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Networks – getting our acts together PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Sunday, 25 January 2015 12:53

The last week brought the usual eclectic mix of experiences. 

Megan Wu - silicon cityscapeAs usual, my daily reading skimmed across the technology news - I always keep an eye out for telecoms and broadband stories that might interest the Foundation for Information Society Policy (FISP).  But last week I also found myself in a room packed with planners, architects and urban designers listening to the President of the Rockefeller Foundation being interviewed about her new book1.

These topics arise from different disciplines but the parallels between innovation in network technologies and the way communities cope with their vulnerabilities have rattled around all week demanding closer inspection.

We are all familiar with The Internet but technologists will understand that what folks think of as a single entity was first conceived as a network of networks.  We have many networks of networks – many Internets – and not all of them are fully interconnected. 

For the most part we regard our Internets as networks of people and content resources. Some networks are confined to small communities and groupings of businesses whilst others are more global and public.  We use them for informational transactions; for communicating, obtaining and disseminating information, for buying and selling. And we draw a general distinction between the public access (connectivity) technologies and application (content) systems.

What is currently tagged The Internet of Things (IoT) can, however, be entirely different.  This is not just because in their plurality they’d be better described as Internets of Things.  More often they are far less likely to use common (public) connectivity but, even more significantly, their purpose differs; no longer purely transactional but often purposefully designed as key parts of autonomous data-driven decision-making systems.

This shift from a transactional to a decision-making role implies a very close integration of network functionality with systems that respond to data flows – integrations that become increasingly difficult to tease apart.  In much the same way that we have seen within mobile handsets the integration of silicon chips serving diverse functions, it seems inevitable that smarter access networks will absorb roles that are currently managed by discrete components.  

Consider, for example, the flexibility of dynamic bandwidth under direct user or application control.  You might normally utilise only 100Mb/s capacity but your application for uploading or downloading video material might automatically demand 1Gb/s for just a few moments when needed.  Another future example might be the flexibility to grab and switch between diverse fragments of spectrum to ensure continuity of mobile connectivity.

The IoT focus on Things arises because this functional integration is most easily envisaged for data-driven decision tasks that are prompted by the increasing complexity of managing urban environments with their myriad opportunities for deployment of sensors – for managing transport, environmental or public health conditions, for example.

Long before we get to some state of robotic living on autopilot, it will become blindingly clear that underlying network technologies play a huge role in the practicability of really smart networked systems.  Countries and communities that have, for example, had the foresight to invest in full end-to-end optical networks (and hence advanced mobile services) will take a lead in much that same way that Sweden has, in these last few years, benefited from a competitive head-start in the design of network management technologies.

‘First mover advantage’ is not easily built into economic models or recognised by market analysts and investors - not least because the insights and experiences needed to recognise future benefits are in short supply.  Few people get criticized for following the herd.  That, alas, is not how innovation happens.  True innovation arises from deep immersion and the capacity to learn from and collaborate with others – making connections between previously distinct disciplines.   These processes are intrinsically pre-competitive and of little immediate interest except perhaps to the most perceptive of forward thinking market analysts.

Much the same applies when developing ways of managing disruption and avoiding disasters, particularly in major cities. 

In her recent book, The Resilience Dividend, Judith Rodin makes some telling points about recovery from a crisis.  Whereas most might imagine that recovery is about getting back to the way things were, the only really effective recovery is to move on and adapt to changed circumstances. 

It’s no accident that the background graphic on Judith’s book’s cover is a cityscape.  Much of her perspective is fuelled by the challenges of increasing urbanization and climate change – factors well understood when hurricane Sandy visited New York.   The recovery outcome has been a renewed effort at integration of what previously were departmental and agency silos with little cross-collaboration or openly recognised interdependencies.2

All this may seem a far cry from the technical design of smarter, better-integrated, decision-making networks.  We may perhaps feel uncertain about the future desirability of increased automation but from a practical and technical viewpoint, integration demands a common understanding of functionality – a clear preparedness to cope with uncertain futures.  The work of standards development once took years of patient negotiation – most often an extended battle between upstarts and incumbents – but the rapid progress within ETSI on Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) shows that even incumbents with vast investments in legacy networks can sometimes recognise the wisdom of King Canute demonstrating to his citizens that he stood no chance of resisting the inevitable.  What is significant, however, about NFV is in the sheer diversity of intellectual input – the development has been infused with ideas from way beyond the usual suspects.

The question, then, that confronts us all (but particularly major institutions) is, ‘When do we recognise the new realities and change tack?’  Most often it’s some crisis that shocks folks into action - but do we really need to wait for disasters to strike?  

Selling the idea of Preparedness to your city, community, or company, demands stamina when the naysayers are out in force.  It is as difficult a pitch as preaching sustainability.  But if the City of Boston had not repeatedly rehearsed responses to a crisis – any crisis – it would not have been able to cope well with a bombing at the marathon. 

This capacity – this response-ability – is the Resilience Dividend that Judith Rodin writes about.  It’s the value that derives from having thought things through and integrated the city’s departmental, business and community silo’s to work more collaboratively – and building in the belt and braces diversity needed to keep going when crisis strikes.  This year is about 20 years on from post-Porter realisations that purposeful Collaborative Advantage beats shrink-wrapped, cost-reduced, Competitive Advantage every time.

Which thought brings us back to data-driven, decision-making, smarter networks.  The redesign and integration of technical functionality is little different from the evidence-based policy flips we must make to sustain local economies and develop community wellbeing.  It’s a process of systematically rethinking the future, planning future-proofed infrastructures and enabling collaboration.  The dividends are huge. 

As we found last year in Chattanooga3, the primary focus of smarter cities (Intelligent Communities) is not led by technology fashions.  The focus is very determinedly to crack on with making sure that basic infrastructures and service relationships are up to the job – whatever that may be – well before the next crisis strikes.  And that process, of course, is far more likely to occur where local leaders feel empowered to act.



1.  The Resilience Dividend by Judith Rodin is published by Profile Books Ltd,  ISBN 978-1781253588.  The author is President of the Rockefeller Foundation.

2.  As snowstorms are forecast to descend on New York this week, the proof of this preparedness will again be tested.

3.  For civic and corporate leaders grappling with issues of Urban and Rural Planning, the 2015 Community Study Tour will visit Ontario and the Intelligent Community Forum’s Global Summit in Toronto.

Readers may also have read Unleashing Municipal Enterprise and Keep it under your Hat: your Internet is changing .

Graphic Credit:  Megan Wu, Providence Rhode Island, USA, and published under Creative Commons licence


Last Updated on Monday, 26 January 2015 22:06

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