Although the dynamics in each country around the world will inevitably be slightly different, the UK is experiencing challenges in terms of kick-starting a vibrant Internet of Things (IoT) market that are pretty universal.
The single biggest issue according to almost every presenter at last week’s Westminster eForum in London on “Developing the Internet of Things” relates to a lack of standards, particularly around interoperability. Caroline Gorski, head of IoT at Digital Catapult, a body tasked with growing the UK’s digital economy, explained:
The IoT is a scale play so we need interoperability to work across ecosystems. If we can crack interoperability, which includes security and developing standards that understand the impact on infrastructure, capital can release a significant return.
Professor William Webb, chief executive of Weightless SIG, a standards organisation for IoT connectivity technology and director of wireless communications consultancy Webb Search, agreed. He said:
Everything we do needs to be standards-driven. Mobile and wireless solutions are all based on open standards and the same rules apply in the case of the IoT if it’s to be successful…There are too many technologies at the moment and most of them are proprietary. The industry is very fragmented and so we need to drive a single standard.
The downsides of not having one in place include the fact that retrofitting a 30-year old pump with IoT-enabled hardware, for instance, is very expensive as there are a wide range of sensors based on a variety of technology that uses different protocols. This means that it is not yet possible to simply connect an IoT device to the internet as you would a computer, according to Michael Bironneau, head of technical development at Open Energi, a dynamic electric grid-balancing platform.
It also means suppliers providing the hardware also currently sell related services, making it impossible for smaller third parties to mix and match components in order to create a more innovative and dynamic market.
As a result of these issues, the British Standards Institution (BSI) started working with a range of other organisations, which now number about 1,000, in 2013 under the auspices of the Hypercat Alliance. The goal was to develop a specification enabling both the automatic discovery of devices and the use of data from those devices by lots of different systems.
The Alliance plans to submit its spec to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in about 18 months with the aim of having it adopted as a global standard, but is currently also collaborating with similar initiatives in China, India and Australia to gain their input. David Cuckow, head of global engagement at the Alliance, said:
Interoperability is fundamental to the economic impact of the IoT and if we don’t have it, it won’t succeed. About 40% of the benefits of smart cities come from interoperability and sharing data, and it’s why we’ve gone down this route….The real value is when devices can interoperate across siloed systems, look at the data and see new value chains of data.
The vital role of trust
Another important and related issue is that there are simply not enough IoT developers writing enough applications to help the sector grow. Cuckow continued:
We had to try and enable everything to work together because, at the data layer, it’s very complex to make it happen. There was a realisation that we don’t have the right number of developers to scale IoT fast enough, which was why Hypercat was developed - to help them do it much faster and help the market accelerate at scale.
Other areas in which the Alliance is seeking to develop standards, meanwhile, are security and privacy. The challenge here, in a nutshell, is this, explained Cuckow:
If citizens don’t buy into the idea of open data due to security and privacy issues, the IoT won’t take off. Regulation has a role to play here, but if it’s too heavy-handed, it will stifle innovation. So light-touch regulation is the answer.
But it appears that action to tackle the situation may be needed sooner rather than later. According to a survey undertaken last April by the Mobile Ecosystem Forum, three fifths of the 5,000 mobile users questioned around the world were worried about the implications of a world based on connected devices. Some 62% were anxious about privacy issues, while 54% had concerns over security.
As a result, in acknowledgement of the vital role that “trust” plays and in a bid to address the matter, technology trade association techUK published a “trust principles framework” in mid-January, aimed at vendors creating products and services. Building on the UK’s existing data protection legislation, it provides guidelines on issues such as transparency and data interoperability and is meant to act as a document for further trust-based discussion.
An IoT equivalent to the UK government’s accredited Cyber Essentials programme [https://www.cyberessentials.org], which is intended to encourage organisations to adopt good information security practice, would also be worth considering, believes Open Energi’s Bironneau. But a sensible piece of advice from Matthew Evans, chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group and head of techUK’s SmarterUK smart infrastructure and IoT programmes upfront, is that:
If you don’t know why you’re collating data, don’t do it. Or else proactively ask consumers if you can and convey the benefits to ensure you get buy-in. If you don’t, you will see a backlash.
This statement is particularly true in light of the fact that suitable legislation is far from developed in the IoT space. Areas requiring clarity range from whether existing consumer laws are enough to deal with the use of personal information in an IoT world, and whether adequate intellectual property safeguards are in place regarding the commercial exploitation of IoT data.
According to Mark Thompson, global privacy advisory lead at management consultancy KPMG, though, there will also be new challenges to face in future too. He explained:
If you have a smart meter, it’s already possible to tell from your energy usage if you watch TV, so it’s about getting access to information that you wouldn’t necessarily expect…..If you have an internet-enabled toothbrush, it’s good if the data goes to a dentist who can help you with any teeth problems, but if it goes to an insurance company and they won’t insure a given tooth, it’s not so good…..Data can end up being used in lots of unintended ways so you have to understand the issues.
But before such scenarios can even come to pass, a lot of work will still need to be done on building up a commercial market. Open Energi’s Bironneau warned:
The IoT has no value just as a network. It’s about applications, and also other things such as artificial intelligence, software engineering and data science. So we need tools to get the data out and handle it in the same way that big data ecosystems do today. This means the government needs to invest in these areas, especially as Brexit may mean that the UK needs this kind of technology more, but business may be less inclined to invest.
Weightless SIG’s Webb likewise believes that the government, although it is doing little in this area today, has an important role to play in kick-starting the sector. In fact, he believes that over time it will actually be a “big purchaser”, accounting for as much as 50% of the UK market in areas such as healthcare, transport and defence.
At the moment, however, “consolidating demand and putting out contracts” is a slow process, not least because of its traditionally risk-averse stance, “which can seem unhelpful to SMEs [small to medium enterprises] as they can’t provide endless free pilots to local authorities”, pointed out Digital Catapult’s Gorski.
But large commercial businesses that are “used to data being held in contained ecosystems” are also acting as market inhibitors too. The fact that they do not have the right risk models in place to share IoT information with third parties means that SMEs are currently finding it difficult to build products and services around it.
This situation is also not helped by the fact that venture capitalists (VCs) appear reluctant to invest in anything beyond applications targeted at smart homes and buildings, even though most experts believe the business market is where it’s at (see last feature). As Gorski pointed out:
We need a healthy sector focusing on everything from hardware and sensors to software and interaction.
But the wide scope that the IoT covers is also generating problems of its own. Not only is there a general lack of skills in both a technical and commercial sense, but the complexity involved means that it takes on average 18 months to three years to build a product compared with a tech industry average of three to six months – another factor that tends to put VCs, and developers, off.
This has led Digital Catapult and its sister, Future Cities Catapult, to set up IoTUK, a programme of activities to try and turn much of the theory into action. Supporting projects such as Innovate UK’s five city demonstrators and incubators and the NHS’ health and care test beds, its aim is “to unlock mid-term value”. Other goals include exploring ways to facilitate public sector procurement and finding means of “challenging the private sector to collaborate across ecosystems”.
The IoT still appears to have a long way to go before it hits maturity and moves into the mainstream. But its potential for automating yet more jobs out of the economy alongside its more discussed and feared cousin, artificial intelligence, would strike me as an important area for debate by industry experts too – and one that was mostly avoided, during this particular seminar anyway.