Free Citywide IoT Data Networks Will Catapult IoT Spread to Hyperspeed!

One of the truly exciting things about viral digital phenomena is how rapidly they can take hold, outstripping the slow, methodical spread of innovations in the pre-digital era.  I suspect we may be on the verge of that happening again, with an unlikely impetus: the crowdsourced global movement to create free citywide IoT data networks.

We’re been there before, with the movement to open real-time public access to city data bases, beginning when CTO (and later US CIO) Vivek Kundra did it in DC in 2008, then sponsored the Apps for Democracy competition to spark creation of open-source apps using the data (bear in mind this was at a time when you had to explain to many people what an “app” was, since they, and smart phones, were so new).  From the beginning, Kundra insisted that the apps be open source, so that hackers in other cities could copy and improve on them, as they have — worldwide.

I was doing consulting for him at the time, and remember how incredibly electric the early days of the open data movement were — it inspired my book Data Dynamite, and led to similar efforts in cities worldwide, which in turn set the stage for the “smart city” movement as the IoT emerged.

As detailed in my last post, we’re now launching a crowdsourced campaign to make Boston the first US city, and second worldwide (following Amsterdam) to have a free citywide IoT data network — and plan to up the ante by setting of goal to cover the neighborhoods too — not just the downtown.

The Things Network guys plan to build on their accomplishments, announcing this week that they will advise similar crowdfunded networks on five continents (including our Boston project). They place a major emphasis on grassroots development, to avoid subscription-based infrastructures that could be controlled from above and which would limit l0w-cost innovations, especially on the neighborhood scale.  According to founder Wienke Giezeman:

““If we leave this task up to big telcos, a subscription model will be enforced and we will exclude 99% of the cool use cases. Instead, let’s make it a publicly owned and free network so businesses and use cases will flourish on top of it.”

I’ve been a fan of mesh networks back to my days doing disaster and terrorism because they’re self-organizing and aren’t vulnerable because there isn’t a single point of failure. But it’s as much philosophical as technological, because you don’t have to wait for some massive central authority to install the entire system: it evolves through the decisions of individuals (we’re already finding that in Boston: it turns out that our system will be able to tap a number of LoRaWAN gateways that several companies had already installed for their own uses!) The Amsterdam guys share that perspective. Tech lead Johan Stokking says:

“We make sure the network is always controlled by its users and it cannot break at a single point. This is embedded in our network architecture and in our governance.”

Takes me back to my callow youth in the 6o’s: let a thousand apps bloom! (and, BTW, the great Kevin Kelly made this point in his wonderful Out of Control, back in the mid 90’s, especially with his New Rules for the New Economy (I’m going to take the liberty of posting all the rules here, because they are so important, especially now that we have technology such as LoRaWAN that foster them!):

1) Embrace the Swarm. As power flows away from the center, the competitive advantage belongs to those who learn how to embrace decentralized points of control.

2) Increasing Returns. As the number of connections between people and things add up, the consequences of those connections multiply out even faster, so that initial successes aren’t self-limiting, but self-feeding.

3) Plentitude, Not Scarcity. As manufacturing techniques perfect the art of making copies plentiful, value is carried by abundance, rather than scarcity, inverting traditional business propositions.

4) Follow the Free. As resource scarcity gives way to abundance, generosity begets wealth. Following the free rehearses the inevitable fall of prices, and takes advantage of the only true scarcity: human attention.

5) Feed the Web First. As networks entangle all commerce, a firm’s primary focus shifts from maximizing the firm’s value to maximizing the network’s value. Unless the net survives, the firm perishes.

6) Let Go at the Top. As innovation accelerates, abandoning the highly successful in order to escape from its eventual obsolescence becomes the most difficult and yet most essential task.

7) From Places to Spaces. As physical proximity (place) is replaced by multiple interactions with anything, anytime, anywhere (space), the opportunities for intermediaries, middlemen, and mid-size niches expand greatly.

8) No Harmony, All Flux. As turbulence and instability become the norm in business, the most effective survival stance is a constant but highly selective disruption that we call innovation.

9) Relationship Tech. As the soft trumps the hard, the most powerful technologies are those that enhance, amplify, extend, augment, distill, recall, expand, and develop soft relationships of all types.

10) Opportunities Before Efficiencies. As fortunes are made by training machines to be ever more efficient, there is yet far greater wealth to be had by unleashing the inefficient discovery and creation of new opportunities.”

If you really want to exploit the IoT’s full potential, you gotta read the whole book.

Equally important, the Obama Administration announced it will boost smart city app development with a new $160 million smart cities initiative:

“Among the initiative’s goals are helping local communities tackle key challenge such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate, and improving the delivery of city services. As part of the initiative, the National Science Foundation will make more than $35 million in new grants and the National Institute of Standards and Technology will invest more than $10 million to help build a research infrastructure to develop applications and technology that ‘smart cities’ can use.”

The LoRaWan gateways used in the Amsterdam project are already low cost: only 10 of the $1,200 units covered the downtown area. However, The Things Network hopes to crowdsource an even cheaper, $200 version through a Kickstarter campaign.  If that happens, even small cities will be able to have their own free citywide IoT data networks, and when that happens, I’m confident the IoT will shift into hyperdrive worldwide!

Are you on board?


Oh yeah, did you say what about the risks of privacy and security violations with such a large and open system? The Amsterdam lads have thought of that as well, reaching out to Deloitte from the get-go to design in security:

“To make this initiative grow exponentially, we have to take cyber security and privacy into account from the start of the development. Therefore, we have partnered with Deloitte, who is not only contributing to the network with a Gateway, but will also be the advisor on the security and privacy of the network.

“’We translate technology developments in the field of Digital, Data and Cyber Security into opportunities and solutions for our clients. We are therefore happy to support the Things Network as Security & Privacy advisor’ Marko van Zwam, Head of Deloitte Cyber Risk Services.”

Incredible example of rethinking “things” with Internet of Things

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the epitome of the IoT-enabled product: the trash can!

My reader statistics do not indicate this blog has a heavy readership among trash cans, but let me apologize in advance to them for what I’m about to write: it’s not personal, just factual.

I’m sorry, but you municipal trash cans are pathetic!

Dented. Chipping paint. Trash overflowing. Smelly. Pests (ever seen any of those prize city rats? Big!!!) Sometime even knocked over. And, worst of all, you are so…. DUMB. You just sit there and don’t do anything.

BigBelly trash compactor and recycling center

But that was then, and this is now.

I have seen the future of trash cans, and, equally important, perhaps the best example I’ve seen of how smart designers and company strategists can –and must — totally rethink products’ design and how they are used because of the Internet of Things! 

At last week’s Re-Work Internet of Things Summit there were many exciting new IoT examples (I’ll blog others in coming weeks) but perhaps the one that got more people talking was the BigBelly trash compactor & recycling system, high-tech successor to the lowly trash can.

The company’s motto is that they are “transforming waste management practices and contributing to the Smart Cities of tomorrow.” Indeed!

I was first attracted to the BigBelly systems because of my alternative energy and environmental passions: they featured PV-powered trash compactors, which can quintuple the amount a trash container can hold, eliminating overflowing containers and the need to send trucks to empty them as frequently. Because the containers are closed, there’s no more ugly banana peels and McDonald’s wrappers assaulting your delicate eyes — or noses! Equally important, each is paired with a recycling container, which are almost never seen on city streets, dramatically reducing the amount of recyclables that go into regular trash simply because no recycling containers are accessible downtown.  These features alone would be a noteworthy advance compared to conventional trash cans.

But BigBelly wasn’t content to just improve the efficiency of trash and recyclable collection: they decided to make the containers smart.

The company worked with Digi to add wireless communications to the bins. This is a critical part of BigBelly’s broader significance: when the IoT first started to creep into corporate consciousness, of course designers thought about smart versions of high-value products such as cars, but lowly trash cans? That deserves real praise, because they fundamentally re-examined not only the product as it existed, but also realized that an IoT-based version that could also communicate real-time data would become much more versatile and much more valuable.

Here’s what has resulted so far (and I suspect that as the BigBellys are more widely deployed and both city administrators and others become aware of their increased functionality, other features will be added: I see them as “Smart City Hubs!”):

  • heatmap of trash generation in Lower Manhattan using real-time data from BigBellys and CLEAN dashboard

    instead of traditional pickup routes and schedules that were probably based on sheer proximity (or, as BigBelly puts it a little more colorfully, “muscle memory and gut instincts”), they now offer a real-time way to monitor actual waste generation, through the “CLEAN Management Console,” which allows DPW personnel to monitor and evaluate bins’ fullness, trends and historical analysis, for perspective. Collections can now be dynamic and driven by current needs, not historical patterns.

  • For those cities that opt for it, the company offers a Managed Services option where it does the analysis and management of the devices — not unlike the way jet turbine manufacturers now offer their customers value-added data that allows them to optimize performance — and generates new revenue streams for the manufacturers.
  • You may remember that I blogged a while ago about the “Collective Blindness” analogy: that, until the IoT, we humans simply couldn’t visualize much about the inner workings of the material world, so we were forced to do klugy work-arounds.  That’s not, strictly speaking, the case here, since trash in a conventional can is obviously visible, but the actual volume of trash was certainly invisible to those at headquarters. Now they can see — and really manage it.
  •  They can dramatically increase recycling programs’ participation rate and efficiency. As BigBelly says, the system provides “intelligent infrastructure to support ongoing operations and free up staffing and resources to support new and expanded recycling programs. Monitoring each separate stream volumes, days to fullness, and other activities in CLEAN enables you to make changes where needed to create a more effective public recycling program. Leverage the stations’ valuable sidewalk real estate to add messaging of encouraging words to change your users’ recycling behaviors.”Philadelphia is perhaps the best example of how effective the system can be. The city bought 210 of the recycling containers in 2009. On average, each collected 225 pounds of recyclables monthly, resulting in 23.5 tons of material diverted from landfills. Philly gets $50 per ton from the recycling — and avoiding $63 in landfill tipping fees, with a total benefit to the city of $113 per ton, or $2599 per month.

Here’s where it really gets neat, in my estimation.

Because the BigBellys are connected in real time, the devices can serve a number of real-time communication functions as well (enabled by an open API and an emphasis by BigBelly on finding collaborative uses). That includes making them hubs for a “mesh network” municipal wi-fi system (which, by the way, means that your local trash container/communications hub could actually save your life in a disaster or terror attack, when stationary networks may be disrupted, as I explained years ago in this YouTube video).

The list of benefits goes on (BigBelly lists all of them, right down to “Happy Cities,” on its web site). Trust me: if my premise is right that we can’t predict all of the benefits of the IoT at this point because we simply aren’t accustomed to thinking expansively about all the ways connected devices can be used, there will be more!

So here’s my take-away from the BigBelly:

If something as humble and ubiquitous as a municipal trashcan can  be transformed into a waste-reduction, recycling collection, municipal communication hub, then to fully exploit the Internet of Things’ full potential, we need to take a new, creative look at every material thing we interact with, no longer making assumptions about its limited role, and instead looking at it creatively as part of an interconnected network whose utility grows the more things (and people!) it’s connected with!

Let me know your ideas on how to capitalize on this new world of possibilities!