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Economics and the "Internet of Things"

The Internet of Things Can Transform the World. Right?

I look at the IoT as having three great components: M2M, wearables, and grids. The components can also be seen (roughly) as enterprise, personal, and government/organizational.

I'll examine each area in follow-up articles. I'll start with the third, as it applies to research I've been conducting for the past three years and dovetails with the very high-level view of the IoT being taken by the largest technology companies in the world.

And I'm looking forward to discussing issues great and small with all in attendance at the upcoming @ThingsExpo, for which I serve as Conference Chair.

A Dismal Look
Smart grids, cities, and nations hold transformational potential, especially but exclusively for the developing world. It that holds the promise of fixing the millenium-old human problems of poverty, disease, violence, and poor leadership.


To examine the IoT's potential to transform society means starting with a big-picture look at economics, or the "dismal science," as it's lovingly known by its practitioners.

Global economics is not a zero-sum game, although it can feel that way when a competitor is eating your lunch. It can also look that way when comparing the extremes of the wealth of nations.

But I think the IoT can not only solve a particular company's problems but is also the key to long-term, fair-minded global economic growth and societal development.

A Brief History
We've come a long way since Adam Smith's first articulated his principles of enlightened self-interest and an "invisible hand" that guides economic development without the need for government regulation or intervention. Even seemingly altruistic acts are ultimately done with a personal, self-centered goal in mind, in this view.

The Keynesian revolution (ie, government stimulation is desirable) followed by a few decades of increasingly scientific, mathematically inclined studies of societies and their economics has led to much re-interpretation of Smith's original thinking.

Recent economic developments, led by Joseph Stiglitz and centered around the power of "information asymmetry" can lead to almost the opposite conclusion; there's nothing enlightened about self-interest, people with an upper hand won't play fair, and only tough, enforceable government regulation can address it, in this view.

Ha Joon-Chang is another modern-day economist who, in essence, thinks the developed world is not playing fair as developing nations struggle to lift their way out of poverty. I interviewed him a few years ago.

On a separate tangent, Dambisa Moyo (pictured) is another modern-day economist who has taken the controversial stance that altruism is, in fact, damaging to the people it ostensibly tries to help.

Does IT Matter?
Meanwhile, it's been more than 30 years since the personal computer entered the scene in a big way.

Yet to this day, academic research on "IT economics" seems sparse. Even though so many of us in the industry believe in the rising tide of technology that lifts all boats, and utopian dreams flow out of Silicon Valley and its mimickers with each new gadget or app, it's hard to find pure research that connects the dots between the aggressive use of technology, economic development, and societal progress.

There's plenty of history at this point. The 80s were famous for $1 trillion worth of PC sales, with no apparent productivity increase in the global economy. The 90s showed that the benefits of this technology took awhile to become apparent; they did become apparent once widely connected to networks and with the invention of the Worldwide Web.

The 2000s were a disaster, with the dot-com meltdown, the post-Y2K technology recession, the Great Recession, and war disaster by the US. Even so, enterprise IT-including tens of millions of personal computers sold each year-rose by the end of the decade to several trillions of dollars.

Now, as we progress through the second decade of the 21st century, we see cloud computing, Big Data, and the Internet of Things. It's time for economists to study the "IT effect" with rigor.

As a non-academic with perhaps just enough graduate school experience to be dangerous, I won't be the person who seizes this field of study and emerges as the Joseph Steiglitz of IT economics. But to paraphrase the Dennis Hopper character in True Romance, I find this stuff to be fascinating.

Relatively Speaking
Our research at the Tau Institute is socio-economic in nature, but as of yet lays out no grand theories.

We abide by the principle that technology is not only inevitable but inevitably good for the human species; though Google Glass today is seen as having great comedic value, the same twitters could be heard (well before Twitter) with images of people lugging around computers, talking on wireless phones, and seeking hotspots.

The big caveat, of course, is that our political and societal leaders don't abuse the wonders of technological progress. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Yet the net gain to the world economy brought by personal computing devices is enormous. Mobile phones are the only way to communicate in much of the developing world, and are also used as virtual banks. Mobile computers in the developed world have surely reduced the number of people-an therefore, congestion--showing up to work every day in central cities.

Wireless connectivity has freed people to work and access information from almost wherever they choose, and it's cut down on the time people watch television-a development that cannot, on the whole, be deleterious.

(More to come in future postings!)

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More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.

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