Smart, smarter and even smarter…

I have been following industry news for smart systems for years. Starting with smart phones back in 2000 (see my first not very smart phone) the communication industry has turned into IT and many traditional electronic companies are where nobody expected them even 15 years ago. Good examples are Siemens, IBM and Nokia whereas some of their competitors (read: Samsung, Sharp, etc.) are desperately trying to tap into every part of the consumer and corporate ICT market. I am slightly puzzled what direction some energy companies are driving – they seem to want to do anything that looks forward-thinking, intelligent and progressive, but seem to go for world domination. Remember ENRON? All the big promises and very little innovation. Nevertheless, we consumers are getting more gadgets to play with, have smarter cars and home appliances and occasional deja-vu feeling when ordering goods or reading news targeted specifically to us.

In my view we can split the smart systems into two broad categories – IT systems that provide rich content by manipulating data (collect via sensors, mine and report) and utility services that have IT attached to them to provide the users all sorts of outputs.

Let’s take a look at some of the components that form ‘smart systems’. Please bear in mind this is a very simplified take.

First – the data. Data is all around us. Over past 20 or so years we have seen more and more sensors popping up that gather data about our behavioural patterns. The way we go about our everyday business, where, how and what do we spend our (occasionally not disposable) income. In order to make sense of that data, it needs to be structured and then manipulated. Once past data structuring we get to information layer. This is where some intelligence is applied which results in customer-based suggestions like Amazon and many other on-line retailers do.
Any business that wants to stay on top of and exceed their customer expectations need to gather and manipulate data, and action on it. This is becoming true for the other service providers as well. Take utilities for example. Here in the UK we are very good at switching the suppliers like socks. There are even specialised services that keep us all informed of the best offers. Good magazine came up with an infograph about the world of data. Looking at sources, I have a rough guess it amounts for the data generated by non-corporate users.

Second – devices. Smartphones, laptops, netbooks, tablets, wireless appliances, home electronics – the list is endless. Those are all must-haves today. At least it seems to be true for the western society. All these gizmos and gadgets are here to enhance our on-line experience. Which does not mean these devices always improve our productivity. Turning on location sensor on our smartphone lets our Facebook friends know that we are in Liverpool this weekend, not in London. This can be positive, as your friends will know they can’t land in your flat after night out. Similarly there are cases where people have been burglared due to over-eager tweeting while on holiday. Moving away from the devices that we carry along to more integrated systems takes us… home. Smart homes are the next big thing when the technology becomes available to the majority of public. Currently it is too expensive to sway average Joe over from his more traditional systems. Another side to the ‘smart’ problem is fear of losing control over one’s home appliances. Or even worse – giving it to the energy companies who can then decide how and when to tell your washing machine to start to save you more. Energy companies should do a bit more to persuade their customers to be more trusting if they want to succeed. as you leave home by car, you’ll meet even more smart systems hidden in your vehicle (well, at least the newer ones). BMW and Audi are taking it a step further working towards Smart Cities which have energy flowing and cars take care of driving. Which nicely ties into IBM Smarter Systems for Smarter Planet programme. IBM has taken its intelligence gathered over the years and plugged it into the project to make this world a better place. Or so I hope. Another similar programme is launched by Sony – Open Planet Ideas. I can’t help, but some of it looks like a greenwash to me as a large number of companies are trying to boost their credibility by being green. I mean – literally redesigning their products and websites from black (equals luxury) to green (equals err… environmentally positive?).
Back in April Intel was announcing its ever growing interest in energy sector. Their approach is again customer centric. PCWorld article “Intel’s experimental sensor analyzes appliance power consumption from single outlet” describes this as something wanting to be your best friend. What many customers do not get is this – what’s in this for the utilities supplier? What value is generated to the shareholders by ensuring your customers consume more efficiently and pay lower bills. There are more unsolved mysteries out there…

Third – consumerisation. Consumerisation ties closely in with previous component – devices. This term came into use in 2009 when major players started to talk about need for flexibility among corporate workforce. Let people decide what devices they want to use (latest technology vs. corporate tool-set) and improve their productivity this way. What many are not talking about is supportability. Apple mobile products are very smart, but those are targeted for the consumer market. Large corporations CIO’s are not simply wiling to take on supporting unsupportable user hardware. Good luck fighting the Y-generation!

Fourth – optimisation. When it comes to re-engineering business or any other processes, the first step should be optimisation. Having meaningful information make optimisation way easier. IBM worked with City of Stockholm to optimise its traffic system. They set out to collect toll charges electronically, predict traffic flows/patterns and provide live information to the commuters. The strategy was to use workload optimised systems, virtualisation and flexible delivery models. Result?
* City traffic is down by 18%
* CO2 emissions have been cut by between 14-18%
* Ridership on public transport has increased by 60,000 passengers per day

I would call this an optimisation and progress. There are many cities in Europe that should try to catch up and exceed these results (hint: London).

To pull all these aspects together, we have loads of sensor-rich devices all around us, that generate a load of data of which to some extent can be used to drive our behavioural patterns at home and at work. Do we like it? Well… we don’t actively fight it.
I plan to continue discussion on this topic, watch this space.

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