IoT's possibilities can be fulfilled only when citizens are aware

One of the popular catchphrases at this year’s World Economic Forum, Davos, was “system transformation”. The organisers provided comprehensive details and resources to back up the discussion of what this phrase means: a root-and-branch re-engineering of the ways we create and deliver products and services... enabled by technology. This revolution will serve the planet and its population, helping to close the wealth gap and reduce environmental damage.

At Davos, the focus was on food production and delivering medical services—but I believe we can go much further. The Internet of Things (IoT) is creating a global network of smart, connected devices that can enhance our lives, economies, and businesses, but are citizens aware of its potential?

With an estimated figure of $15 billion by 2020, IoT’s market potential has never been more interesting to technologists, investors and bankers in India. Its potential to improve the lot of the poorest among us is even more compelling. But unless citizens are aware of the IoT’s possibilities to transform public and private lives, its promise may never be truly fulfilled here.

V S Shridhar, Senior vice-president & head, IOT, Tata Communications
This assertion is based on my first-hand observation of consumer awareness and interest in IoT, as well as a study published by Tata Communications, its inaugural “India IoT Report”. The report captures the dilemma facing the industry which potentially limits its ability to really transform society. 

Respondents readily associate IoT with concepts such as home automation: 91.1 per cent indicated a desire to see IoT used to monitor and manage their home appliances, even in their absence. However, only 14.5 per cent associate IoT with improved public services and 9.6 per cent believe IoT can enhance access to public services.

IoT at home has captured public imagination, particularly in terms of facilitating household chores. According to the report, 54.5 per cent admit to forgetting to stock up on essential groceries such as milk at least once a month, while 22.7 per cent confess to running out of such supplies on a weekly basis. Three quarters (75.3 per cent) respondents said they would be excited to invest in a technology that means they never have to worry about re-stocking the fridge with regular supplies themselves.

In reality, such applications are perfectly valid, but represent just the tip of the iceberg of IoT’s potential to deliver public services, reduce environmental impacts, and improve the delivery of essential services such as security, safety, traffic management and health care to all. In health care, for instance, IoT will enable parents to receive automated reminders about vaccinations and other routine interventions, resulting in better time management for the health care ecosystem at large. With half of India’s drivers spending over 12 hours per week in their cars, IoT can also manage traffic flows and reduce congestion and pollution in real time. Such reductions would represent a tangible improvement in their quality of life. Even the advantages of home automation can be scaled to a societal level: a recent study by the Consumer Technology Association suggests using connected devices in a home environment could reduce domestic energy consumption by at least 10 per cent.

According to the India IoT Report, only 30 per cent respondents expect IoT to deliver improvements to health care; a similar proportion anticipate better traffic management, and 24 per cent expect a reduction in air pollution. It is my belief that only as these proportions start to rise, industry, the public sector and civil society will start to prioritise the wider societal benefits of IoT as opposed to the individual ones.

Further details of citizens’ incomplete understanding of IoT was revealed in the India IoT Report: while only 14.2% of the respondents are completely aware of the concept of IoT, over a third (34.6%) associate it primarily with smartphones.

Educating the public on IoT's full potential would be one of the principle roles of a so-called 'Civic Operating System' ('Civic OS'): a set of principles to ensure the benefits of IoT are fully realised and distributed amongst all sectors of society. A Civic OS could be defined as the ability for people and devices to connect and relate to each other for the benefit of citizens. It would represent a framework through which public and commercial services will be delivered directly to individuals by and through a range of connected devices, from wearables and domestic appliances to smart vehicles and surveillance cameras. IoT will underpin and fuel this Civic OS, enabling seamless and secure connectivity between devices and appliances to make services more accessible, reduce environmental impact, and empower communities.

The emergence of a Civic OS would represent not only a technology milestone but a societal one too: an evolution in the way citizens access services, relate to each other and to other organisations, both public and private. It would also represent a shift in their expectations about the quality of services they receive, the degree to which these are real-time and predictive, how they are personalised, and their availability through any device in any environment.

To return to where I began, such expectations will only be fulfilled once all sections of society are aware of IoT's broader potential to transform and empower their communities. The first role of India's Civic OS would, therefore, be an educational one: the sooner citizens start demanding public amenities that are IoT enabled, the sooner they'll start benefitting from them. The system transformation theories expounded at Davos can be brought to life - when we have aligned understanding with the exciting technological advances we are creating.