RFID Journal Live 2019

Oh the irony of human-entered data at an RFID conference. Ten years ago, Kevin Ashton, who coined the term “Internet of Things”, explained in RFID Journal:

We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information […] without the limitations of human-entered data.

Case in point, the badge: the surname and given name are reversed, with the latter mispelled misspelled as a result of human data entry during onsite registration from a paper & pencil form. Nonetheless, this is an excellent example for emphasising the potential of RFID and the IoT!

Indeed, at the co-hosted IEEE RFID event, I, Jeffery Jeffrey, presented a workshop entitled Co-located RFID Systems Unite! focused on this potential now that there are nearly 20 billion RAIN (passive) and BLE (active) units shipping annually. An open architecture for collecting, contextualising and distributing the resulting data is becoming critical, and I was pleased to hear this sentiment echoed on the RFID Journal side by Richard Haig of Herman Kay and Joachim Wilkens of C&A.

Also heard echoed was the prevalence of BLE (active RFID) throughout the conference. Literally.

This contraption which converts radio decodings into musical notes may seem odd at first, but over the past year we’ve learned that art is a powerful tool for conveying to a non-technical audience the prevalence and potential of RFID and IoT in our daily lives. A few attendees were invited to listen with headphones and walk around until they found a silent spot. None were successful.

And we can only expect such prevalence to increase with energy harvesting technology maturing. We were pleased to see Wiliot’s live demo of an energy harvesting BLE tag, making good on their objectives from last year’s conference. Inexpensive battery-free BLE will be key to RFID proliferating to all the physical spaces in which we live, work and play—the BLE receiver infrastructure is often already there.

Which came first: the RFID or the Digital Twin?

The concept of the Digital Twin has also taken off over the past year, and we were pleased to have the opportunity to ask Jürgen Hartmann which came first in the Mercedes-Benz car factory example he presented? His answer was clear:

“Without RFID, for us there is no Digital Twin.”

Ironically, our April Fool’s post from two days previous was about Digital Conjoined Twins where we joked that the digital twin resides in the optimal location: adjacent to the physical entity that it represents. Perhaps not so silly in the context of industrial applications highly sensitive to latency???

RFID projects championed by the organisation’s finance department?

That is exactly what Joachim Wilkens of C&A argued. The success of their retail RFID deployment was in direct consequence of the C-level being on board, but more importantly by having a business case championed by the finance department:

“This is not an IT project, this is a business project.”

While we’ve observed our fair share of tech-driven deployments over the past few years, we’re increasingly seeing measurable business outcomes. For instance, a recent workplace occupancy deployment delivered, within months, a 15% savings in real-estate. That is a business project—one the finance department would love to repeat!

IoT: the next generation

What will we discuss in our RFID Journal Live 2029 blog post when the IoT celebrates its third decade?   That may well be in the hands of the next generation.   Since we began attending the co-hosted IEEE RFID and RFID Journal Live in 2013, we’ve observed a slow but steady shift in demographics. A younger generation—one which grew up with the Internet—is succeeding the generation instrumental in the development and commercialisation of RFID. On the showroom floor, we’re talking about the Web and APIs. At the IEEE dinner we’re discussing industry-academia collaboration to teach students about applications and ethics. And in the IEEE workshops, ASU Prof. Katina Michael took the initiative to invite one of her undergraduate students to argue the (highly controversial) case for implantables, effectively ceding centre stage to the next generation.

RFID's next generation is coming of age

The final print copy of RFID Journal we received back in 2012 is entitled “RFID’s Coming of Age”. Today I would argue that RFID’s next generation is coming of age. 1999 saw the emergence of the terms IoT and Web 2.0. Might we expect 2019 to mark the emergence of the term RFID 2.0?

The Web turns 30!

The World Wide Web turns 30 years old today, March 12th 2019, and its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has asked its citizens to help build a timeline of the web’s history. Given that reelyActive has existed on the Web for about a quarter of its history, we thought it’d be fun to look back at our own Web presence since 2012.

2012: First landing page

Our first landing page showed off our newly minted hardware — purely in monochrome — and provided guided visitors to either a serious or a silly site. In 2012, real-time location of individuals (aka tracking people) was controversial, and the silly site was intended to show visitors that we were indeed looking critically at ourselves and the platform we were developing. Indeed there’s still a sillyActive filter on this blog!

2012: The “serious” site

Yes, this was our non-responsive-design, fully monochrome, “serious” developer-oriented website in 2012. Fixed 960px width because who needed more resolution than that, right? We had just learned PHP, which was applied generously throughout. Credit to Twitter and LinkedIn for the social plugins in the footer that are still functional at the time of writing!

  ↪ Journey back in time to www.reelyactive.com/serious/

2013-2014: The “corporate” site

Finally colour! And JavaScript animations! Curiously enough, our first major experience with JavaScript was server-side with Node.js, which then gave us the confidence to apply it client-side, in this case with the TweenMax JS framework. Despite its non-responsive 960px formula, this website received a lot of appreciation for the Technology and Applications animations which were refreshingly accessible to a broad (non-native-English-speaking) audience.

  ↪ Journey back in time to www.reelyactive.com/corporate/

2014-2016: The “context” site

By 2014 we had finally gone responsive, abandoning ground-up web design for the lovely Creative Commons frameworks from HTML5 UP that we continue to use to this day. There was even a full-screen explainer video and fresh graphics from local designers.

  ↪ Journey back in time to context.reelyactive.com

2016-present: Our current landing page

Our current landing page has benefited from many iterations, and the most powerful changes are the ones behind the scenes. Many of the pages include linked data in the form of JSON-LD, which became a Web standard in 2014. This is what allows Google and other search engines to extract rich content, using Schema.org as a vocabulary. All of our IoT initiatives, such as Sniffypedia.org, rely heavily on these latest standards which are extending the reach of the Web to the physical world.

  ↪ Visit our webpage at www.reelyactive.com

Thank you Sir Tim Berners-Lee for your enormous contribution to humanity in the form of the Web, and to everyone who has contributed to its evolution and maintenance these past three decades. We were pleased to give a friendly nod to your contributions in our most recent scientific publication, and we hope that Mrs. Barnowl will have the chance to meet you and thank you in person, as she did Vint Cerf for his contribution to the Internet!

Local Search in 2019

What’s in store (pun intended) for 2019? The Local Search Association kicks off each year with a compilation of its members’ predictions.

This is our third consecutive year submitting predictions. While our 2017 prediction proved way too optimistic, our 2018 prediction, and the two we submitted this year, resonate well among those of our peers.

Google My Business

GMB, as insiders call it, is easily the central theme of this year’s predictions. As Google describes it, your Business Profile appears right when people are searching for your business or businesses like yours on Google Search and Maps. Said differently, GMB democratises the digitisation of the physical storefront. Because Google observes web standards such as Schema.org, GMB is in line with A structured, data-driven future predicted by MONO‘s Louise Lachmann (p. 47) and Svenn Anderson (p. 56). We couldn’t be more pleased about this development as it finally addresses (pun again intended), at scale, the question we posed in our 2018 prediction:

Might brick-and-mortar benefit by borrowing now familiar concepts from their online counterparts?

In fact, Marc Poirier of Acquisio, a business local to us in the Montréal area, specifies exactly how Google breaks down [the] barrier to entry for local advertisers (p. 34) to make our previous prediction a reality.

Alternatives to the mobile-social status quo

One of our two predictions this year was The emergence of refreshing alternatives to the mobile-social status quo, the paradigm which has largely characterised the current decade. Perhaps the best indication that change is afoot is the dearth of predictions about social networks! The Social & Reviews section is a mere four pages long, with one prediction being our own, and another, by Surefire Local‘s Shashi Bellamkonda, being that Google will finally get social right (p. 26).

Indeed if there’s one prediction that has us excited it is the growth of No click search results predicted by Infront Webworks‘ Michael Hodgson (p. 15). Thanks to the aforementioned structured data in the form of Schema.org, anyone — not just Google — can present information in a novel way to users through the web browser. In fact, one of our current top initiatives at reelyActive is in-page search of physical objects within physical spaces, leveraging these same standards.

Privacy, data ownership and consumer inclusion

The other of our two predictions is that Consumer inclusion will become the norm rather than the exception. As many experts cite in their predictions, the subject of ownership of personal data has come to the forefront, as was clearly the case at the LSA’s Place Conference a few months previous. Jeff White of Gravy Analytics predicts that The data privacy storm is coming (p. 66) while Skyhook‘s Kipp Jones suggests that “the rumors of the death of privacy have been greatly exaggerated” (p. 54). While there’s consensus among the experts that change is coming, the nature and impact of that change is, however, very much up for debate.

Of course concerns over data ownership apply equally to SMBs and brands themselves, as Location3‘s Josh Allen highlights in his prediction of Data ownership & brand control (p. 68), concluding:

Own your website. Own your accounts. Own your data.

This mantra is as befitting to the individual user as to the brands and businesses with which they interact. We’d therefore be pleased to see the conversations about data ownership around the board room table translate into more meaningful conversations around the kitchen table.

Summing it all up

In conclusion, we’re partial to Gyi TsakalakisPlus ça change, plus c’est la même chose prediction (p. 19), not just because it is titled in French, but because it reminds us all that technology is only complementary to what has made, and continues to make, the local space great:

While 2019 is sure to bring improvements in the way that machines understand the real world, success in the local space will continue to be built on remarkable service, reputation, and relationships.

Here’s to a successful 2019 for local search, to a broadly-accessible standards-based web, and to serious industry and individual introspection about privacy!

The future of mobile indoor location

Since the advent of the iBeacon five years ago, much effort has been spent on real-time location-based experiences through mobile. If today you were to ask “Should I develop a native mobile app?” to anyone who has invested in such efforts, you may well receive an emphatic NO.   In this blog post, we’ll not only explain why, but also what you’ll likely want to use instead: the Web.

The motivation for this blog post stems from a recent presentation to a museum team who shared with us their frustration about their own real-time location-based app experience based on recent changes to Google’s Android mobile operating system. In short, the visitor experience of their museum app has tanked for Android users. This made us think back to our first ever pitch deck back in 2012:

That was before the iBeacon, and our solution, in the case of a museum, was to provide guests with a badge (equivalent to a beacon) and invite them to experience real-time location-based digital content on the Web, either through their own mobile device or a provided tablet. We helped create exactly this experience at the MuseoMix Montréal hackathon in 2014, which participants loved:

But, alas, 2014 was still a time when mobile apps could do no wrong and the Bluetooth beacon was the saviour of indoor location: our approach didn’t stand a chance. Over the past few years, countless venues and companies have invested heavily in beacon-based native mobile apps. There have been some brilliant successes. But most of the veterans we’ve encountered of late have been underwhelmed and battered at best.

What have Google done to beacon-based location in Android?
  — A frustrated colleague, Sept. 2018

And now this latest incident where significant changes to Android caused panic among many of our colleagues, partners and clients! For many, beacon-based mobile location experiences went from passaBLE to terriBLE. Case in point: the museum. What were Google thinking? In a recent post we speculated whether Google might have “something revolutionary up their sleeve”. Could that something be…   …the Web?

Could Google be thinking web-first about mobile indoor location?

One might not be aware, but Google’s Chrome browser has supported Web Bluetooth for some time. For instance, you can program a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device wirelessly from the browser! Yet surprisingly, Chrome support for the comparatively simple — yet immensely powerful — feature of scanning for all nearby BLE devices has been relegated to the “What’s Next” list for years now.

Is this due to a technical problem?   Doubtful.
Is this due to a business problem?   Likely.   The scan feature would make beacon-based native apps, and all their behind-the-scenes business models, largely irrelevant.

But wait, Google DID just made beacon-based native apps largely irrelevant…

If Google were to suddenly (and unexpectedly!) implement the scan feature in Chrome, by far the world’s most popular mobile browser, what a progressive disruption that would be! Expect a renaissance of web apps on mobile as web developers could easily tailor the JavaScript of existing pages to deliver hyper-localised beacon-based experiences previously reserved for native apps.



If, unfortunately, the scan feature were to remain pending indefinitely (one can check if/when it works here), in most cases today, the most economical and reliable solution nonetheless is that which we initially championed: provide users a $5 beacon-badge for real-time location and retain the mobile device merely as an interface (web or native). $500 rectangle meet $5 rectangle indeed!



And while the astute reader will exclaim “but what about the cost of the Real-Time Location System (RTLS) infrastructure!?!”, we’ve noted of late that a BLE RTLS may well cost considerably less than the development and maintenance of a beacon-based native mobile app! Moreover, a BLE RTLS (like our own) simultaneously supports both the Web Bluetooth and RTLS approaches.

Coming back to Google, our cautious optimism about a potential shift to web-first mobile indoor location stems from the presence of Vint Cerf, their vice-president and Chief Internet Evangelist, who, in 2015, shared the following three-pronged approach to the Internet of Things, which would indeed be consistent with such a strategy:

Regardless of what Google might have up their sleeve, if today you find yourself asking “Should I develop a native app?” to meet a need for mobile indoor location, in most cases the answer is clearly no. You should use the Web. It remains the penultimate “interoperable ecosystem based on open standards”, and no single vendor will be able to do away with it on mobile.

Let us not forget

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in Canada and in many nations around the world, a minute of silence is observed. Remembrance Day, as we call it here, is special this year as it marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice of the First World War, and this profound occasion reminded us of the wise words of two exceptional thinkers and innovators of the previous century, which are well worth sharing.

After the Second World War, which followed the First a mere generation later and concluded with the advent of atomic weapons, Norbert Wiener wrote in the Introduction of his seminal book, Cybernetics:

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers. The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

It is not difficult to replace the word cybernetics with artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things and appreciate the relevance of these words in a modern context. Fortunately, Wiener’s “very slight hope” proved sufficient for humanity to avoid nuclear war, while continuing to advance technology at a relentless pace. To this point, Buckminster Fuller wrote in 1980 in the Introduction of his final work, Critical Path:

History shows that, only when the leaders of the world’s great power structures have become convinced that their power structures are in danger of being destroyed, have the gargantuanly large, adequate funds been appropriated for accomplishing the necessary epoch-opening new technologies. It took preparation for World War III to make available the funds that have given us computers, transistors, rockets and satellites to realistically explore the Universe.

The lessons of history and the words of Wiener and Fuller remind us that great threats to power have brought about great technological progress, but unfortunately, they have also brought about the devastating wars upon which today we reflect and remember. Should you find yourself like Wiener, able only to muster a “very slight hope” about the future, perhaps Jeremy Rifkin‘s contemporary views on the Third Industrial Revolution can elevate such sentiments to a feeling of “guarded optimism”.

Let us not forget that we have history as a guide towards a peaceful and perpetual advancement of humanity, limited only by our collective capacity for technological innovation.

The rectangle decade and the shape of the future

This year marks a decade of the smartphone ecosystem as we know it. While the original iPhone debuted in 2007, it was the introduction of the App Store with the iPhone 3G in 2008 that kicked off the era of a rectangle in every pocket.

Coincidentally, this month marks half a decade of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) as a meaningful addition to that ecosystem. Back in September of 2013, Apple introduced iBeacon with iOS 7, and we were quick to demonstrate the transformative potential of the technology (read this article and watch the video below) which surely contributed to our capture of the title “World’s Best Startup” two months later.

*Despite being hastily recorded, that video is still, by an order of magnitude, our most viewed!

Take a moment to recall your first smartphone, your first delightful experience, and the truly novel features you gained when upgrading to your second and perhaps even third. It’s not difficult to argue that there was genuine cause for excitement during that early period where smartphones and their apps had sparked symbiotic innovation on an unprecedented scale.

Now take a moment to recall your first smartphone with BLE (ex: iPhone 4S and beyond…).   Was your mind not blown?   Oh wait, it wasn’t?   You mean this didn’t change everything?

Back in 2013, we envisaged a second wave of symbiotic innovation, this one combining mobile apps with BLE’s connectionless discovery features. We saw iBeacon as a lighthouse in your pocket, making a bold prediction of social networking leading to the emergence of the IoT as your Brand Ambassador. That second wave of innovation sure has been long in the tooth! At this month’s Place Conference on location and proximity, mobile BLE was relegated to a cursory mention. Moreover, last week at Bluetooth World, a friend and long-time pioneer of mobile Bluetooth proximity experiences shared with us his concern that recent and upcoming Android updates are actually stifling mobile innovation with BLE, confirming our own observations of late.

You could say that Apple and Google really “blue” this opportunity.

Frankly, it has reached a point where it’s difficult not to argue that our clients in smart workplaces, our current top vertical, wouldn’t be better served distributing inexpensive BLE badges/tags to their associates rather than asking them to install an app that only offers competitive performance when operated in foreground, and requires costly development and maintenance. $500 rectangle meet $5 indeed! Sadly, that is where we collectively find ourselves five years on!

A few months ago we asked what’s Beyond People-as-a-Product. As the smartphone ecosystem joins the decade club, we should definitely ask what’s Beyond-the-Rectangle? Could Google’s aforementioned tinkering be in preparation for something revolutionary they have up their sleeve? Can Apple still surprise us and usher in a new era with an iSomething? Might even a nimble and disruptive outsider dislodge the pair?

An optimist has grounds to argue that the next big thing is coming. A pessimist has grounds to argue that the giants of mobile and social media are digging in their heels to defend their current business models as long as they can. Either way, one thing is for sure:

the rectangle had a good decade run, but it’s unlikely the shape of things to come.

Still Place for optimism?

Yesterday we attended our fourth Place Conference, held in NYC a little further uptown than our first Place back in 2014. Back then the conference had a strong focus on all the latest mobile location and proximity technologies that were expected to revitalise retail. There was an air of optimism around the Bluetooth beacon and similar innovations which held much promise to deliver delightful, contextual, brick-and-mortar experiences for a broad consumer base increasingly expecting personalisation.

At the 2018 edition, it didn’t take long to realise that this optimism had not simply faded, but completely vanished. The first and only mention of a beacon did not occur until the fourth presentation: a panel entitled What Nobody Will Tell You about Location Data. And what did the panel tell us?

Baseline location data is a commodity now.

Indeed, that fact was affirmed in the previous presentations and those to come. The state of the art in location analytics and proximity marketing has become the acquisition, interpretation and application of baseline location data from mobile phones.

Wait, what’s baseline location data and how is it obtained from mobile phones?

Curiously enough, that subject was never directly addressed. But in short, the primary data source consists of a latitude/longitude paired with a device identifier, gathered from mobile devices under their terms of service. These data points are enriched by companies who probabilistically associate the identifier with a household, demographic (or more!), and the geocoordinates with addresses and/or an individual’s journey. This commodity is then applied to business decisions or to pushing the right ad to the right consumer at the right time and place.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Thomas Walle of Unacast made the precision (pun intended) that data quality is not yet a commodity. This was affirmed by the chief data scientist of Outfront, a leading out-of-home (OOH) media owner with countless digital billboards, questioning the reliability of “polygon visits” as source data based on his experience with multiple vendors.

Only two hours into the conference, as the panel progressed, I was already distraught, painfully reminded of the above slide which we had presented at a similar conference two years previous. Entrenched was the “old way” of bombarding the consumer to drive a response, the innovation being smarter bombs homing in on fainter signals. The term “surveillance” entered the discourse and was not outright dismissed. Were we collectively comfortable with that?

But, it all turned around when the panel was followed by a presentation entitled The Future of Digital Identity: Countdown to 2020 in which Neil Sweeney of Freckle IoT promptly declared that

a data revolution is coming.

Calling into question the status quo, he argued that there is currently an inverted value proposition for the consumer, progressive government regulation (GDPR in Europe and soon CCPA in the US) is becoming law, and scandals such as Cambridge Analytica have unveiled the uncomfortable truth behind advertising business models. In short, don’t expect our suggestion to Facebook following last year’s Place Conference to become a priority anytime soon!

What Neil proposed was a complete reversal of the flow of information and the ownership of personal data. And with the Killi app, he invited the audience to take the first step right then and there, opting in to select specific pieces of personal information that they would like to share with brands in exchange for money.

It was as if our complementary slide from that previous conference had suddenly appeared! Here was the consumer “advertising” their intent to brands and businesses through their presence and the information they chose to share, expecting an appropriately personalised response in return.

Since reelyActive’s founding in 2012, we’ve championed this paradigm for the flow of information. Coincidentally, our most watched video, in which we present this paradigm by reversing the flow of information of a beacon, will tomorrow celebrate its fifth anniversary! It’s not difficult to imagine this implemented in the Killi app to facilitate real-time hyperlocal exchanges of information like we demonstrated with our own reelyApp.

Whether a micro-DMP like Killi or rather a Bank of Personal Data will eventually prove to be successful is of course up for debate, as few attendees seemed threatened by the imminence of a data revolution. Nonetheless — and reassuringly — most attendees seemed to agree that such a paradigm, which fosters transparency and inclusivity and moves the industry Beyond People-as-a-Product, is much closer to being the right model, even if most would argue it is not yet a realistic model. In any case, the technology is ready. The trillion-dollar question is whether the vendors will ready themselves to flip if and when that critical time comes?

Purpose, commitment and accountability

Today is the sixth anniversary of reelyActive‘s incorporation, and to mark this occasion we reached out to all our current and past team members and collaborators, inviting them to record themselves reciting a passage from the Copenhagen Letter. The result is the following:

It is becoming an anniversary tradition for us to reflect on our past, as we did for threelyActive, asking how wrong we were on accelerator day one, as well as last year, when we took the time to document reelyActive’s history before contemplating the next ambitious 5-year plan.

Having now completed one year of that ambitious plan, we can affirm that our greatest challenge is no longer one of technology. If we are to achieve our mission of unlocking the value of the data you choose to share through the realisation of our vision of ubiquitous machine-contextual-awareness at the service of humanity, our greatest challenge is one of enabling the long-term and sustainable pursuit of this, our purpose.

How pleased we were, earlier this month at the PIRATE Summit, to be introduced to the concept of steward-ownership, which we discuss in our previous blog post, and to the Copenhagen Letter, which we read aloud in the video. The latter is a succinct summary of many of the ideas shared by our team (the why), and the former is an alternative legal ownership model for purpose-driven companies (the how).

We shape technology today. While it may not be easy, there are viable paths to put these ideas into practice. This anniversary we remind ourselves to hold one another accountable for the path we choose to pursue. That is our commitment.

Self-reflection: rethinking ownership

Can you imagine a near future where social media and the online experience are seamlessly integrated in your daily, physical life?

Can you imagine your tweets and public Instagram posts appearing as ephemeral “graffiti” on the growing number of digital displays you encounter on your commute, while shopping, even in public restrooms?

Can you imagine a handshake at a conference being enough for LinkedIn to propose to connect you to the other party?

Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar retailer greeting you where you left off your online search and assisting you on your in-store customer journey just the way you like to shop?

Mobile phones have blurred the line between “online you” and “real-world you”. The Internet of Things will almost certainly erase the line between the digital self and the physical self. It is therefore likely that you can imagine a near future where your online presence routinely influences your real-world experiences. Now, pause for a moment to decide how confident you feel about the corporate giants of social networking and technology delivering you that future. Hold that thought.

At reelyActive, we envisaged this future when the company was founded in 2012. Already then, we observed that people were willing to “advertise” their digital selves in select surroundings provided that (1) they could choose how they “advertised” themselves and (2) expect something beneficial in return.

Soon after, with the advent of mobile adoption of Bluetooth Low Energy, the phone in your pocket became, quite literally, your beacon. Critical mass of potential participants was reached years ago, we openly shared the formula, and yet our predictions of a brave social network empowering their user base with scenarios like the aforementioned fail to be realised.   Why?

The successful social media players of 2018 are all grown up now. Their current investors are interested in returns, not risk. Risking a business valued in the tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars pioneering an uncertain, albeit inevitable, future cannot be expected. But what if each company could put their founding purpose first, ahead of investor interests?

Would Twitter and Instagram today be competing to engage us with user-generated-content on digital signage?

Would LinkedIn have already eliminated the need to carry business cards once and for all?

Would Facebook be profiting as brick-and-mortar retail’s saviour as we argued they have the potential to become?

What an exciting time that would be! But how could shareholder value possibly take a backseat to a company’s core purpose?

This month, at the Pirate Summit in Cologne, we were pleased to discover the concept of steward-ownership, which notable European companies both young and old have successfully embraced. By retaining majority voting rights within the company and according profits to their purpose, steward-owned businesses can effectively prioritise long-term impact over short term returns. In other words, there are proven, viable structures for successful purpose-driven businesses.

Should we expect the leading social media companies to transition to alternative ownership structures to prioritise their purpose?   Probably not.   Should we expect this of the startups challenging the incumbents to introduce your digital self to every aspect of your daily life?   Here’s why we think so.

In the real world, you are free to choose what to wear, how you do your hair and how you present yourself to others. Would you reasonably expect the same freedoms for the digital you? Most certainly. Remember that thought we asked you to hold? How would you now feel about shareholder value having a stake in your freedom to “dress” your digital self and to choose when to invite your digital self to join you in the real world?

If we are to create the next computing industry, moving Beyond People-as-a-Product, including a harmonious and voluntary integration of the digital self, the next-generation businesses that will take us there will almost certainly need, as stated in the Purpose Economy‘s Steward Ownership guide, “patient financing and clear, legally defensible, alternative ownership structures to allow a company’s purpose to live on and thrive beyond their transition out of direct leadership and/or majority ownership.”

In other words, not only must the pioneering companies be prepared to rethink the business model, they must equally be prepared to rethink the ownership model.

Micro-transactions with macro-implications

At McRock Capital’s annual IIoT Symposium, which took place this week, a panel of experts was asked:

Does the ideal architecture for Smart Cities look more like the Internet or more like an operating system (ex: AOL)?

Panelists Kurtis McBride of Miovision and Dan Riegel of Sidewalk Labs both argued for the former.   —But wait.—   The Internet was primarily government-funded and took decades to build, whereas both Miovision and Sidewalk Labs are venture-backed companies, and, critically, Alan Kay reminded us last year:

“I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that.”

Can we therefore expect the entrepreneurial vision to prevail?

Three years previous, on the same stage of the same symposium, Alicia Asín of Libelium addressed this exact predicament through a comedic caricature of an investor pitch: “Imagine it’s the 1800s and one is raising funding to build a railroad.”

Entrepreneur:   We’re seeking investment to connect two cities by rail.

VC:   Perhaps instead you could build a pay-per-use entertainment system for the rail passengers. We’re seeing real potential in that space.

Entrepreneur:   There are no rail passengers to entertain. That’s why we’re building the railroad.

VC:   Well, we’re not interested in investing in infrastructure so good luck to you.

The room of entrepreneurs and investors laughed. Definitely relatable to those on both sides of the table then as much as it still is today. Yet it is clearly in our collective interest to establish the infrastructure on which immense value can be created, enjoyed and monetised. So how do we get there?

How about a monetisation model so exciting as to justify the means?

Micro-transactions.   This was the title of what we’d argue was the most important slide of Maciej Kranz‘s keynote presentation, which is featured at the top of this post. And while this being an IIoT conference, he focused on the massive potential for automotive, utilities and commercial applications, it’s not difficult to extend this to The Pervasive Sharing Economy at large.

Here’s our own microtransactions slide from a recent pitch deck. Take the familiar example of walking into a brick-and-mortar retailer: you might wish to exchange information about your presence and intent for an unprecedented customer experience. The real-time data may need to travel from a mobile device over in-store infrastructure which may be owned/operated independently of the real estate before reaching first or third-parties that together deliver the personalised experience. There are countless potential data paths involving a heterogeneous mix of stakeholders (the railroad analogy applies well here too). The micro-transaction model provides a real incentive for each actor to benefit from their work in moving the data where it can create value: everyone gets a cut of the action.

While the underlying architecture may seem complicated, it nonetheless closely resembles that of the Internet. And that’s what Maciej Kranz’s (arguably) second-most important slide reminds us. By embracing open and collaborative practices, most of which are well established, this all comes together, as did the Internet.

Think of every traffic light, digital urban asset and WiFi access point as infrastructure for micro-transactions. From this perspective, Miovision, Sidewalk Labs and Cisco are each contributing to the Internet-like architecture that they champion, provided they embrace the tenets of the slide above.

How then do we hasten the smart city revolution and a ubiquitous Internet of Things?   Establish the business of micro-transactions.   Once the dollars (bitcoins?) start flowing, the underlying micro-transaction infrastructure establishes itself as a solid investment opportunity!