they’re willing to pay for it. To create thoughtful interactions that work for people (the Nest Learning Thermostat is a good example), a more people-driven assessment of limits and benefits of these new connections would be just the Thing. Without this, the IoT may wind up a mass of randomly connected touchpoints with no real connection to the people it must deliver civic, social and consumer value to.