Technology revolutions tend to create a divide between those that benefit and those that are directly disadvantaged or simply fall behind the rest of society. This gap between the haves and the have nots often takes years to close as can be seen from a few examples.
The industrial revolution saw great benefits for factory owners but devastated rural economies. At the time this caused massive societal problems but very few people nowadays doubt the need for the productivity advances that it brought.
The rise of mobile phones was initially the preserve of city slickers and drug dealers. Nowadays, the mobile penetration rate in even the poorest developing countries is stunning.
early days of air travel was characterised by high class flying restaurants that wafted the rich to far flung parts of Empire. It is only in the last twenty years that low cost carriers have brought the world to the masses.
So is a “smart divide” emerging as the Internet of Things powers a new wave of innovation?
The Internet of Things is becoming completely pervasive but we can identify two sectors in which the most advances are being made:
Consumer products – this segment shows a classic case of an early divide. For example, Google NEST and other smart home controllers are getting a lot of media attention but remain way out of reach of most citizens due to high prices. So whilst the rich can optimise energy usage, the rest of society still struggles with high bills.
Smart cities – here the story is much more encouraging and in many ways reversed. Local authorities spend proportionately more of their money on the main part of society rather than the better-off through subsidised transportation, social care and other services. As authorities look to save money they are having to balance smart savings with smart benefits for citizens.
Telensa is working on technologies that span these domains. By using low cost radio networks that are owned by the city we are starting to develop applications that bring the advantages of smart home devices to low cost social housing. A key element of this is balancing the wish of landlords to lower costs with providing clear benefits to tenants.
However, there is a note of caution related to the productivity gains that smart systems can bring. They may benefit society in new exciting ways but like the first industrial revolution they have the potential to shift or even remove the need for human employment. This is of course part of a wider trend in society that is captured in a telling quote from the early days of mechanical automation in factories.
So the story goes: a descendent of Henry Ford was walking a union foreman through a new factory containing rows of new shiny assembly robots. In a mocking voice, Ford turned to the foreman and quipped that the union would find it difficult to convince the robots to pay union fees. The union representative quickly responded that the company has bigger problems as they will find it even harder to convince the robots to buy Ford’s cars.
So as we look at the technological advantages that smart systems bring it is important that we learn the lessons of history and make sure that the transition to a new world takes the needs of all individuals into account.