Digital transformation. Over the past year, this term has rapidly left behind its buzzword status to become a key business enabler in a world defined by pandemic restrictions and new requirements to monitor and manage systems and facilities remotely.

Organisations have had to digitise at scale and align old manual approaches to ensure they can stay relevant and effective in an uncertain and volatile market. As organisations have invested in “smart” digital solutions designed to help them get better real-world operational information more quickly, innovation has increased exponentially.

From advanced analytics to artificial intelligence to edge compute and the Internet of Things (IoT), technology has been endlessly evolving to provide the scale and capability that is required by industry. According to Pieter Pienaar, Chairperson of the IOT Industry Council of South Africa (IOTIC), IoT has remained a relevant technology because it delivers measurable value to organisations, particularly around operational efficiency, and visibility.

“IoT is no longer seen as a flash-in-the-pan technology that is just hype, smoke and mirrors, it has steadily become a part of the general technology toolbox for the Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and IT decision-makers,” he adds. “This is a technology space that allows companies and public sector organisations to be agile and can be easily customised to fit sector and vertical requirements.”

As the world moves into the second quarter of 2021, the Covid pandemic is not going to suddenly disappear, and the uncertainty it introduces is not going to miraculously settle. This global realisation has led to several clear trends emerging with regards to technology investment and application.

Remote working, at first a cobbled-on necessity, has become a de-facto standard that organisations must optimise to ensure seamless operational efficiency.  In addition, 5G’s complicated arrival and multiple false starts have led to the realisation that there are other wireless technologies out there – many far better suited to the requirements of smart systems powered by the Internet of Things.

GSM and 3G are still powering billions of remote, connected devices, depsite their practical limitations. Newer techs like LoRaWAN, Sigfox, WiSUN, and Starlink are gaining traction, while other new low-bitrate, low-cost nanosat entrants such as Swarm will radically changing the communication game.

“Cross-border trade and movements have also become more complicated as the political landscape remains in flux,” comments Pienaar. “Brexit, global supply chain interruptions, increasingly aggressive foreign policies by many nations, regional political upheavals – all these are making it essential that companies and governments implement robust cross-border track and trace solutions, a key use case for IoT tech.”

While all these macro and micro factors are influencing how organisations approach IoT and its applications, the industry has been focusing on evolving its offering. Steady development into powerful new IoT services by the hyperscale Cloud providers – relatively new entrants to the IoT space that have taken the ball and run with it – have led to improvements in software technology that are making it more cost-effective and accessible to different sectors and organisations.

“Currently, the costs are too high for a lot of Cloud solutions when the IOT device count increases to provide the levels of penetration that make the tech transformative,” says Pienaar. “While small-scale projects are affordable, as soon as the devices hit scale the large Cloud providers become expensive. It is likely that the growth in demand and new competitors entering the IOT Cloud services space will soon drive the enabling platform costs down.

“The IOT industry is doing well currently, but the broader economic slowdown is starting to have an impact on end user spend, which creates a space for smaller, lower cost, independent IOT software platform solutions to find a place in the sun.”

The past year did see solid growth during the pandemic as IoT business surged to meet digital transformation demand, but 2021 is seeing less of these rapid leaps to complete urgent innovation projects, and more projects aimed at tightening operational efficiencies as they slog through the mire left behind by the pandemic.

“Unemployment is rising, and the pandemic isn’t slowing,” concludes Pienaar. “South African IoT companies pivoted rapidly to COVID-19 mitigation solutions, but now the focus has to change once again. IoT can be a powerful tonic to drive growth, not just a band-aid for immediate business pains.

“The market must look towards investment and innovation into value-generating solutions for end-customers. IoT has the potential to translate the current complexity into opportunity, but only if it is applied and managed intelligently.”

The investment into IOT projects in 2020 did what it had to – solved immediate problems quickly – now the IoT investments of 2021 must take a long-term view. Organisations must evolve, embed sustainability, refine digitisation, and polish their tech strategies to ensure longevity.

The IOT Industry Council provides an independent view to users of technology in how to move into the digital future to ensure relevance through smart choices in technology adoption. The Internet of Things can present any company with a digital toolkit that can help tick operational, financial and automation boxes.

Many need a little help starting the journey by understanding the art of the possible. During 2021 the IOT Industry Council will be publishing a variety of guides and consultancy resources to help technology professionals dream big.

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