The Internet of Things isn’t about things

March 1, 2013 in Connected World
Mickey McManus
BCG Senior Advisor

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

There has been quite a bit of talk lately about “The Internet of Things.” But that terminology, while cute, barely scratches the surface of the opportunities, and challenges, ahead.

Just from a basic machinery standpoint it’s really going to be about the Internet of Things, and People, and Places. A world with a trillion-node network will likely even have a whole bunch of things that compute and connect, but never directly touch the Internet. If the Internet represents the main arteries, these branches will be like capillaries and veins. I think about this a little like the connectivity in my own body. There is no question that my skin is all connected, but when I cut my leg, the skin cells don’t call some central server back up in the cloud (that’s where I keep my head at least) to find out what to do, they work with their neighbors (see and you thought peer to peer was invented by Napster) to weave a scaffolding and repair the damage autonomously. Every cell in my body keeps a copy of what makes me, me. I suspect that’s much more like what will happen as we move towards truly pervasive computing. Imagine what it would be like if, every time a new skin cell was born, I had to configure it individually. Connecting “things” to the Internet sounds kinda fun when we don’t have too many of them, but when they are as populous as the cells in our bodies, and our genes start to tweet, our current approach will threaten our sanity. I’m not convinced there are enough Geek Squads in the Universe to handle all the support calls.

Beyond the basic technical plumbing of the Internet of Things, the real value will come from all this computing finally being framed in the context of our lives, over the arrow of time. If I check my blood pressure in the kitchen it probably means something very different than if I check it in the emergency room. Ultimately this isn’t about things at all it’s about people. A world saturated with computing and connectivity must also be saturated with good design or people won’t be able to tolerate the complexity. It would be a terrible failure if we continued to expect more and more of our time to be dedicated to becoming ever more computer literate.

As an aside, I have no problems with the current fanboy fascination with everyone learning how to code. I learned Fortran in seventh grade back when that meant using a keypunch machine on an IBM 360 mainframe at Northwestern University. Learning about algorithms gave me a glimpse into the hidden architecture of constants and variables. It was one of my first tastes of the scientific method. Coding can be a gateway drug to science. But we’re currently in danger of giving hobbyists the keys to the kingdom. Just because I can code, doesn’t mean I should. I like hobbyists of all sorts. I have friends who love model trains too. They’ve tried to convince me that my life would be better if I just learned about the cult of Lionel, but I don’t give them sharp objects once they come up from the basement.

Let’s talk about flipping the equation and asking that the future be made more human literate. Successful products, services, environments, and experiences will do just that, using computing in context to hide, and tame, that complexity for their customers.

Where will we find sources of inspiration as we design for the future? Given the scale of the challenge, we may want to study someone else who’s already solved the problem, someone like…Nature. The design patterns in the generative frameworks of our own bodies and all biological systems, from the carbon cycle to the basic building blocks of life, hold the key to surviving and thriving in the Age of Trillions.

We are at a crossroads that someday will be seen as the turning point towards a new epoch in human existence. Industries will be born overnight and others will fall off a cliff or fade away. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately and I’ll be exploring the implications of the Internet of Things over the next few posts.

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