Reflecting on the future of the IoT: convergence, simplification, technology narrative, security and lessons to learn from Covid-19


by Saverio Romeo, Associate Lecturer on Emerging Digital Technologies Management and Policy, Birkbeck – University of London

This was an article written at the end of 2019. At that time of the year, there are plenty of article predicting future trends and telling what to do for grabbing most of the trends. 2020 came fast and the Covid-19 as well. The world is in a complete stand-by as the expected 2020 never started.  What the future will be after the Covid-19 crisis is difficult to say. That requires profound thinking, using scenario analysis, taking into strong considerations socio-economic and political directions our living together could take. The IoT, as a technological framework, is ubiquitous enough and flexible enough to provide responses to new potential scenarios. But, to do that adequately, challenges remain to face. The article explores the pre-Covid 19. They will remain in a post-Covid 19, but others, perhaps unexpected, will come due to the situation. In some part of the text, I have added some comments to reflect the arguments to the time we are living in. They are in italics between brackets.    

“This is the time of the year for predictions. The very entertaining and informative book “SOONish” by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith starts like that:

This is one of those books where we predict the future. Fortunately, predicting the future is pretty easy. People do it all the time. Getting your prediction right is a bit harder, but honestly, does anyone really care?

In more than 10 years of work as an analyst, I have always been apprehensive regarding predictions because they are easy to elaborate – if you study the technology or the market every day, you should have some ideas -, but difficult to corroborate – you need data for doing something robust enough to support it – and impossible to get it right. But, probably, no one really care if you are getting it right, but everybody cares if you have a solid argument for what you want to predict. Putting aside the quantitative predictions which require some work, the qualitative predictions or also ideas for the future, if somehow sustained by some thinking, can be useful at least for reflecting about what has been done and what should be improved or changed. With this positive attitude, I am going to share some of mine for 2020, hopefully supported with some arguments.

  1. On the way back from Rome, where I attended IOTHINGS 2019, I read an entire Italian newspaper, from politics to football passing by opera. A good part of the newspaper was dedicated to disasters caused by environmental conditions. The word “manutenzione” – Italian for maintenance – reverberate in many articles. I would add the adjective “predictive” to it to emphasize the important idea of “predictive maintenance”. The term is very used in industrial contexts, but the possibility that I can predict events and act accordingly is what the next step of the IoT evolution should be. But the IoT does not do it on its own, it needs to come together with other technology frameworks, one that commonly goes under the name of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The convergence of technology frameworks has started, and it will characterize the discussions during 2020. [Monitoring infrastructures, predictive infrastructure maintenance, predicting movements will all be relevant areas when we will define mobility in the post-Covid 19.]
  2. The technology frameworks mentioned in point 1 include 5G. Do I really need to talk about 5G? I think at this time of the year, if you are an attendee of technology conferences, you have had enough of 5G. You are so full of 5G that you are happy to switch your network to 2G, remembering the nice old days! But, if you are not an attendee of conferences and you do not share your coffee breaks with technology people, you do not know much about 5G a part from that is environmentally dangerous, belongs to the elites and they control us and they will control us more and no one can do much! As usual, digital technology people love to discuss among themselves forgetting that my mum really believes that I am an assassin because I like the idea of 5G! [In Early March 2020, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection published the Guidelines for Limited Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields showing that 5G is within the electromagnetic radiation limits already set in 1998. I should now convince my mum! The community should tell this story to the public in an easy way. The Guidelines are for techies!]
  3. Point 2 takes me to the necessity of explaining technology to the people around us. This is one of the reasons for spending time with students on emerging technologies. If we believe that technologies can change radically our ways of living, we need to elaborate a narrative to explain all this to the rest, who is not involved in technology. We need to inform the public otherwise technology will be an exogenous and alien force put upon us. The consequence of not doing that are evident to anyone, unless you do not want to see it.
  4. Point 3 is about bringing technology and innovation close to the daily life of everyone and enable everyone to enjoy the benefits. SMEs have often been left out or someone can argue that the condition of being an SME makes difficult the experimentation and use of new technologies. Whichever is the angle, the use of IoT among SMEs is not easy. Failures are frequent, and not only among SMEs. The reasons of failures are diverse, but the IoT vendor community seems to have reach a consensus on the need of simplifying IoT development. Since September, I attended 5 conferences and worked with different IoT vendors and the word “simplification” is the common motivation for solutions that should make life easier to IoT adopters. 2020 is there to see the effect of that “simplification” process. For researchers and analysts, the question will be: “Will the “simplification era” reduce the rate of failures of IoT projects?” [Covid-19 has forced organizations towards remote and digital forms of working. Perhaps, we should catch the opportunity for radically transform the way of working ubiquitously with a strong investment for “smart SMEs”. Let’s really do Industry 4.0 for all!]
  5. Simplification clashes with the idea of convergence expressed in point 1. Convergence is fascinating, but brings complexity, in turn, failures. Companies can find themselves between these two forces, simplification on one side and convergence on the other side. But, if we see at the IoT solution as a living idea that starts well, works well, scale and then expand sophisticating its features because the adopter enjoys the value of the solution and wants more, then simplification and convergence go well together; simplification for developing secure, reliable, and scalable solutions; convergence for expanding their capabilities such as automating, predicting and doing that at the edge if needed. [To do that, business and innovation ecosystems are an essential tool. Collaboration intense and strong as ever for the post Covid-19 time.]
  6. And everything said from point 1 to point 5 is valid if we take security in mind. This is emphasized so many times in different contexts and by different experts, but we will see more of these recommendations in 2020 because security is the foundation of all.” [Covid-19 is showing our weaknesses and our unpreparedness to unknown attacks. Even if a virus attack was not unknown. We had Sars, Mars, Ebola. Scientists designed pandemic plans to respond to that type of emergency. We did not really apply those plans. A bit like we do with the IoT. We have guidelines for securing the IoT, but we do not really apply them. Let’s learn the lesson here and invest for securing IoT solutions.]