We’ve all heard of the internet of things (IOT): it’s about to connect everything on the planet in its own ‘world-wide-thingsweb’. We know about driverless cars and the connected home and we know that IOT sensors will tell us everything we want to know about our surroundings. But how do we unlock its potential and what new technologies are emerging? Digital Consultant Ashley Bowen updates us.

The current state of the IOT is similar to the early stages of the internet itself. Technologists are quickly becoming engaged but potential users have yet to get involved. Why should they – what does it bring for them and their business? But if people don’t know how it can help them, then they won’t be buying.

In unlocking IOT potential, the underlying IOT technologies, while hugely important, take second place to how the IOT will be used. The driver must be the use case – that is what will promote expansion.

The IOT will affect us all, as consumers and as businesses. The wired farm will bring increased automation, and therefore cost-savings, to agriculture. Healthcare will constantly monitor us as individuals, bringing an increase in predictive treatments before we get ill. We will have better awareness of pollution in our environment and smart cities will bring enhancements to where we live and work. Industry will develop new IOT-enabled products and services, such as replacing time-based equipment maintenance with sensor-driven predictive maintenance, saving costs in the process.

Technology already exists to do a lot of this – but which applications will be commercially sustainable? It is reasonably simple to switch street lighting on only when there are people walking underneath. But what are the costs and what are the cost savings?

Companies worldwide are currently experimenting with IOT use cases in every industry sector and viable solutions are slowly emerging. As with the internet, experimentation is not limited to big organisations. Individuals are getting their hands dirty and crowd-funded IOT platforms are springing up to encourage the citizen scientist to develop their own whacky solutions. This is exactly how the main internet expanded in ways undreamt of by the big corporations.

The Oxford Flood Network and the Fukushima Nuclear Monitoring Database are high-profile crowd-funded solutions but ‘find-my-bike’ (after a heavy night out!) or track the hedgehog (partnering with animal charities) are out there as well.

We might have heard of some of the underlying technologies such as Sigfox or Zigbee. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 4G mobile (and 5G later on). Other technologies such as LoRaWAN are rapidly emerging.

To push the IOT, technology suppliers must acquire a deep understanding of the issues and opportunities in different vertical sectors, possibly by recruiting from these sectors. They must enter partnerships with their customers to encourage IOT developments – testing the technology but, more importantly, testing the commercial viability. At the same time, they must stay close to the small-time innovators – some of whom might prove interesting.

At the end of the day, most businesses realise that the IOT is coming but they don’t know how to embrace it – where are their value propositions? What they’re afraid of is that if they don’t get involved, then their competitors will. My argument is that there’s huge potential in IOT but to unleash it technologists must start holding the hands of enterprises and entrepreneurs, and we must start focusing on business cases.

Ashley has spent over twenty years implementing customer care and billing systems to telecoms operators across the world. He is now a founder member of the Brighton Everynet, a community IOT platform based on LoRaWAN