Who doesn’t believe that the Internet Of Things will emerge as something like Simpatico, the hapless clunker of system that dogs the BBC in fictional documentary W1A?
The idea that real-world objects can be fitted with software and sensors that talk sensibly to each other seems a world away when we’re still untangling cables and trying to get our phones to synch with our laptops.
But at Canary Wharf Group’s Level39, “interoperability” is the dream, not the obstacle. At the finals of the Cognicity Challenge – the future city competition – there is a feeling that “building systems management” is about to reach beyond its cloistered realm into the real world.
Take interoperability (memorably defined as “ideas having sex” by Canary Wharf Contractors’ Cormac MacCrann) and couple it with Big Data analysis then the result could be a stream of user-friendly information that talks directly to your interests and needs.
Load monitoring of escalators, footfall measurement, environmental sensing – they might sound dry and nerdish but all have genuine user value with the right interpretation and delivery.
That’s social media made local, made concrete and made personal, according to one data analyst.
Nick Trigg, CEO of Exa-Informatics says of his competition entry: “What we proposed to Canary Wharf was a community network. It’s a bit of software that sits on a structure owned by Canary Wharf and it combines data from people and from things connected into a system that allows you to analyse that data and use it to your advantage.
“We believe this is different because current systems do not really involve context. You have to involve people to give some kind of context to what the buildings are doing or should be doing.”
BoldMind’s Flow City wants to put information directly onto your screen in the form of handy bulletins.
BoldMind takes the techniques of “sentiment analysis” and surge marketing – used by companies such as Uber – and blends in the feedback with crowd dynamics.
“We gather data generated by a city and we present it in the form of a news piece,” says CEO Dagmara Lacka.
She gives an example from her time at Level39. “We were working late. I went down to pick up some sushi but when I got there was a massive queue and only a few sets to choose from.
“But Itsu has two stores very close to one another and the second store was fully stocked and had a half price sale. Same company, same offering, same place – but very different demand. So what we needed to do was allow the store manager to communicate the offering with a wider audience.
“We connect the data and our platform generates a news piece. Some of it will be bad news, like an overcrowded Jubilee line platform, but a store manager can turn it into good news by offering dinner at under £5.”
This offer is flashed across screens on offices across Canary Wharf (for example) because sensors suggest the buildings are still 30% full even at this late hour.
If all this sounds a little corporatist then Strawberry Energy – which, along with BoldMind won a “cool prize” in the Cognicity Challenge – is trying to build people-sized communities from the bottom-up. “We are often called dreamers and revolutionaries,” says its website.
The brainchild of CEO Miloš Milisavljević is expressed through the elegant Strawberry Tree under which people gather, forming ad hoc clusters and new networks.
He says: “The needs of the people have changed but our public spaces have remained the same and are not helpful at all.”
His devices, whether they be in solar-power “trees” or inside benches, provide energy, connectivity, news and information about the immediate environs (20% off coffee here, high pollen count there etc). They will become, he hopes, “small community hotspots”, rallying points for the momentarily dispossessed and disconnected.
Referring to Canary Wharf he says: “We want to improve the outdoor experience for people so they spend more quality time on the estate, changing it from a business oriented place into the social, community and leisure place.”
The same could be true of any public space and he eyes those passive public benches with an avaricious eye and a “strong desire to make a difference”.
The ideas and the technology all are close at hand say those working in the field. Some 53% of app developers are working on Internet Of Things projects, mostly smart homes and wearables.
Implementation on a larger scale takes a little longer and is a magnitude more complex because smart cities require political and social coherence.
But there may come a day when One Canada Square digs you in the ribs and, in the voice of Jeremy Paxman, tells you something exciting is happening down the corridor and that you don’t want to miss out because he knows you love that type of thing.