The State of Our Connected World

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently released the report “The State of the Connected World.”  In that report, the WEF reflects the growing importance of IoT technologies in a data driven world, a technology that links the digital and physical world into a cohesive fabric.  The cumulative effect of these systems is the creation of a digital twin that reflects current conditions.  Such systems allow data analytics processes to drive operational processes in real-time.  This represents a significant shift from today’s world where analytics are largely used to identify historic trends and forecast future needs.  While the potential benefits of systems are breathtaking in their ability to redefine even the most basic business processes, they also open the door to new scenarios that may arise if these technologies are not provided with proper guide rails.  

The report makes clear that the IoT space is still in its infancy and is expected to grow and even accelerate after the COVID-19 pandemic begins to subside.  The rate of technical evolution in this space is already outpacing our ability to establish laws, policy, and standards.  Despite efforts of marketing professionals to describe products as future-proof, it is impossible to predict how these guiding principles will evolve over time.  Therefore, existing systems must be constructed so that adaptability is a foundational requirement.  Current generation systems should anticipate that upgrades and retrofits are expected operational costs.  This observation can be compounded by the fact that operational costs of such systems are often significantly underestimated. 

Another point raised by the report relates to the potential for IoT systems to worsen the digital divide.  COVID-19 has served to highlight that we live in a world where there are marked differences between the digital-haves and the digital-have nots.  In affluent areas, access to high-quality, high speed internet is primarily a question of choice.  However, in many areas access to the internet is severely limited by speed, choice, and quality.  This creates a digital caste system.  Those in areas where the internet has improved education, economics, information access, and consumer choice while others are being left behind in a digital world.  The introduction of IoT technology could raise the ante even further by making targeted environments ripe for accelerated growth while other areas are left behind.

Privacy and security continue to be noted as key concerns.  Companies struggle to provide sufficient protection for their systems which are facing a growing onslaught of external threats (e.g. hacking) and societal expectations (e.g. CPRA).   At the same time, government authorities struggle to find the proper balance between the protection of personal freedoms without hindering the economic growth that arises from increased collaboration and data sharing.  Tied to such deliberations are issues linked to artificial intelligence and automation, two technologies that while being independent of IoT technologies, depend on the growth of IoT technologies in order to achieve their long-term market potential.

A key point which is outlined in the report but bears further examination, is the fact that a significant portion of the value that IoT systems creates is derived by linking disparate systems together.  For example, a manufacturing company can see immediate productivity gains by deploying IoT technologies to automate a factory floor.  Those base level gains can be exponentially increased when an automated factory is linked to supply chain distribution companies that have also automated their delivery resources.  Similarly, a smart home can make lives easier for individual residents but the composite value of such systems dramatically increases when the data from these systems are linked with the power-grid and other city services.

Despite the fact that IoT systems remain in their infancy, they have already become an indispensable part of the way we live our lives and conduct business.  While we face many challenges with these first generation systems, the benefits are so significant that there are many examples where the technology is being enthusiastically embraced.  As the challenges outlined in the WEF report are addressed, the benefits of IoT technologies will rise and costs will decline.  Together, these factors are poised to accelerate deploymnet of IOT systems, data networks, data analytics, and artificial intelligence.  

The Need for Information Networks

The pandemic of 2020 has been difficult to deal with as an immediate crisis and at the same time, it is a learning experience that can be used to make ourselves grow as a society. One of the many lessons that have to be absorbed relates to the nature of information. The COVID-19 virus does not respect geographic or organizational boundaries and that means our efforts to confront the virus have to also transcend organizational boundaries. Unfortunately, historically we have designed our infrastructure systems around organizational hierarchies and made it difficult for information to flow around these hierarchies. For example, when a hospital collects data, it does so in a way that facilitates the operation of that hospital. Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems facilitate data flows between hospitals as but only in prescribed paths that are not easily adapted to meet the needs of a crisis. Information flows have be managed in a more agile fashion if the goal is to allow data to shape our response strategy.
Lacking a coherent information architecture, emergency responders, nursing homes, public safety officials, and other critical workers have been forced to take it upon themselves to manage information flows between organizational entities. While we are thankful for the efforts of these individuals/institutions, it should not have been this difficult to develop a data-drive, coordinated response strategy. We should not be in a situation where different leaders are looking at different data or interpreting the same data differently as they establish policy.
Traditionally when people discuss infrastructure they focus on the highway system, airports, and shipyards. Only recently have been begun to consider the Internet a critical part of our infrastructure – it seems certain that our response to COVID would have been even more stunted had we not embraced this expanded definition. However, this pandemic experience calls into question whether we should push further; maybe the acceptance of data connectivity as infrastructure demonstrates an insufficient appreciation for the true need. Perhaps, information exchanges should be included in our understanding of critical infrastructure. Such information exchanges go beyond linking data producers with data consumers to provide a context to the enabled exchanges. If these information exchanges had been in place prior to the pandemic, data consumers would receive data with an understanding of what that data represents. It is that contextual information that allows simple binary data to become valued information that enables the decision making we need.