Invisible Infostructure – Let’s Get Physical


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While we tend to associate technology with the virtual world, now the physical, ‘real’ world is equally a part of it. With a multitude of tangible objects that are connected to the network, which can sense atnd store data, the boundaries between both worlds are quickly blurring. The Internet of Things provides unlimited opportunities for organizations to become both smarter and even more intimately linked to their customers and partners. And the trend comes full circle with the rise of 3D printing, which allows enterprises to materialize ideas and concepts in ways that were previously unthinkable

Let’s stay safely away from definition games and simply assume – together with our trusted friends from Wikipedia – that the Internet of Things (IoT) is the “interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices within the existing Internet infrastructure”. Estimates differ, but the near future (2020) will very likely feature powerful networks comprised of 50 billion connected, intelligent objects.

In such a world, anything connected to the network spews data. To collect and analyze that data, the infrastructure truly becomes an infostructure: a foundation that builds new business capabilities on top of things, devices, wearables and even smart ‘matter’. Data, intelligence and analytics capabilities thus form a crucial component of any infostructure linked to the IoT.

Another key component will be providing access to smart objects through open, standardized and catalog-based Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), where the technology inside the actual objects in many cases will not be within the domain of the IT department but would certainly be accessed through APIs instead. It makes Intel’s acquisition of Mashery all the more understandable.

New architectural frameworks are required to address the significant technology and business challenges. Along with an initial focus on application development, sensory analytics and a new IT infrastructure, these frameworks will need to include (open source) machine architectures, governance, regulatory provisions and the type of security capabilities that can provide adequate security for the users of these 50 billion connected things. Organizations are forming consortiums (such as the Open Interconnect Consortium) and are providing development platforms (such as IBM’s IoT Foundation) and are exploring new Industry standards (such as HyperCat) to drive IoT adoption.

Furthermore, it’s important to realize that the Internet was born from the need for humans to connect with other humans. As a consequence, the Internet has a starring role to play in providing real world human context to the IoT picture. Even though a substantial part of the communication between objects within the IoT will be Machine-to-Machine (M2M) in nature, tracking human behavior and offering predictive new desired features for users customer needs will be the true measure of success for the IoT.

A practical real world example of this is Phillips, allowing external developers to use IFTTT (If This Than That) API scripts for their smart products – such as the Wifi HUE light bulbs. With releasing more products that can be accessed through IFTTT, it allows customers to mash-up customized IFTTT ‘recipes’ and share them with the outside world through a dedicated Phillips website. Phillips can then analyze how consumers use their products and what new features they might desire in the future, even smarter product releases.

But ‘things’ do not only become ‘virtual’: the reverse is happening as well. In 2014, General Electric already successfully used 3D printing to manufacture an entire, functional jet engine. 3D printing is clearly coming of age indeed. 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital definition. The virtual design of an object is made using a 3D modeling program (or a 3D scanner to replicate an already existing object). Already, these objects can be printed with embedded intelligence by infusing unique identifiers within the objects during their creation. It is yet another illustration of the blurring of the physical and virtual worlds.

Authoritative market estimates describe a IoT revenue pie of over 10 trillion dollars in the forthcoming years. That makes a strong incentive for existing and future businesses to claim a slice. Businesses will need to address the balance between the physical and digital world through make, buy, partner and crowd-sourced models. The IoT is no longer a futuristic projection: it is happening right now and true value creation not just depends on smart data gathering and analytics, but much more on solving identified human needs.

Architects will need to design and deploy a stable, secure and open platform to fully leverage the potential of the Internet of Things in all of these dimensions. Even if it’s not always clear yet how smart objects will create value. When such a compelling platform emerges, infrastructure becomes infostructure.

Corey Glickman
I am the global lead in Design & Innovation with Capgemini, a $14B solution integration consulting firm. I specialize in the formation of design and innovation programs, providing technology & business leadership experience as an expert in digital transformation, customer experience strategy, design, & the use of visualization. I have won 100's of awards, included being named one of the 100 most influential designers of the decade by AIGA. I currently blog weekly on how businesses are dealing with Digital Transformation, Design & IOT. I am a member of the HBR Advisory Council.


  1. Corey, I enjoyed your IoT perspectives. As I recall “May you live in interesting times,” was an ancient Chinese curse. We optimists enjoy being excited by interesting times. But, as you wisely suggest, we avoid a “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey phenomenon by keeping the real world human context in the center of our thinking, planning and inventing.

  2. I learned much from this article. Of particular interest to me is your statement, “Along with an initial focus on application development, sensory analytics and a new IT infrastructure, these frameworks will need to include (open source) machine architectures, governance, regulatory provisions and the type of security capabilities that can provide adequate security for the users of these 50 billion connected things.”

    In the IoT, who (or what) owns the data? The party that installed the device or sensor? The device manufacturer? The software application that collects the data and stores it? You mentioned security as an issue, but what about privacy, and the right to not have data shared? I’m interested in your perspective about how things might play out.

  3. Thank you for reading my blog and posting your thoughtful question around data ownership and privacy. My perspective is that Data ownership dynamics will consist of multiple layers of complexity, many of which will be dependent upon the purpose of the system. For example, in a system designed for digital farming, there will likely exist human to human (H2H), human to machine (H2M) a machine to machine (M2M), and machine to human (M2H) scenarios in involving growers, supply companies, robotic tractors, weather data sensors , GIS satellite data, regulatory commissions, etc. This will involve many types of entities, both public, private and government entities comprising a complex system of systems. Ownership of data will likely reside with who is funding the infrastructure of the system, or at least they will be granted access to some of the data in exchange for agreeing to be part of the system. And this scale of system will have many participants, sources and funders, so the pie will most certainly be split in many ways. So perhaps the way to look at the question is where value is to be found from the data, how someone puts a price on it, and who chooses to purchase it. Then who would receive the payment or the potential IP that can be realized when we see new possibilities and innovation from the new configurations evolving as a result of the system. Let’s look at the Internet for example; we are currently debating at the government level whether it should remain “free and open” or if the large infrastructure players be allowed to charge customers for speed and performance. The easy answer may be the former, but is it fair for the large infrastructure companies to continue investing and driving innovation that benefits all users at a scale that small players cannot do? If we choose not to reward them with “Data Access,” will large scale innovation cease? It is conceivable that data itself will become traded like a commodity. As for privacy, there will be legal mechanisms put in place, both private and government in nature, but it we don’t really have the legal mechanisms in place from a policy perspective, certainly not at a unified global level, so security will like be enforced by the technology and device stack, and will always be challenged by hackers and corporations seeking to gain advantage.


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