Stronger government leadership needed if UK is to thrive in the IoT economy


The IoT economy is there for the taking, but there’s a need for the UK government to show more leadership in order to tap into it most effectively.

The UK is benefitting from a “growing, if fragmented” IoT market, but there’s an urgent need for stronger political leadership and a ‘home’ for related policy within government.

That’s one of the top-line findings from a report released late last week from  PETRAS, a consortium of nine leading UK universities, and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The report –  Internet of Things: realising the potential of a trusted smart world – makes a series of recommendations to policymakers and regulators on how the UK can exploit and develop the potential of the Internet of Things sector.

In the foreword to the report, Dr Mike Short, Chair of the PETRAS Steering Board and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Trade, says:

It is particularly pertinent, in an uncertain international landscape, that this report highlights the UK’s opportunity to lead the development of international IoT strategy. Any international strategy needs to include the sharing of knowledge and best practice relating to both technical and social aspects of the IoT, as well as policy implementation. Ensuring the UK leads this development will give the best opportunity for the UK to become an established, leading player in the emerging international IoT product and service market.

The study considers applications of IoT in three broad categories – consumer, industrial and public space – and examines the most pressing policy challenges, raising a broad range of issues that need to be considered to maximise impact. The report argues:

Policymaking should reflect the differing objectives of these categories while adopting an approach that acknowledges there are disparate requirements and constraints relating to sectors or domains within each category.

This leads to a recommendation that:

In developing policy for IoT, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and other government departments should distinguish the differing policy outcomes for industrial, public space and consumer applications of IoT.

Policy for industrial applications should reflect the need to drive productivity and efficiency as well as threats to national infrastructure, manufacturing capability and safety. Policy for consumer applications should reflect consumer benefits such as improved quality of life but not compromise security or privacy. Policy for public space applications should reflect desired outcomes around both improved efficiency and consumer benefits

Global thinking

There needs to be more consideration of international ‘umbrella agreements’ on IoT with the UK Government working with other national governments and international institutions. The UK should take the opportunity to lead in such activities, says the report:

Many IoT components and devices are manufactured outside the UK, with implications for the UK’s global competitiveness and its role in international regulation. The UK will need to focus its efforts on where it has strengths and can lead, whether these strengths lie in industry, research or regulation.

It adds:

The UK government should work with other governments and international institutions – with the main providers of IoT components, devices and systems – towards ‘umbrella agreements’ that set out an international baseline for IoT data integrity and security for all parties to adopt. This will support the international supply chain in offering products and services globally.

There also needs to be more focus on the transparency of the cyber-safety and cyber-security of products, with the burden of responsibility placed on manufacturers and service providers. But government needs to pick up the pace as well, says the report:

Government, working with the National Cyber Security Centre, UK national standards bodies, regulators and industry, should enable the development of security standards for IoT that provide a baseline across sectors, recognising the multi-sectoral nature of the supply chain, while working within specific national and international industry contexts… Government departments should ensure that policy reflects the critical importance of cybersecurity and the need to trade-off cybersecurity against other considerations that contribute to achieving policy objectives. DCMS, BEIS and other government departments should work with the National Cyber Security Centre and others to explore ways of ensuring levels of cybersecurity are transparent for products and services throughout the supply chain.

This is also an area in which the UK Government should be seen to be stepping up and taking on a leadership role:

There is an opportunity for the UK to co-ordinate and shape debates about international cybersecurity policy in the context of IoT. There is a lack of focus and leadership in key international organisations on these matters, where legacy cybersecurity concerns continue to drive discussions. To guide the advancement of norms and agreements that will be necessary to ensure a safe and secure IoT, international policy coordination and cooperation will be essential.

To that end, the report urges:

Existing UK cyber-security capacity-building initiatives should be expanded to include IoT policy support for states without the research capacity to address these challenges. Existing policy-relevant research should be coordinated and disseminated through the establishment of an international IoT policy research community. The UK government should exercise its leadership to begin discussion on how it will integrate IoT into current international political negotiations over global cyber-security

Ethical thinking

Alongside security concerns, there needs to be more focus on the creation of ethical frameworks to minimise risks to society:

Professional engineering institutions and other professional bodies, working alongside DCMS and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, should build on existing ethical principles developed for professions to create an ethical framework for IoT to encourage ethical behaviours. They should provide case studies to illustrate how the principles are applied in practice. The Information Commissioners’ Office should develop best practice guidance for IoT stakeholders that nurtures a clear understanding and implementation of the data protection regulations.

In the end, it still comes back to the need for stronger leadership from the government of the day in support of a genuine national strategy:

The approach to developing appropriate governance and regulation for IoT will need to reflect the disparate requirements of different sectors and areas of application, while identifying their points of commonality. A systems approach to policymaking will help to map out sector-specific and common issues, the roles and responsibilities of the different stakeholders, and how stakeholders should work together. The IoT agenda needs a recognisable home within government.

And the time to act is now is the bottomline conclusion here:

A growing, if fragmented, IoT market is beginning to capitalise on new business opportunities around IoT products and services. However, greater economic gains are likely to be from increases in productivity or efficiency in industrial sectors and, looking further ahead, from applications that help to solve global challenges such as affordable healthcare and a cleaner environment.

Many more innovations are expected as the technology develops, particularly when coupled with other technologies, such as AI and robotics, and with new business models. Capitalising on IoT’s potential will help the UK government to deliver both its industrial strategy and digital strategy. It is an important technology for enabling the delivery of the industrial strategy’s four Grand Challenges.

My take

A wide-ranging report that touches on some increasingly-familiar concerns. The point is well-made about the need for a ‘home’ inside government for IoT policy making. Bearing in mind that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, there are all too many departmental fingers in the IoT pie within government for comfort. Overall this report is well worth a read if you’re any form of stakeholder in the future IoT economy (which is basically all of us).

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