The Internet of Things

Futures Rambling #82
By Laurie Aznavoorian

Earlier this week I was travelling on a plane from America to Australia, unfortunately it wasn’t with British Airways and therefore I was not offered a hi-tech ‘happiness blanket’ woven with fibre optics connected to neuro-sensors to measure my brainwaves. If I’d had one, the blanket would have morphed from a bright red to blue as I binge watched all nine episodes of True Detective and sipped scotch indicating an increased level of relaxation.

Blankets that read brainwaves are just one example of how things in the world are beginning to interact with people to improve experiences, when those things bypass us all together and talk directly to each other, it’s referred to as ‘the internet of things’, The IoT. The term was coined back in 1999 by technologist Kevin Ashton, but is still a relatively new idea for many of us. It describes a world in which everything, from a person to the inanimate objects that surround them, has a digital identity enabling computers to organize and manage them.

Having the word internet in this phrase misleads small minded people like me; The IoT is not about the internet at all, but a major departure from it. It’s often described as the next generation of the internet – a global system of interconnected networks, sensors, actuators, and devices all using internet protocol to talk to one another. The big change is connections have moved beyond computing devices alone to include billions of everyday items like blankets, parking meters, home thermostats and light fixtures.

If you believe The IoT is going to simply fade away like other failed tech trends e.g. Second Life and QR Codes, think again. A new report by Business Intelligence suggests 1.9 billion devices are connected to each other today and by 2018 this will increase to 9 billion. To put this in perspective, it’s about equal to the number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers and PCs we have today combined.

As you’d expect, The IoT has taken off in the tech industry as evidenced by Google’s acquisition of Nest, a smart thermostat and smoke alarm company for $3.2 Billion. Most of us have already experienced The IoT through wearable devices like Fitbit and the Nike FuelBand that track activity and store it in the cloud reminding us of what lazy arses we are. Even in Seattle, where people are far from fashion conscious and would more likely wear a device to drip feed Starbucks, I saw a guy wearing Google Glass just last week, and yes he did look like a tosser.

The greatest potential for The IoT lies in industries that are not yet digitized, unlike information industries like communications and entertainment, the prospect of remaking traditional products into new smart and connected ones is a larger challenge for ‘old economy’ industries that will require many more sensors and big data to take full advantage of things talking to things.

Never the less, companies like Dell, Intel and Samsung are already joining forces to ensure their smart devices work together and Cisco’s “Internet of Everything” is testing sensors for applications in old fashioned places like prisons and hospitals. GE’s “Industrial Internet” applies The IoT to the dusty old public sector, as well as, mechanical and plant engineering services.

The potential to connect large-scale agriculture, transportations systems and highways is enormous, imagine a future where highway lanes adapt to traffic flow or roads are designed to serve speeding autonomous vehicles. Business and government application for The IoT is equally compelling. Advertising will connect to marketing via billboards, smart factories and telecommuting support systems and there is great hope The IoT will improve traffic management, collect tolls, apply congestion penalties and establish smart parking space management.

But wait, it also does julienne fries! Just kidding, moving beyond the Popell Chop-O-Matic jokes; there will be no turning back on The Internet of Things for three reasons:

1. COST: Connecting to the internet used to be very expensive, now it’s cheaper and easier and this enables more things to be intelligent. A parking meter can now be part of an intelligent city for just a few dollars
2. BIG DATA AND ANALYTICS: Dumb devices from the past have finally found their voice and they’re telling us things we need to know to make smarter decisions.
3. FINANCIAL: The industrial Internet of Things has the potential to fundamentally move society in a very good direction by developing connected systems that only work when they need to

The applications for The IoT in the architectural and design industries is staggering, a point driven home when I relived my early days as an architect and visited floor 3 of The Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Floor 3 is office furniture stomping grounds and after a quick stroll and peruse of the major American manufacturers it was clear they are all over this. Chairs were chatting to worksettings and furniture enclosures talked to lights.

The obvious question that comes to mind when contemplating The IoT is how this new dialogue between things is going to make us feel? Will we be left out and isolated like we’re in a foreign country and can’t understand the language, or worse like we’re back in grammar school being snubbed by the popular kids? More importantly, when everything around us is smart will it force us to acknowledge how dumb and lacking in purpose some of us are, the Kardashians spring to mind?

Having worked with many organisations struggling with the complex emotional issues of transforming work styles, I can imagine The IoT will wreak absolute havoc in the corporate realm where control freaks and micro managers abound. If middle managers had a tough go at mobile working and felt inconsequential as a result, imagine how The IoT will make them feel. First we take away their ability to manage by wandering around and now they won’t be required to control other aspects of work experience.

Once again technology is forcing us to envision a new world where the physical and the virtual merge and objects have the ability to be intelligent and networked. Creating organisational dynamics and business models that transform these visions into reality and capitalize on their potential will be one of the future’s key challenges and with that comes an even greater need for workplace designers to appreciate and be conversant in the complex interactions and dependencies of space, people and technology.

Alder, Emily 2013, ‘Here’s Why ‘The Internet Of Things’ Will Be Huge, And Drive Tremendous Value For People And Businesses’, accessed 17 July 2014

Bell, Donald 2013; ‘Failed Tech Fads’. accessed 21 August 2014.
‘British Airways Begins Testing ‘Happiness Blankets’ 2014, accessed 20 August 2014
Ferber, Stefan 2013; ‘How the Internet of Things Changes Everything ’ accessed 17 July 2014
Nusca, Andrew 2013, for Between the Lines, ‘The Internet of Things is ‘fundamentally about economic value’ accessed 17 July 2014,
Watson, Carlos 2014, ‘The New New Thing: The Internet of Things’, accessed 17 July 2014,


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