Who is making Levi's for the Internet of Things?

Somewhere out on the Wild West frontier of digital innovation are those searching for nuggets of gold in the 'Internet of Things'. Related frontier towns in this region are Big Data, Smart Cities, and the Quantified Self.

Having spent a day in the company of these people at IoT13 in Cambridge, I think this overused analogy is justified - the line about making 'the Levi's, picks and shovels' was used more than once.

Just as the railroads helped to make the West accessible, and paved the way for mail order catalogues and national brands, the internet and sensor technologies have opened up a new space, but it isn't yet populated.

Stan Boland perhaps put it best when he said that the Internet of Things was a "super-saturated solution" just waiting for a crystal to be dropped in for it to grow rapidly. It was clear from the lack of consensus in the room that which business model, opportunity or big problem will form this crystal is not yet clear.

Nat Billington asked me a question in one of the breaks: where are we now with Internet of Things, compared to the development of the web?

After yesterday's conference, I'd say we're a couple of years past the internet coffee machine (Nov 1993), but still haven't got to the launch of Hotmail (July 1996). The launch of Hotmail was significant - it gave the web real value for the first time to many people, and gave them a reason to go through the hassle of dial-up and logging on.

It's hard to recall now how long it took for us to get to a really useful web. There were years and years of persuading people to invest in a computer, a modem, a DSL line, for comparatively little reward - AOL, Hotmail, Geocities. The bigger benefits of Amazon, Google, Facebook - and the network effects they benefited from, were only possible because there were enough people with the right infrastructure in place to take part.

Have we seen the IoT equivalent of Hotmail yet? Maybe - it could be that Nike Fuelband or Fitbit, or smart utility meters are the first step to getting over the line.

But I suspect that none of these have really captured people's attention enough to become the trigger for mainstream adoption. We are still waiting for that one crystal of an idea that makes enough people say 'I really want that'.

As with the web, businesses are more likely than individuals to justify early investment, often on the grounds of efficiency - and that is already happening in things like parking systems, or new street lighting, or logistics and distribution. But when it comes to the home, someone yesterday suggested that instead of emphasizing the technology, or the efficiency gains, we should be appealing to the drivers that magazine editors tend to call on - fear, self-loathing and redemption. Fear might include home security, or baby monitoring (like bleep bleeps); many of the health and fitness apps are calling on our self-loathing and perhaps healthy redemption. There is much more that is possible with this technology, but to take off, it needs to start addressing real people's needs.


Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Director of Innovation Policy and Futures

Louise was Director of Innovation Policy and Futures within the Policy and Research team. She managed Nesta's work on innovation policy and technology futures. She previously worked on…

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