Thoughts on (the Internet of) Things

| MSNY Staff

“You don’t know what I need, and what’s interesting is I don’t know.”
Justice Stephen Breyer

The Internet of Things holds enormous promise.  I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel hosted by the Institute for Education in Washington, DC, featuring Aneesh Chopra, the first-ever Chief Technology Officer of the United States, as well as Dr. Joe Polastre, Dr. Sokwoo Rhee, and Geoff Mulligan, each of whom recently completed tours of duty as Presidential Innovation Fellows with the White House.* It was particularly meaningful to hold the conversation amidst an audience that included Ambassadors from around the world, leading journalists, and a variety of DC thought-leaders eager to engage with this increasingly important topic.

The Internet of Things (IoT) may go by many names, but at its core the concept refers to embedded sensors in the built environment that are networked together to share information directly from machine-to-machine.  Ultimately, impact comes not from the ubiquity of data, but through its combination with connected computing power that can transform those data building blocks into action.  As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said, “The era of ambient intelligence has begun, and we are delivering a platform that allows companies of any size to create a data culture and ensure insights reach every individual in every organization.”

Yes, IoT can make feedback loops faster, create smarter infrastructure and cities, automate tedious processes to save time and money.  But what is so incredibly exciting about this growing suite of innovations is the impact on people’s lives.  Mulligan put the concept into perspective, noting that while the internet’s original function has been to allow people to talk with each other, now it is allowing machines and devices to communicate.  Just as the internet laid the groundwork for an information revolution, so can a sensor-connected network of technologies have a similar impact – one that will save lives, democratize access to goods, and fuel economic growth.

But that revolution won’t occur on its own.  It requires entrepreneurs and companies to incorporate an IoT strategy in their business models and operations.  Importantly, it also requires government.  At the core of the discussion was the question of how, exactly, government should play a role.  Discussion centered not just on funding, but also on government’s potential role as convener.  Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer voiced concern that governmental hands in cultivating innovation might undermine a competitive market system, saying, “You don’t know what I need, and what’s interesting is I don’t know.  And everybody in the government has different needs…”  Furthermore, he pointed out that the “tunnel vision” of large institutions might precondition them to be inherently anti-innovation.

Chopra responded by distinguishing between a top-down control structure and an open innovation approach.  One example of a government taking an open innovation approach could be found in Chopra’s experience convening chief information officers of large energy companies to “get consensus on the standard” around providing users with energy consumption data.  The result is called “Green Button” and it is now helping over 100 million Americans gain digital access to their energy usage information as well as the 21st century tools that can help them save money and reduce energy consumption.  Additional examples of the open innovation approach to government can be found in Chopra’s new book, Innovative State.

As a society, we are faced with increased complexity and greater distribution of capability, meaning that society’s biggest issues can best be addressed through collaborative cross-sector approaches.  When considering IoT policies, we should keep in mind the potential that this framework of government as facilitator offers to empower individuals, entrepreneurs, and businesses to solve problems more effectively.  At the same time, we must help create an environment in which every organization – including governments – can adopt IoT strategies to drive efficiency in their own operations.  Microsoft has been front and center in helping people and businesses incorporate strategies which leverage the Internet of Things.  Our Technology & Civic Innovation team looks forward to partnering actively to further develop smarter and more responsive 21st century communities.

*Full disclosure: As co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, I am very much a fan of the program and its people.

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MSNY Staff