By Darima Fotheringham
Two weeks ago I attended Frontiers in Service, (#frontiersinservice) a global conference on service research. This year, the conference was sponsored by IBM and a lot of discussion was around the Internet-of-Things (IoT) or Internet-of-Everything, as it was frequently referred to. One of the presentations that I found especially interesting was by Irene Ng, Professor of Marketing and Service Systems and Head of Service Systems Research Group at the University of Warwick. She talked about smart technology, interconnectedness and data in a different context than the one that prevails in the IoT industry discussion. I found her perspective both simple and deeply profound. It highlighted a few important questions that I want share with you.
Technology developers are constantly pushing the envelope of what’s possible. However, it seems that in their fascination with the new technological capabilities, companies sometimes lose track of the most important element; humans as the ultimate customer and consumer of IoT. It is important to bring the human factor front and center into the design and use of smart things. IoT allows smart things to track and make use of large amounts of data, but it’s humans who are the integrators of data. It is not about our smart dishwashers being able to talk to our smart fridges. It’s about how these capabilities of smart appliances, and their “conversations”, can be integrated in our lives in a useful and empowering way.
We are generating vast amounts of data by using smart things, but we also give this data context, without which any data will be meaningless. Currently most of the data that’s being tracked is fragmented and owned by a few big players, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon. Opening access to the data and giving ownership back to the individuals can take IoT to the next level. Think of what you could do if you had access to the insights from the data that’s being collected about you across different service providers, and what new applications, new business models and services could be developed for us and with us. By the way, Irene Ng and her research team launched a project called Hub-of-All-Things, or HAT, to enable just that by creating a new platform powered by the IoT. I highly recommend checking it out. You can even sign up for your personal HAT to try, once it becomes available. Currently, it’s limited to UK and Singapore.
The new technological advances enable smarter things, smart phones, smart appliances, smart homes, which can do amazing things at a speed and accuracy that are outside of our ability. News reports share unnerving statistics about how many of our jobs will soon be taken by robots in the near future. For example, Gartner predicts that about one-third of jobs will be done by smart machines by 2025. Stories about the powers of AI make us believe that we are in direct competition with our smart devices. However, as Irene Ng pointed out in her presentation, a more useful approach is to view these smart things as amplifiers. They amplify and enable us to do more, by extending our capabilities. These smart objects are created by humans, for humans, and ultimately should be used to improve our lives. It brings to mind the example of the electronic spreadsheet invention, which eliminated hours of tedious manual calculations and transformed the industry. As a result some jobs were lost, but even more new ones were created and new horizons opened. NPR Planet Money did a great episode (Episode 606: Spreadsheets!) on this subject.
When you change the lens through which you look at smart things, it becomes clear that these objects are not smart on their own, they need collaboration with humans. It’s us, humans, who breathe life into these inanimate objects and make them smart. As humans, we operate in a complex social world, and it is not enough for the devices and products to be simply smart, they have to be “socially smart”, as Irene Ng puts it. She goes further to explain the meaning of “socially smart” in the context of smart objects:
- It means co-creation, collaboration with a human. An object cannot be smart on its own, without a human input. Socially smart objects can amplify our abilities by removing or reducing our limitations and opening new possibilities that we co-create together. It is not about simply serving us ready-made solutions based on predictive analytics.
- It means understanding context. We live complex and unpredictable lives, responding and reacting to a variety of different situations every day. Socially smart objects are able to fit in and amplify our capabilities within the context of each situation or scenario, independent of how consistent or irregular these situations or scenarios are.
- “Socially smart” does not mean socially responsible. Socially smart objects can amplify to serve a good purpose or a harmful one, all without moral judgment. They have no intentions, positive or negative. The moral judgment is completely in the hands and minds of those who control the smart objects. Take the story about Uber tracking and sharing stats about one-night-stand rides of shame on one hand, and on the other hand, the story of online Syrian activists transforming the media, social movement, healthcare and financial services during the Arab Spring, as two very different examples of data use.
This Frontiers in Service presentation was a good reminder to bring the focus back to the customers, the humans who are the ultimate consumers of the smart IoT. It also gives a lot of food for thought about the future of the fully connected world and the design of a socially smart IoT that will power new services. You can find more information about the HAT project and Irene Ng’s keynote presentation at Hub-of-All-Things website and watch the video of her presentation on YouTube.
While the Frontiers in Service conference is over, there is another conference focused on services that you may be interested in attending this year. It is the annual Compete Through Service Symposium (CTS) hosted by the Center for Services Leadership. It will take place in Scottsdale, AZ, on November 4-6, 2015. We hope to see you there!