We all know the Internet of Things is changing how we live and work. But where will growth occur, especially in government? It’s a question Leif Ulstrup tackles in his role as CEO of Primehook Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based technology consultancy that advises public sector and healthcare organizations on ways to harness the unprecedented wave of data headed their way.
“We are in the midst of a technological change not seen since the networked PC disrupted the mainframe and minicomputer,” says Leif Ulstrup, an MIT and Harvard alum who started his career as a computational physicist and systems engineer before taking the reins at organizations such as CSC and Deloitte. For Ulstrup, that change is being felt on the workforce level, too.
“There is a major demographic shift in the workforce to ‘digital natives’ who are frustrated with the old ways of doing business and proprietary technologies — contractors who can anticipate the preferences of this new generation of government leader will be able to thrive even as overall federal IT spending declines,” says Ulstrup. “The opportunities,” he adds, “are only limited by imagination, curiosity, technical acumen, and leadership.” Here’s where to find them.
WashingtonExec: What emerging technology and management innovations related to IoT should contractors industry pay attention?
Leif Ulstrup: The options available for solution architects is growing rapidly and now includes new data sources from inexpensive sensors embedded in smart, connected products commonly known as the Internet of Things (IoT). The consumer and industrial adoption of IoT-enabled products is growing rapidly but is still in its infancy.
Management systems can now harness the power of these new data sources through automated analytics and machine learning. This will be one of the hotter areas of growth in IT for the foreseeable future. It will also trigger changes in management practices for executive teams that can harness the insights to improve productivity and quality in their operations.
IoT is being accelerated and amplified by enabling and complementary technologies such as cloud computing and API-enabled services, open source software for big data and analytics, mobile devices with inexpensive sensors, and almost-free high-speed communications. All of these areas are growing exponentially while costs plummet. The cost to experiment with these capabilities and develop mashups is very low.
The concepts behind IoT and control systems are well-established in military solutions; however, most of those have been based on expensive and lower volume proprietary technologies. The real challenge and opportunity ahead will be on how to harness IoT technology emerging from the consumer side of IT with volumes and price points accessible to a much larger set of ordinary business and mission applications.
With low costs to add IoT features to products and competitive forces, applications will explode. Imagination will be the primary constraint.
WashingtonExec: Where do you see the Internet of Things headed in terms of adoption by government agencies?
Leif Ulstrup: We are entering a new digital phase where we will ‘instrument’ the world around us. Everything that can be monitored, recorded and controlled digitally will be. It will essentially be ‘free’ to capture the data. More industrial and consumer products will incorporate digital sensors, controls, and network connections as a way to differentiate their products. More government workers will become accustomed to having the value of these IoT-enabled in their homes and cars.
Leaders trying to make due with tight budgets will bring these innovations to their work environment and the missions they support. The PC was introduced to business and government by innovative department heads who were looking for an easy way to do spreadsheets that eventually led to the client-server and internet revolution of the ’90s. IoT is likely to follow a similar bottom-up path. IoT will initially solve immediate narrow problems with quick paybacks. The revolutionary changes will happen over time as these IoT point-solutions are networked to address system-wide business needs.
This year, IoT will have the clearest and most compelling business case for facilities-related applications such as energy conservation, maintenance, security, and safety. The personal wearables explosion will continue to grow and become another source of IoT data about the workforce to guide health and wellness programs. As the applications grow so will the cybersecurity threats as IoT becomes a new avenue for hackers to exploit. The surface area for cyber attacks will grow exponentially with the introduction of IoT devices on networks. Cybersecurity defenses to monitor these new devices will be needed for IT departments to stay ahead of this curve.
For agencies that have a major regulatory role to play, IoT use within that industry will increasingly become an important topic where technical advisors will be needed to inform policy decisions. The FTC has already jumped into this arena with their January 2015 report. The FDA will see growing demand for approvals from health and wellness device makers that have not grown up in the medical device field. It has already become a hot topic in homeland security circles as experts raise concerns about the potential threats from IoT devices.
WashingtonExec: Where should industry and government make the greatest investments to thwart these threats?
Leif Ulstrup: Addressing cybersecurity concerns of IoT has to be a top priority of IT departments. IT departments have enough challenge today with BYOD and personal technology in the workplace. This will only grow as more ordinary devices become IoT-enabled (e.g., network-connected smart LEDs with sensors).
Government agencies are likely to face tight budgets for the foreseeable future and government executives will be searching for ways to improve service and lower costs. IoT adoption and analytics are bound to be integral to many productivity improvement initiatives. CIOs and CISOs need to be prepared for IoT growth.
WashingtonExec: What are the biggest IoT opportunities you see ahead for contractors?
Leif Ulstrup: There are plenty of quick payback possibilities and a growing body of commercial solution providers to introduce to federal customer needs. There is a big opportunity for contractors who can help their customers see how IoT can improve the mission and reduce costs as well as handle the cybersecurity dimensions. We will see RFPs for point-solutions and quick paybacks at first; then, evolving to system-wide optimization programs over time.
The biggest opportunity that IoT and analytics afford is that management and technical systems can be studied and improved in ways that were never possible in a mostly analog world. The cycle times from event to detection to action will become shorter. We will learn what works — and what doesn’t — much faster and adapt management practices. It will be possible to introduce machine learning automation into decision and control systems in agencies to further improve productivity. Machines will play a bigger role in routine decision-making while humans focus more attention on the unusual cases that require judgment.
The ‘killer apps’ for IoT and analytics will be opportunities to improve the utilization of resources. Whether it is energy usage or people’s time, applications that can make sure valuable resources are focused on what matters — and that the resources are not wasted — will be where the IT project funding flows. These applications can be as simple as networked LED lighting with sensors that enable them to adjust to environmental conditions on their own or key management technology like KeyWatcher to improve vehicle fleet management and worker productivity.
WashingtonExec: Do you see IoT as a disruptive technology or a natural evolution of technology?
Leif Ulstrup: IoT is a natural next step in the evolution of computing. Technology futurists have been talking about ‘ubiquitous computing’ for 25 years or more and have seen this coming.
What is revolutionary is that it will become increasingly possible to record and understand how the world around us works in practice and not just in theory. Management theories and practices have been based on how to deal with the typical situation using greatly simplified models of human behavior. IoT analytics will uncover more insights about how humans behave in real situations.
Concepts from behavioral economics will become important to solution designers. It will mean frontline employees are better able to serve the public and managers can design more productive ways of doing things. The privacy implications of these insights will become a greater topic of discussion and concern but the use of these insights is inevitable given the benefits.
WashingtonExec: What questions should companies ask now, whether they are service providers, federal agencies or smart grid providers, to prepare for the inevitable integration of IoT devices on sensitive and secure networks?
Leif Ulstrup: The questions they should be asking themselves are:
- Do we have the staff who understand the customer mission enough to envision IoT applications and can communicate the benefits?
- Do we have the analytics and big-data technology talent to harness IoT data and make it productive?
- Do we have the cybersecurity knowledge to advise our mission customer and help them navigate the internal challenges in getting their IoT system approved on the network?
- Do we have ‘design thinkers’ who understand how to think about the ways in which people will interact with IoT and analytics in work processes? Technology expertise alone is insufficient.
- Do we understand how to field systems using ‘agile development’?
WashingtonExec: Where do you ultimately see the job market headed in this arena?
Leif Ulstrup: Applying IT to mission and business problems is a great career. What makes it so fun is the pace of IT innovation. There are always opportunities to make an organization more effective and efficient — and plenty of technology options to choose from.