7 observations from the “Internet of Things” World Forum 2017

It’s unfortunate that we’re left with the clumsy phrase “Internet of Things” to describe the estimated 50 billion gadgets, sensors and doohickeys that will be connected to the internet in 2020. It sounds clunky, clumsy and vague enough that it’s really easy to conflate the frivolous (a WiFi-connected kettle, for example) with the potentially life-saving.

The Internet of Things World Forum is now in its fourth year, and the conference has grown considerably from the band of true believers who attended the first ever event in Barcelona in 2014. As the conference was right on my doorstep at the Tobacco Dock in East London, I attended the first day, and here are some interesting themes I picked up on from the various talks and panel discussions I dropped in on.

It’s undeniably big business

Provided by Dennis Publishing LimitedCisco, the company that hosted the event, showed exactly how big the Internet of Things has become – and how much further it has to go. In the last five years, $6.9bn has been invested in industrial IoT projects – and nearly a third of it in came in the last year. In Barcelona, estimates suggest that IoT projects have created a whopping 47,000 new jobs.

“There are now 8.4 billion things connected worldwide,” said Cisco president Chuck Robbins in his keynote. “And 3.1 billion of those things are being used by business. Think about that: we’re in the early stages, phase zero where 26% of these things have success in their early low-hanging fruit initiatives, and there’s already over three billion of these things.”

This is a security headache

Most people struggle to keep up with basic security hygiene on a single phone and a laptop – so imagine a world where we’re due to hit 50 billion devices worldwide by 2020. We’ve seen the damage that connected devices can do with the Mirai malware that made thousands of IoT devices slaves to a botnet.

“The surface level for threats is going to increase exponentially,” Robbins said in his keynote. “We are actually blocking 20 billion threats per day – that’s six times the number of searches Google is doing.”

Hopefully, companies will step up to the security plate, and make grey hat projects such as BrickerBot redundant. 

It’s a world where trailblazers can make fast progress

In the world of IoT, you can think of lot of neat individual examples, but few complete integrated solutions outside of Singapore. That may sound underwhelming at first, but it actually means that the stage is wide open for a trailblazer to step up and do it well. As Inbar Lasser-Raab, Cisco’s vice president of products and solutions marketing said in her keynote at the start of Wednesday’s session: “Caterpillar joined us for our first year in Barcelona, just to explore. They came the following year to Chicago and were on stage sharing an incredible IoT product, and they’re here again this year talking about their progress.”

The IoT makes strange bedfellows

Because nobody has a monopoly on the Internet of Things, initiatives undoubtedly lead to some very strange bedfellows. “You’re going to build partnerships with companies that you never dreamed of,” said Robbins. “If you’d have said ten years ago that Cisco and Rockwell were going to build a partnership, I’d have said ‘that’s great, we’ll sell them some stuff.’” Turns out the partnership was more evenly balanced than that. 

Right now, few projects are completing

Cisco announced a surprising statistic from its own research at the conference: only 26% of IoT initiatives are completed successfully. That’s not as bad a headline as it sounds, however, as Lasser-Raab explained: “That doesn’t mean that 74% are not successful – but that they’re in the process of getting there, or they’re slowing down and need more resources or other things to get them going. Roughly 15% were truly failing, which is around what you’d expect.”

A quick poll of the audience showed the areas where delegates were struggling:

Some projects can mean the difference between life and death

If you’re a rhino, anyway. I took some time out to chat with Dimension Data about their conservation project where IoT sensors have managed to dramatically cut down on the poaching of rhino in a South African game reserve. Sensors around the border of the game reserve mean that the moment an unauthorised person clears the fence, officials can be at their location within seven minutes – and the solution doesn’t require the rhino being interfered with at all.

I had a half-hour chat about the project with Dimension Data’s Bruce Watson – so keep an eye out for the full interview soon. 

It could be transformational… and not necessarily how you’d think

We’re still in the infancy of IoT development, with simple integrations happening first as you’d expect. With billions of dollars flowing into the industry, bigger projects are on the way and they could be truly revolutionary.

One simple example of this stuck with me from Don Tapscott, author of Blockchain Revolution, who explained some possible knock-on effects of a truly integrated technological solution.

Autonomous cars, connected to smart roads and infrastructure would be generally transformational, he claimed: “A virtual mass transit system can solve a whole bunch of really big problems – not just energy, pollution and traffic, but in London half the cost of the police is traffic control and maintenance. What if that money could be reinvested?”

Indeed. The Internet of Things may seem frivolous at times, but we’re still in its very early days. The next few years could genuinely be transformational. 

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