The UK is still a long way off being ready for the Internet of Things

Internet of Things
The Internet of Things could potentially be a huge headache for the UK

Earlier this year, the UK government announced that it will give the Internet of Things (IoT) a £45 million (around $70 million, AU$83 million) funding boost – and indeed this cash injection is central to the government's IoT plans. It has opted to spread its bets and disseminate the cash via a number of vehicles and to multiple organisations who can help bring the UK up to speed.

This is a far cry from previous government IT projects which saw billions go to one organisation (selected from a pool of cronies) and ended in misery and embarrassment as the resultant systems were overblown, overweight and failed overnight. The infamous computerised NHS record keeping system cost up to £10 billion (around $15.7 billion, AU$18.4 billion) and at one point was described as "the biggest IT failure ever seen."

The government is hoping this time will be different. The £45 million (around $70 million, AU$83 million) figure breaks down to investment in areas such as location services, digital health and remote working. There are also plans to incentivise startups to create IoT specific technology through investment competitions and other funding tools.

This money is supposed to cover a shortfall in preparedness, and it's supposed to get the UK battle ready to compete with other countries that are pushing ahead – such as Spain's flagship IoT city Santander.

Appetite for tech

But are we ready? On a consumer level, yes. The public has shown a real appetite for adopting new technology. Young people are especially tech savvy and if there's a genuine benefit – for example saving money on energy bills – then consumers will take to new technology with aplomb.

But on an infrastructure level, less so. Whilst issues of available bandwidth have been raised, Tom Cheesewright, futurologist, believes that a more damning problem is looming – namely infrastructure: "The biggest concerns are at a geographical scale. Bandwidth isn't so much of an issue: 3G/4G, whitespace and actually unlicensed RF bands should be plenty.

"The bigger issues are around power and the readiness of state institutions. Our power grid is ancient and far from smart. Most local government bodies are struggling to get truly into the web era, let alone physical computing. There's a massive imagination gap, before you even consider the investment needed.

"This is an opportunity though. Transforming the grid and city-scale technology with old approaches to design and procurement would be slow and painful. If we can apply some 'internet culture' – user-driven design, agile, iterative development, open source hardware and software – then we might be able to leapfrog a generation of technology and truly take advantage of the promise of the IoT."

Beyond the screen

Cheesewright also expressed concerns that companies and developers in the UK aren't working on the kind of next-generation tech that's going to be required for IoT: "Very few developers and digital agencies, the people who ought to be exploring this space the earliest, have yet started to experiment with anything beyond the screen. The ones that do will have a massive advantage as we begin to enter a post-screen age.

"Think about the bandwidth of the interface between workers and computers: if you're limited to the screen, mouse and keyboard while others are interacting via the much richer medium of the physical world, you're going to be at a huge disadvantage, especially as computers begin to understand more and more of the context of our world – location, social graph, environment etc."

However, a spokesperson from the department of business innovation and skills countered, and said that a new funding initiative, via Innovate UK – the government's startup investment body – has launched a funding competition for early stage companies in the Cambridge and Shoreditch tech clusters.

Whether or not the winning startups are the ones who will create the kind of technology Cheesewright is talking about – and the people issuing the grants are sufficiently clued up enough to recognise the right startups – remains to be seen.