IoT Evolution or Revolution? – Making the Thing Nervous System a Reality

The Internet of Things (IoT) could not be a bigger “buzz phrase” at this point. Even more than past technology hype cycles, this one requires the discerning business person to filter through the noise and develop a clear view of how this technology wave will affect their business.

It is useful to take a look at IoT within the larger context of previous waves of information and communications technology innovations. Typical vendors in the business to business (B2B) market have been focusing on technology advancements and generic productivity arguments. We call this a technology looking for a solution. It now appears that we are approaching the challenge the same way with IoT.

If you think carefully about the true ambition of the IoT vision, it goes way beyond the evolution of the Internet to connect things and people. IoT is about connecting everything and getting value from all the underlying assets with significant business impact when it matters the most. It truly is an opportunity to reengineer business processes and models to create new value.

Thing Nervous System

Connecting sensors, devices, and network to the cloud and business users will create a “business nervous system.” The human body’s nervous system is a reasonably accurate metaphor for this major change in business practices and operations. For example:

Our nervous systems conduct stimuli from sensory receptors to the brain via the spinal cord. The brain then processes these in various ways and executes commands and decisions back to other parts of the body.

In IoT it is like a “Things Nervous System.” This system is a network of physical devices embedded with electronics, software, and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service levels for an organization and its end users. It does this – just as the brain within the nervous system does – by exchanging data with local devices, other devices on remote networks, the device manufacturer, the network itself, and centralized databases and analytic models. Each thing is uniquely identifiable in the system and is able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure.

What Does All This Mean?

You should be able to take every piece of digital information from an IoT system (Things Nervous System) to optimize your business, just like a human nervous system coordinates voluntary and involuntary actions and transmits signals between different parts of its body to make sure the human body performs in an optimum and healthy way.

Why Are We Talking About This?

The scale and pervasiveness of the IoT vision means that the opportunity to approach technology implementation from a desired outcome perspective is more significant than in previous technology adoption waves. IoT’s breadth and scale means the opportunity for much improved outcomes is simply much larger than in the past.

How well your “Things Nervous System” needs to perform to withstand any fluctuations, demands, or proactive goals is a broader question than older technology adoptions where only one piece of the process puzzle was in focus at a time. Using the metaphor of this piece – exercising all of your body and muscles vs. only – for example – your arms or legs.

Doctors who serve patients best take a holistic view by focusing on the desired outcome of the entire system. Only after that first step does the doctor determine and recommend the appropriate solution or approach (medicine, surgery, etc.). In a similar fashion, we should start looking at how IoT solutions need to be created as a living things network where all the pieces impact each other.

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Real Life Use Case

A real life use case for IoT should help cement the concept and illustrate the power of this way of thinking. Companies in the electric utility industry typically deal with outage prevention to provide reliable service to their customers. The scenario often looks something like this recent example we came across with our customers:

  • They have a smart electric grid that consists of 15 million smart meters to meet the needs of consumers and commercial customers.
  • During a midsummer day, the temperature is unexpectedly hot and humid beyond the projected levels. As customers start turning on air conditioners, demand will start to rise above the forecast resulting in brownouts or blackouts.
  • How do they avoid brownouts or blackouts and address the sudden fluctuations of demand and maintain reliable service to their customers?

Traditional Approach

In the traditional approach of building solutions, we would do something like the following:

  • Build a solution – combination of products and services (hardware and software)
  • Compare the solution with others in the market to differentiate to effectively sell to the customer
  • Run proof-of-concepts to prove out the technology, while figuring out the requirements for the business problem or need
  • Deploy the solution and assess the fit for the business problem

This cycle, with emphasis on technology looking for a solution, would continue with every update and revision. Figuring out the problem while fitting the solution is a Sisyphus-type cycle that never ends. Even worse, over time, changes in direction and introduction of new technology will result in re-doing the entire process – an expensive proposition with slower adoption.

How Does Our Nervous System View Help Us?

Addressing the business need for this electrical utility can be done if we take a step back and think about our Thing Nervous System model. If we approach this business problem with the metaphor in mind, one where data flows every millisecond, we may be able to address this need at a requirement level before committing to a narrow solution.

  • As a first step, we can take a sample of data in real-time, just like a blood sample from the human body for diagnosis.
  • Next, we apply advanced technologies such as faster analytics as the data flows in the system, correlating the flowing data with contextual and situational data.
  • Then, we begin using advanced predictive and prescriptive analytics to predict and prevent catastrophic events. In this smart electric grid use case, it would use these advanced technologies on sample data to effectively spin up a new generator to meet the demand before a brown-out or black-out happens.
  • Business outcomes are more meaningful and tangible to justify a solution – minimize downtime and better customer service.
  • This process can be compared again to a doctor who gathers data broadly on the patient before recommending medicine or other action.

Final Thoughts

The general conclusion is that by thinking in terms of a process and data required for solving the business problem – and not a specific solution – we increase our chances of adding real business value. Furthermore, outcomes can usually be achieved at less risk and cost.

We think a true “Thing Nervous System” that adds real business value is what IoT can provide for companies that think through their business challenges carefully in advance. The opportunity will be significant and tangible by bringing together the promise of IoT networks with digital advancements in technology to make this “Things Nervous System” a core business asset. That’s a different kind of buzz that should get the attention of your company’s leaders and shareholders.

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