IoT and the coming recession

With all signs now pointing clearly towards an impending recession, should we be worried about the project of a global Internet of Things? In a word, YES.

First, let’s take account of the global situation halfway through 2022: we’ve collectively endured two years of a global pandemic, inflation and interest rates are taking a greater hike than has been seen in at least a generation, there’s a land war in Europe and supply chains have been disrupted by all the aforementioned events.

Regardless of what comes next, this period hasn’t proven easy on economies nor businesses, especially those in emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things. And, in all transparency, what we’re hearing of late from our colleagues in the field isn’t any more encouraging. Next month we’ll celebrate 10 years of reelyActive, and looking back over a decade in which we’ve seen the majority of IoT startups come and go—even through the best of times—our anniversary might best be described as a notable outlier.

What worries us about an economic recession is that most of the commercial successes in IoT that we’ve witnessed to date are highly predicated on Something-as-a-Service (SaaS), operated by venture-or-investor-backed businesses: the kind that are statistically among the most vulnerable in a recession. Specifically, the failure of a single SaaS business has the potential to decimate all dependent IoT deployments. Moreover, such businesses are strongly incentivised towards a lock-in model favouring perceived profitability over interoperability, making the prospects of finding a timely replacement for a failed SaaS slim to none. As such, a regression of the IoT is a probable outcome of a recession of the economy.

We’re in a position to speak candidly of this as we too developed a SaaS offering—in large part tied to our own fundraising efforts—which we operated from 2016 through 2019. Those fundraising efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful (our first and last round of financing was upon incorporation in 2012!) and, consequently, we made the bold decision to embrace the open source model wholeheartedly moving forward, leading to our Pareto Anywhere middleware today occupying a class of its own while enjoying global reach.

In fact, since 2014, we’ve been actively publishing open source software and middleware under a permissive (MIT) license, prefaced with the copyright notice:

 * Copyright reelyActive 2014-20xx
 * We believe in an open Internet of Things

And, for the reasons we listed above, it should be easy to understand why we would long champion an open Internet of Things. Because frankly, there’s no such thing as a closed Internet of Things (that would just be a bunch of siloed ecosystems!) and yet that’s effectively what has been economically encouraged over the past decade. Iconic figures like Alan Kay, with whom we spoke in 2017 about creating the next computing industry, have similarly argued:

“the goodness of the results is most highly correlated with the goodness of the funding”

Alan Kay

So, if we truly believe in the project of a global Internet of Things, this is perhaps our last opportunity to make sweeping changes to retain the industry’s talent pool that might otherwise be lost through recession and to increase the “goodness of the funding” to favour the application of their skills towards an open, interoperable IoT on which, collectively and sustainably, we might build the next trillion dollar industry, or better yet, we might find a way to live on this planet as if we wish to stay.

Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy

Last month we had the pleasure of reading The Sharing Economy and subsequently meeting the author, Arun Sundararajan, with whom we shared our praise, at the New Cities Summit. The book, which we’ve added to our bibliography, eloquently ties together many of our pioneering thoughts on innovation and economics, which we’ll discuss here, starting with the economics which Sundararajan frames as follows:

The sharing economy, although not politically neutral, is creating a new economic model – an interesting middle ground between capitalism and socialism – that also appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with the extreme ends of both the economic and political spectrums. More importantly, it has developed an economic model that appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with neither of those extremes.

Conceptually, it seem paradoxical that a new economic model can benefit both those closest to and furthest from the extremes of traditional models. But, as we highlight in our blog post on the Pervasive Sharing Economy, scepticism wanes as even companies that have been notoriously slow to adapt are defying expectations:

General Motors, a company that long ago conspired to derail public transit to boost private vehicle ownership, just bet $500M on Lyft anticipating the end of said ownership!

In that post we argue that while the current sharing economy is largely limited to higher-value underutilised assets such as vehicles and real-estate, the proliferation of Internet of Things technologies will extend the marketplace to include the majority of everyday things from clothing to tools and beyond. However, unlocking this enormous potential is predicated on a significant investment in technology and infrastructure, a proposition which is today typically met with resistance. But such attitudes are clearly evolving, as evidenced by the book’s citation of a post by Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures discussing their investment in OB1 which develops the enabling technologies for OpenBazaar, “a free market for all with no fees or restrictions”:

How can a business that is consciously architected to undo network effect defensibility, one that is tearing down the walls and filling in the moats that every paper on market based competition has insisted are necessary for success … succeed?
OB1 will offer a set of value added services to buyers and sellers […] and they don’t expect to have any proprietary advantage over those competitors. As investors, we hope that their familiarity with the marketplace and the goodwill they generate as early sponsors of the open source project will give them an advantage but we understand they must execute very well or be left behind. (link)

While it is both refreshing and motivating, as startup entrepreneurs, to witness this shift in attitudes towards investment, we must point out that it is not access to capital alone which is gating progress. Policies and protocols play an equally important role as Sundararajan’s quote of Albert Wenger, also of Union Square Ventures, this time discussing Bitcoin, highlights:

Policy makers, however, need to understand the importance of protocols for enabling distributed permission-less innovation – that is innovation by many individuals and startups. For instance, the hypertext transport protocol (http) is what lets a browser talk to a web server – as long as the server implements the protocol it can deliver innovative content or services to any browser. HTTP itself builds on many other lower level protocols, such as DNA and TCP/IP. Historically, protocols have emerged from either research projects or from individuals / small groups simply throwing something out that sticks. (link)

Case in point, Vint Cerf, co-inventor of TCP/IP, and currently VP & Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, who we recently had the pleasure of meeting at an IEEE science conference. As we argue in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT: “in our opinion, he is one of the few individuals applying a long-term vision to balance what’s optimal and what’s profitable for the still nascent Internet of Things”. Cerf equally argues for permissionless innovation. Without the Internet-enabling TCP/IP protocol he co-invented as a researcher, Google’s highly profitable business could not exist! At reelyActive, we thus stand by our approach of publishing protocols as science, upon which we build our innovative business, driven to execute very well or be left behind!

In the coming weeks reelyActive will celebrate its fourth anniversary. One might say that we’ll celebrate having survived four years (see threelyActive), as indeed our hybrid approach hasn’t made life easy under the existing paradigm. Nonetheless, the recent developments discussed in this post and in the book are enormously encouraging. So, what is the next economic paradigm? On that topic, Sundararajan argues the following, paraphrasing Douglass North:

[H]istory suggests that it is neither possible nor economically viable to simply adopt existing rules and apply them to a new economy. The challenge, then, is to determine what comes next.

What comes next is a value-first approach. Investment in the projects and startups developing enabling technologies, including the underlying open protocols, will unlock massive value, generated through permissionless innovation by their peers; value that will lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people across the political-economic spectrum. Investment in massive value creation is Phase 1. Embracing this approach, investors, be they private, institutional or government, need only find a clever means to collect their fair share of the resultant massive value in order to profit more handsomely than could ever be afforded by the current economic paradigm.