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  • Pascale Vicat-Blanc

Connect for Purpose

Our mission at Stackeo is to help companies build and exploit sustainable smart connected solutions. In this first post, we asked Pascale Vicat-Blanc, our co-founder and CEO, to share her vision on the Internet of Things and its relationship with industry and the environment.

Promising to be one of the most disruptive technological revolutions since the advent of the Internet, the Internet of Things (IoT) has many existing definitions. If you had to define it with your own words, how would you?”


The Internet of Things is often described as the extension of the Internet as we know it, to the objects of the physical world. After the Web, the Internet of information, social networks, the Internet of people, the Cloud, the Internet of computers, we now aim at connecting the physical world (our buildings, roads, factories, agricultural fields, power grids, water networks, trucks, trains, cars, homes …) to the virtual world, the Internet of Things.

But for me, the Internet of Things is more than just the extension of the global communication network to new entities. IoT is a brand new paradigm that is certainly augmenting the capabilities of the Internet but also opening a lot of new opportunities we have yet to uncover. The promise of IoT is not only to make concrete objects able to send and receive packets (like vanilla Internet), but also to create and aggregate insights from many physical objects and direct them to decision organs that will, potentially, control these smart objects back.


In fact, the IoT acronym should not stand for “Internet of Things” but for “Insights of Things”!


And these insights will be the enablers of eco-aware and smart manufacturing, smart transportation, precision health, precision agriculture… The things and assets that surround us are not passive anymore. They can talk and help us know what to do in order to adjust as well as to improve their accuracy and our efficiency. They can also adapt themselves to be more autonomous and frugal.


Decisions can now be based on precise, real-time, real-world local data. This is particularly important in periods of changes, of adjustment, like in current sanitary and environmental crises.


When you speak in terms of “real-time” or “precision”, you are far away from the design principles of the traditional Internet protocol named IP!


IoT is all but dumb!


Indeed, the Internet is the interconnection of heterogeneous networks that move data packets from any point of the world to any other point. Conceptually, the Internet architecture has been designed to be ultra simple, robust. This is why it was able to scale globally over the years. The extreme simplicity of the Internet Protocol made the Internet highly scalable. The core Internet system is completely dumb and doing its “best effort” to deliver messages. It has never been designed for supporting the hard constraints of the physical world.


On the contrary, IoT requires to be all but dumb. Its value is not simply in communication, but also data processing, sophisticated analysis, decision making and action. This is “connecting for purpose”! Ultimately, the Internet of Things is creating a world wide cloud of "sensor-decision-actuator systems”. A web of smart IoT chains. A big telescope, a large stethoscope, a macroscope[1] with a large “brain” for diagnosis, anticipation and adjustment.


Each very well organised “sensor-to-cloud” chain is deployed for a specific goal. For example, to bring temperature, humidity, and occupancy data from the physical world to a smart building application that can exploit this information to produce insights for the building manager. These insights enable her to take timely data-driven decisions as well as execute her long term strategy, in real time and in depth. An IoT solution can incentive a factory to consume less raw material while maintaining its level of production; a city to consume less energy while better heating its public buildings; a farmer to better irrigate its fields; a railway company to detect failures in its infrastructure earlier to minimize downtime and customer dissatisfaction… We are entering the era of awareness and optimization at a time of increasing population, scarce resources and unstable climate.



"Analysts predict 75 billion of connected devices by the 2025 [2]. With the proliferation of connected solutions, do you think the IoT is a threat to the environment?"


Yes and No. I believe an anarchic deployment of IoT, and especially IoT just for “comfort”, is a real threat to the environment but also to human beings. However, I also believe that the large-scale deployment of eco-aware IoT for real purposes is a real chance for the planet and human beings.


We just need to make IoT right


I am convinced that it is important to think twice about the necessity, the value and the risk of any large IoT deployment. For example, we should always ask if and why we really need to monitor or remotely control a given asset. Do we really require to collect, store and process all these measurements, pictures or videos? do we need them continuously? for which purpose? What do we really need to know, to see, to detect, to control? In fact, we better start by defining the real outcome we want to achieve.


With the original Internet, the Web or social networks, we used to reason about connectedness in terms of “network effect”. According to the principle of the “network effect”, the value of a network grows exponentially with the number of its interconnections. The more you are connected, the higher the network value: you can access more information and disseminate it faster, you reach more “others”, your world becomes “smaller”. These are the positive externalities of the network. This was the key driver for the vanilla Internet and why so many people are connected to it.


However, there is a “but” that we have all experienced over the years. The more connected we are, the more vulnerable we become to congestion, to cyber-attacks, to intrusions in our private sphere, to fake news…and also the more energy we consume, the larger our impact on the planet. This is what scientists call the negative externalities.


By design, the Internet presents no limits in terms of span, volumes and technologies it can support. And, during the last decade, the same happened with Cloud technology, natively elastic and virtually unlimited. But today we realize that an Internet without boundaries is nonsense in terms of energy and resource consumption. Moreover, an Internet of 75 billion of active connections is not conceivable from a resource standpoint. Today we have 4.7 billion of active Internet users and Information Technology is consuming over 10% of the total global energy consumption (over 50% of the aviation sector’s energy consumption). IT can account for 25% of a modern office building’s energy cost. We cannot multiply these numbers by 15 or even 5!

The irony is that, as we start connecting the virtual world to the physical world, we realize that we are going to reach the “physical limits” of cyberspace. The Internet and the Cloud have a very real and non-negligible footprint! The virtual world eats the resources of the physical one! Something that we hadn't noticed or had intentionally tried to forget about in order to exponentially grow our digital economy.


So, yes, I fear that an uncontrolled deployment of the Internet of Things would certainly produce more negative externalities (rare metals scarcity, increased CO2 emission, energy rarefaction, cyber attacks, privacy issues) than positive ones. So the ultimate equation is in fact preoccupying and very complex. Appropriate tools are required to calculate and anticipate both the benefit and the cost of IoT chaining.


This echoes the report on Digital Sobriety (as opposed to Digital Obesity) published last month by “The Shift” project[3]. Digital sobriety means moving from an instinctive, or even compulsive use of digital tools, to a controlled one, which knows how to choose its directions: taking into account the opportunities, but also the risks.

Deploying digital sobriety means steering our technological choices, the deployment of infrastructure and associated usages in order to preserve the essential contributions of digital technology.


As I said at the beginning of this post, I strongly believe that IoT is not optional.


Consequently we are urged to build it right. We should not connect for the sake of connecting. Not just connecting for our comfort. Not collect massive amounts of data because we have to fill large pipes and because data is supposed to be “the new oil”. We should also continuously improve the energy efficiency of the hardware, networks and algorithms that are being used end-to-end to make the world smart.


IoT is not optional but we must connect with caution and for purpose.



"What do you mean by IoT is not optional?"


The simple answer is: IoT is not optional because “you cannot improve what you don’t measure” and we all know that we have a lot to improve in terms of waste, pollution, water and energy consumption for example.


Knowledge is power!


The connected layer has the potential to reveal a lot of insights about our activities, our inefficiencies, our room for improvement and savings.

For example, if a chemical plant does not measure the quality of air in its neighborhood, it cannot quantify the problem and potentially correct the situation. Unaware of its actual nuisance it will probably continue to produce more and more polluting substances. The same with buildings, if you do not measure the temperature and correlate with occupancy and energy consumption, you will have difficulty identifying “thermal leaks and wastes”.


My vision is that IoT is not desirable for the network effect it can create via hyper connectedness, but for the value of the real-time and precise data it produces and conveys to decision organs and people. For example, the earlier you detect a water leak, a traffic jam or a tsunami, the sooner and better you can react, save water, time, lives and avoid dramatic consequences. In some circumstances, if the data comes too late, it is useless. So real-time is important. Our climate is becoming very unstable, same with our sanitary situation. We cannot afford to continue growing blind.


IoT is also not optional because our companies have to do better with less if they want to remain competitive. I recently read in the “IoT Signal” report that Microsoft published in October[4] that “due to its immense breadth of benefits, 90% of IoT decision-makers believe IoT is critical to their company’s continued success, and 64% plan to implement even more IoT in the future”. Business decision makers (BDMs), IT decision makers (ITDMs), and developers are also telling us that COVID-19 is accelerating IoT strategies. One of the interviewed CEOs explained that during the lockdown, he was glad its IoT-based manufacturing plant could automatically adapt to increased demand. “Thanks to our smart factory, we don’t have to control and adjust things so much. Based on the data we have, the system knows already in March that we have to increase the production, based on the data from the previous years”.


These days, companies that do not connect their factories and assets to do better with less, face more risk of being disrupted.



“Excluding the environment, what would be the next challenges that IoT will tackle in the future?”


IoT adopters are facing many difficulties to industrialize connected services . As mentioned in the “IoT Signals” report, “ scaling the IoT solution presents a formidable challenge as organizations struggle with the complexity and technical obstacles”. 


IoT is complex.


If you look at the anatomy of an IoT system you realize how complex such a system is. Let’s consider the scenario of a “smart auto parts factory” made up of thousands of interconnected devices, generating annual revenues of over $1 billion. The company realizes that planned downtime is a major challenge - a challenge that can cost up to $300 per second. Therefore, the company would like to reduce these downtime losses with the help of an IoT solution.


The imagined system will be composed of several types of sensors and communicating devices based on different hardware technologies, various operating systems, using various communication protocols. The IoT architects, in charge of designing such a system, have to select the sensors, actuators, equipment and on-board operating systems suitable for each device. However, there is a wide range of devices and operating systems, depending on the architecture of the hardware platform and the desired communication protocol. After choosing the best assembly for the infrastructure elements, architects must choose the networking, data streaming and data analytics elements to link these objects and their data to the cloud and applications.


Only then can the actual programming of the application logic, which depends on the selected operating system, protocols and platform, be considered. The software solution is then “cross-debugged” across the various distributed components of the system. The design and building of IoT solutions as a whole require knowledge of many technical disciplines, such as embedded systems design and programming, network design and configuration, distributed and mobile computing, edge and cloud computing, artificial intelligence and data analytics, human interactions. On top of this many technical and non-technical disciplines relating to the domain where the IoT will be applied have to be mastered. Thus, defining an IoT solution from an holistic perspective requires a range of knowledge and experience rarely found in a single individual and, in fact, requires a smart multidisciplinary team.


IoT is disrupting.


The promising and profound change implied by IoT and digital transformation is also difficult because it disrupts company culture. For example, traditional industries are not as agile as the software industry. The “connected” is indeed more and more coupled with software paradigms. Agility culture is now a must have to innovate and fail fast in the DX era.


Since 2015, I have participated in the strategy, design and deployment of IoT solutions for large accounts in the USA and Europe. I often noticed that the development of IoT-based services were, in terms of methodology and programming approaches, at an artisanal stage, comparable to the Internet era before the Web. This immaturity problem constitutes, for me, one of the reasons for slow success of IoT at scale. But this is going to change fast in the coming years.


I think that simplification, anticipation and collaboration will be keys to mass adoption. This is why we have launched Stackeo and are working hard to address the complexity and sustainability issues of smart connectivity.



“How Stackeo help those companies to be ready and well armed to lead the IoT to the right direction?”


We believe that by reducing IoT complexity and opacity we will help companies unleash the power of perceiving and transforming their impacts. This is why Stackeo and our community strive to empower teams with the fluidity, insights and automation that make the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT) super easy and durable for all. Stackeo provides IoT modeling, automation and simulation in a collaborative workflow to help industries reap the full benefits of smart connectivity without putting companies and our planet in danger. We will tell you more about Stackeo innovations in our future posts.


In the meantime, why don’t you share with us your ideas and concerns on IoT, economics and environment?


References:

1. http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/macroscope/default.html


2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/471264/iot-number-of-connected-devices-worldwide/


3. https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Deployer-la-sobriete-numerique_Resume_ShiftProject.pdf


4. https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/iot/signals/

About Pascale Vicat-Blanc


Pascale is founder and CEO of Stackeo. She has a long experience as researcher and entrepreneur in France and the Silicon Valley in the fields of internet protocols, virtual networks, cloud computing and IoT architectures. She was Research Director at the french National Institute of Computer Science, co-founder and CEO of Lyatiss SAS and Cloudweaver Inc. (pioneering SDN, NFV and AIOps), Senior Director of Engineering at F5 Networks (introducing MQTT in Big IP). Pascale graduated from University of Lyon (INSA and ENS) and received, amongst other distinctions, the Innovation Prize from the French Academy of Sciences, INRIA and Dassault Systems in 2013.


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