by James A. Bacon
Well, I’m a steamroller, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you.
Yes, I’m a steamroller now, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you. …
– James Taylor “Steamroller
The words to James Taylor’s blues classic “Steamroller” have been churning through my mind during the 2014 Niagara Summit hosted by Richmond-based Tridium as I learn more about the constellation of technologies known as the Internet of Things — the ubiquity of sensors, the falling cost of wireless and data-storage technologies, the rise of “big data” and the emergence of incredibly sophisticated algorithms — and the impact they will have on the business landscape and society at large.
The Internet of Things (IoT), to borrow Taylor’s imagery, is a steamroller, a demolition derby, a napalm bomb. It will flatten — or, to borrow the tech buzz word du jour, totally “disrupt” — the business landscape. Most Americans have yet to hear of the Internet of Things. But as the next wave of the ongoing IT revolution that has transformed the world since the 1980s, it is as momentous as the rise of the PC, the Internet and mobile computing. Admittedly, the IT industry thrives on hype and the search for the Next Big Thing. But there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind at Tridium or among the industry illuminati speaking here that the IoT is for real. IBM, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel and other industry giants are all piling into the IoT. Google recently paid $3.2 billion dollars for Nest Labs, a company founded in 2010, that manufactures smart home thermostats!
Tridium, whose Niagara Framework software provides the IT foundation for the building automation industry, announced yesterday its intention to expand into adjacent sectors involving large, complex facilities, including data centers, industrial plants and smart cities. Tridium, the most successful IT company ever to emerge from Richmond, is bidding to carve out a big chunk of the IoT. And, as fluid and unpredictable as the IT industry is, it has as good a shot as anyone at this point of being successful.
I have been blogging the event for Tridium’s blog Datamorphosis from an industry perspective but it is impossible not to think about the public policy implications of the IoT and, in particular, the smart cities movement. Asia and Europe are applying IoT technologies far more aggressively than most American cities. As Carrie MacGillivray, an analyst with research firm IDC, noted yesterday, the city of Barcelona, located in debt- and deficit-ridden Spain, is running a budget surplus. Its IoT initiatives have generated roughly $10 billion in savings. Admittedly, smart city initiatives, many of which focus on energy conservation, deliver bigger savings in countries where the average price of a kilowatt hour of electricity is two to four times that of the United States. But European cities are forging ahead in areas such as water and sewer, garbage and recycling pick-up, and parking and traffic management.
Whether you call it smart cities (evocative of IBM’s “smarter cities” advertising campaign) or the Municipal Internet (a term I just coined), the Internet of Things is sweeping through local government. There will be a lot of experimentation, a lot of false starts and a lot of bad investment that will prompt a lot of political hoo-ha and blowback. But cities and municipalities will learn a lot along the way and, like Barcelona, the intelligent ones also will make a lot of sound investments that (a) drive down the cost of providing basic services, (b) address chronic problems like parking and traffic congestion and (c) promote citizen engagement.
Anthony Townsend, the author of “Smart Cities” whom I recently profiled (“Tech Insurrection“) spoke yesterday at the Niagara Summit. He made the point that citizens and entrepreneurs operating outside the framework of government-funded infrastructure initiatives also have a lot to contribute. Tapping IoT technologies and accessing government databases that have long languished unused, grassroots movements can make cities more environmentally friendly, more responsive to citizens and just plain more fun to live in.
He gave the example of the Trees Near You app that draws from New York City’s tree census data to provide information about some 500,000 trees that live on city sidewalks. “No one at Cisco is ever going to think this app up,” he said, and if someone did, it would never win corporate approval.
The “Democratization of technology” made possible by the IoT can become a force for social change as well. Citizens have established networks of sensors that measure ozone concentrations with much greater granularity than is possible in large cities monitoring only four or five sites. Another example of bottom-up innovation is Four Square, a social networking app that provides recommendations from friends and associates on the best restaurants and eateries in town, informs you when friends are nearby and extends deals from retailers near you. Some applications are frivolous or amusing, such as the Oktoberfest of Things, which uses sensors to measure how much drink is left in large beer steins. But there is something to be said for making a city a fun place to live.
Some of these innovations may be taking place in Virginia under the media radar but there is not much sign of them. The Virginia Department of Transportation is investing in IoT technology to upgrade the capabilities of some of its highways, mainly in Northern Virginia. But some of that investment has been squandered. (Maybe I’ll be able to talk about Virginia’s rest stops one day.) The City of Richmond is doing some interesting things with Big Data but it is too early to know if anything useful will come of it. Otherwise, I have heard of very little. If anything is happening, it is due to the initiative of exceptional government officials acting on their own — for there certainly is no groundswell of public opinion, or even of public discourse, here in Virginia.
Cities that adapt the most quickly and intelligently to the IoT revolution will gain an immense competitive advantage in the years ahead — they will be able to provide a superior level of public services at less cost to taxpayers. This is the new frontier of economic development. Virginians need to embrace the IoT or miss an historic opportunity to win the race for livability and the competition for human capital.