IoT Solutions World Congress 2017 Recap: IoT in an Age of Revolution

Whether you’re addressing an independence movement or an IoT project, knowing who has the power to make things happen is key to success.

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Before we launch into a “technological triumphalism” report on the gleanings from the 2017 IOT Solutions World Congress – Barcelona (IoTSWC17), lets take a little “bird walk” around the wider stage of IoT starting with a sobering reminder: in May 2017, a Cisco report noted that “close to 3/4 of all IoT projects are failing.”

Moreover, the technosocial business at the IoTSWC17 event took place in the midst of the messy dynamics of social change – in fact in the midst of a contested independence movement.

What do IoTSWC17, and the Catalonian independence referendum in Spain share, and why does it matter? Firstly, the Cisco report noted the high IoT failure rate is largely due to the “human factor,” which is also the primary driver of the dynamics of the independence movement.

Secondly, why it matters is that at both the company IoT project level and national politics level, this technosocial “generative theme,” of the current epoch, as described by the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, is in other words, the “way things happen (or don’t happen).”

Call it the “Social Context of Things (SCoT)” meets the Internet of Things (IoT).

By way of a much-abbreviated background, the IoTSWC17 took place in Barcelona, Spain during the week of the contentious Catalonia referendum vote for independence from Spain on October 1. As part of the political situation, the Catalonians called for a national strike on October 3, the first day of the IoTSWC17 conference, reducing public transportation functionality by, coincidentally, 3/4ths.

Also, Catalonia is a semi-autonomous “community” within Spain, with a distinct culture covering four provinces. The city of Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonian community. During the referendum voting, Spanish paramilitary police tasked with disrupting a vote deemed illegal by the Spanish central government attacked Catalonian voters at voting locations. Currently, Spain, and its Catalonian population, continue to face a historically redefining moment.

IoT’s 3/4ths Failure Rate: Social Factors

In the Cisco report, the defining characteristic of the high failure rate of IoT projects isn’t so much a technology issue, but the “human factor” of IoT project dynamics. (Let us…pause. This is Cisco we’re talking about, an iconic technology company. However, its IoT report’s “key finding” isn’t a technical issue – it’s a social issue.) “Human factors like culture, organization, and leadership are critical…in fact three out of four top factors behind successful IoT projects had to do with people and relationships,” notes the Cisco report.

Moreover, as the Cisco IoT report points out the “connectivity” at the center of IoT, is both technical and social. The connectivity it notes is between people in the form of “partnerships… teams, culture, leadership, …and collaboration.” In a similar context, the IoTSWC2017 event itself is a recognition of the need for humans to get together in one place and hash things out, or as the Cisco IoT report notes “Don’t Go It Alone.”

IoT Acceleration: Black Swans, Swamps, and Social Change

Let’s step back for a moment, ask a question and draw some more parrallels: What, in broad strokes, is the future technosocial environment we humans are making with this new IoT technology? I’ll wager Nobody Really Knows. The same may be said of the unfolding Catalonian independence movement.

However, there are those who suggest the confluence of technology and social dynamics, further augmented and magnified by the IoT, is part of a near constant stream of change-related dynamics – essentially daily revolutions – emerging as the everyday norm (see, The Leadership Imagination, LaMagdeleine, 2016).

Currently described in technosocial circles as “black swans” and “low-in-the-swamp issues” in essence, the future lived experience of our IoT/post-modernist social age, will be a ubiquity of change, a kind of social-technological quantum flux.

As you may recall, “black swan” is a term used to describe anomalous events, which though rare (at least in the past), impact systems and situations dramatically – and are rationalized in hindsight. Low in the swamp is a metaphor for dilemmas where you’re literally neck deep in a problem (swamp) with two or more bad options to choose from (swim towards the alligator or the poisonous snake?).

Some have suggested this is exactly the position the Spanish central government finds itself – repress the Catalonians or accede to the break of a nation.

In fact, there are those, like academic Nick Srnicek, who see this deluge of daily change happening right now and believe technological changes, like those wrought by the IoT, are a part of a wider “technosocial process” accelerating radical social change (see Accelerationism).

What does this mean for you, me, the IoT and daily life? Well, one thought experiment is to consider your grandparents’ or parents’ confusion when trying to navigate the Internet. Now, add in an entire IoT-enabled ecosystem, stir in Grandma’s level of bafflement x10, and stir. Then, add a social revolution.

Conference, Catalonians, and Commerce

For example, consider the relatively mild uncertainty and disruption navigated by some attendees to the IoTSWC17 event. Even prior to the event, there were attendees who moved hotels outside of Barcelona, at the last minute, in an effort to stay at arms-length from an unfolding social situation.

The first day of the IoTSWC17 event, Oct. 3, coincided with a national labor strike by the Catalonians, which included the public transportation of Barcelona. The national strike was called for after referendum voters were violently attacked after the Spanish central government deems the Catalonian referendum illegal and sent in Spain’s national paramilitary police force, the La Guardia, in an effort to disrupt and invalidate the voting process.

In hindsight, the “black swan” Catalonian referendum, violent response by Spain, national strike, and impact on IOTSWC17 attendees appears logical and obvious. The “in hindsight it all makes sense” feeling is the very essence of a “black swan.” However, as the events unfold they are anything but obvious.

They emerge in a simultaneous collision of the “now,” in symbolic, human, political, and technical contexts – a mish-mash of happenings rendered as weird and wonderful as one of the famed organic architectures of Antoni Gaudi, the famed builder of Barcelona.

Similarly, it is likely the aspects of IoT as a revolution and transformative force will appear “obvious” only in retrospect. (Much like the search functionality we all know as Google, currently a major dynamic in the lives of billions, seems obvious in hindsight. It wasn’t obvious in the early 1990’s.)

 

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IoTSWC17: All is Normal

With that little “bird walk” into the wider technosocial context of the event, closer at hand much of the IoTSWC2017 was “perfectly normal.”

The IOTSWC2017 conference featured the usual players, including: IoT gateway companies, sensor providers, IoT platforms, standards bodies like the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) and Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) IoT reference architecture, as well as enterprise level use cases of IoT.

Also on hand, were the conference forums, including cellular companies on stage with rather tired descriptions of worldwide standardization “on the (ever near) horizon,” along with claims about AAA batteries powering cellular IoT devices for “10-years” coming to a supplier near you (Behind the scenes, they admit the claim is a “theoretical possibility” and only if the battery technology dramatically improves…).

In general, the business opportunities at IoTSWC2017 focused on “operational efficiency” as a key driver of near-term industrial IoT projects. In other words, monitoring machine health, asset performance management, such as ABB’s Ability Smart Sensor and new modes of connectivity like the long-range Cassia Network’s long-range Bluetooth gateway (full-disclosure: I work at Cassia Network).

But, as the Cisco report notes the new modes of “connectivity” must go beyond new IoT technology, and also include those messy “human factor” aspects – the social aspects of culture, teams, leadership, and collaboration across entire ecosystems of humans.

For example, here is where the “practical wisdom,” of knowing who has power within IoT projects. An insightful conversation with Vernon Turner, Senior VP and IoT Research Fellow at research firm IDC pulled this nugget, “the number one person driving IoT projects is the CTO.”

Turner described CTOs, and not business units or product managers, as the point people for testing IoT Proof of Concepts (POCs) and driving IoT deployment in the enterprise. IT departments are seen as the departments best suited for understanding the application of IoT projects in the enterprise, so they’re getting the IoT budgets allocated to IT departments, noted Turner.

Whether you’re addressing an independence movement or an IoT project, knowing who has the power to make things happen, and what that power looks like, is key to success or failure.

Back to the IoT Success Rate Question

Which brings us back around to the original “human factor” in IoT and the roughly 75% failure rate issue described by Cisco. Whether it’s the CTO, the CIO, or a system architect working hand in hand with HR, how are we to ensure the “human factor” is well aligned with delivering on IoT projects (and is the IT department best suited to deliver on that side of the IoT project success rate equation?). Notably, (and as a reminder) Cisco pointedly noted “culture, leadership, and organization” are critical to IoT project success.

In many ways, the same may be said, of the success or failure of the Catalonians’ bid for independence still playing out in Spain. Starting with the earlier “technosocial process” discussion in mind, “how” should anyone in an enterprise, in a IoT project, or a national movement position themselves to look at a situation “differently” in order to deliver a higher success rate, in an environment of black swans and low in the swamp dilemmas?

Getting Technosocial IoT Right: Let’s Ask the Greeks

Lets start with a new “lens” (though it was first described by Aristotle over 2000 years ago) for seeing these issues. As technologies of the IoT and social dynamics converge in unexpected ways, post-modern ways of seeing technology, truth and power are also changing. How might we take a broad look at “technosocial process” and flip the ratio from a ¾ failure rate to a 75% success rate?

One of the possibilities involves phronesis, aka practical wisdom, as described in the recent writing – and practical application – of Bent Flyvbjerg, the Danish mega-projects economic geographer and Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University’s Said Business School. Which we will review in Article 2: IoT and the “practical wisdom” of Aristotle.

References

Cisco Survey Reveals Close to Three-Fourths of IoT Projects are Failing, (May 23, 2017)

LaMagdeleine, D. (2016) The Leadership Imagination