Looking at the Future, Today: Re.work Internet of Things Summit

Last week, Soofa had the chance to attend the Re.Work Internet of Things Summit in Boston. There was a wide array of presenters and speakers, including our own CEO, Sandra Richter. Topics covered ranged from smart cities to robot data sovereignty (seriously). Here’s a recap of some great talks from Thursday of the two-day event.

The day started out with Peter Hirst of the MIT Sloan School of Management discussing talent needs in the Internet of Things (henceforth IoT). He brought in the Gartner hype curve (below) to demonstrate the IoT current state & what can be expected in the future.


We are currently at the top of the “peak of disillusionment”, though rapidly shifting right. If Gartner is to be believed, it will be 5-10 years before IoT technology reaches the “platform of productivity”. Hirst stressed the importance of multidisciplinary knowledge in IoT. While individuals could certainly be knowledgeable about IoT as a field, companies need IoT & big data experts to also be knowledgeable around their particular area of industry. Down the road, a company will not just need a data scientist - they will need a data scientist with extensive expertise and knowledge regarding agriculture, or shipping, or whatever particular area the company works in.

In London, the non-profit Deliver Change partnered with organizations all over the city to create the AirSensa air quality network. Jonathan Steel, CEO of Deliver Change, spoke about the details of the project and their focus on highly scalable smart city solutions. The problem AirSense addresses is a big one. In the UK, 40,000 people a year die prematurely because of poor air quality, costing the economy more than £20bn. Lung and breathing problems in the UK result in the loss of about 1 million working days a year. To better understand air quality within London, thereby helping residents, Deliver Change created a massive network of air quality sensors around the city. They ran into challenges with finding accurate air quality sensors, so ended up creating their own with the University of Cambridge. AirSena’s objectives were to create visualizations & human centric outputs (including apps), educational materials, big data that could translate to transport policy planning, and catalysts for innovation. The project required a massive amount of coordination between countless city stakeholders, as the sensors are placed on buildings around London. It stands as one of the most successful examples of a saturated and widespread sensor network aiming to understand a component of a city’s environment.

Next, Newsha Ghaeli from the SENSEable City Lab at MIT spoke about the lab’s (and her) work. The SENSEable city lab has been working to map out different movements and relationships within cities. They started with the Hubcab project, which aggregated 170 million cab trips in NYC to paint a picture of transportation and how ride sharing could reduce costs and increase efficiency. The resulting interactive visualization allows users to explore different routes and savings.

Photo from the Hubcab website

Photo from the Hubcab website

Another showcased project was Live Singapore, which combined 6 different data sets to show the interactions between things such as cell phone usage and live events in the city. The project Ghaeli is working on currently focuses on understanding a little-discussed output of the city: sewage! Essentially, everyday a wealth of data is flushed down the drain. They began asking “what is in our collective gut?” The researchers have begun testing their program in Cambridge sewers, searching for chemicals, viruses, and bacteria. Over time, this data can be compared with demographic data and help make public health decisions and even prevent disease outbreaks. Partnerships with cities are an integral component of this project’s success. Ghaeli mentioned the idea of a “smart toilet” or something of sorts in the future which would analyze waste in real time to detect any concerning traces. The topic of waste is somewhat taboo, so the idea of a smart toilet may incline some to giggle, however, instant insight into individual health could save many lives.

The following speaker touched on a subject people may also turn up their nose at: trash. Kevin Menice, EVP of Strategy for smart cities darling Big Belly, talked about how the company aims to leverage their existing network of cans to provide even more services for cities. For those unaware, Big Belly creates solar-powered trash cans that compact trash to increase volume and notify trash collectors on how full a can is. The result is more efficient trash pickup, translating into major savings for the city. Another Big Belly employee revealed that it typically takes cities 2 years to see a complete return on investment. Big Belly is now exploring adding various sensors and even wifi into their trash cans. They have already improved trash management by several orders of magnitude, it will be interesting to see if Big Belly becomes much more than a trash can company.

Some of the other fascinating speakers talked about robots (Jibo), the connected nursery (Mimo), better ECGs (AliveCor), and challenges in gathering insights from data (Abe Gong). The Re.work Internet of Things summit was an excellent chance to glance into the future, as its being shaped today.