“Hard Problems” the Focus of MIT Connected Things 2016 Conference

by Roy Murdock | 04/12/2016

VDC found itself back in Cambridge at the Connected Things 2016 Conference last Tuesday, organized by the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge. The pragmatic IoT verticals – industrial, medical, and public sector – were a large focus of the conference, with MIT scientists and professors contributing a healthy dollop of academia and high-level thinking as a counterbalance. Senior leaders from IBM, PTC, Ericsson, Analog Devices, New Balance, Air Canada, the cities of New Bedford (MA) and New Haven (CT), and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were among those who presented or participated in panels throughout the day. Here are a few key takeaways from the conference:

1. IoT is a “Design Language” – MIT Professor Sanjay Sharma

Professor Sharma is the Dean of Digital Learning at MIT and helped co-found the Auto-ID Lab at MIT.  He gave a great talk on how he views the IoT as a design language rather than a technology or a platform. He asked us to consider a phrase his daughter recently used: “I’ll just Whatsapp you my location.”  She unconsciously encapsulated a stunning number of technological advances in that phrase –satellites, cellular networks, data transmission, communication protocols, Google Maps, etc. – all largely invisible, but summed up neatly with a new verb. Professor Sharma expanded this concept to the IoT, positing that we will see new IoT-driven words entering tech conversations, stressing that it is hard and painful to unlock value from new design languages, but that it is worth the effort in the end.

With respect to IoT security, he believes that a few key pieces of infrastructure will go down – power plants, nuclear reactors, major grids – before government and industry really come together to take regulation and enforcement seriously.

2. Boston as the IoT Supercluster – Katie Stebbins

Katie Stebbins, Assistant Secretary of Tech, Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, brought a civic viewpoint to bear on our discussion of the IoT. She began by highlighting the large pool of technical and management IoT talent in the Boston area, stating that Boston had lost the consumer Internet battle to San Francisco, but that the commonwealth is poised to win the war for the industrial IoT that will unfold over the next 20 years. She singled out healthcare and security as “hard problems” that Boston is uniquely positioned to address, and promised further government investment in these areas to scale up growth and innovation.

Katie brought up another point that is rarely discussed in IoT circles – the divide between the hubs where technology is created, and the communities that it is supposed to help. Drawing on her background in economics of decline, she reminded the audience that there are still 44 towns in Massachusetts that have no access to the Internet. She emphasized that the economic gains brought on by the IoT must enable citizens in less fortunate communities outside of the super hubs, and that “a rising tide needs to bring up all boats.”

3. Implementing IoT Takes a Lot of Work

Several speakers at the event detailed their trials and tribulations in bringing the IoT to fruition. For example, Michael Murray, General Manager of the Industrial Sensing Group at Analog Devices described how implementation of IoT at one of the semiconductor company’s own production facilities required the installation of miles of cabling and ultimately led to the development of a new type of sensor. (Nice to have those kind of resources available.) And Jon Mitchell, mayor of the city of New Bedford, noted how he constantly works to overcome competing special interests and the budgetary constraints, particularly in a less-affluent region of the state. “Such is the lot of mayors of mid-sized cities,” he said. Nevertheless, Mitchell has helped make New Bedford into a leader in smart city technology through early adoption of LED streetlights, gunshot detection sensors, intelligent building controls, and electric vehicles in the municipal fleet, as well as extensive renewable energy, noting that the city has more solar electric generation per capita than any US city other than Honolulu.

Overall, the event was informative and enjoyable with a great mix of private and public sector ideas coming together to inform the dialogue. With our recent attendance of the Security of Things Hackathon last month, the MIT Media Lab is quickly becoming one of our favorite venues for all things connected. We look forward to contributing to Boston’s growing role as the steward of the gritty, salt and sweat-stained industrial IoT movement.

View the 2017 IoT & Embedded Technology Research Outline to learn more.