Imagine a world where the environment around you is as programmable as software: a world where control, customization, and automation are enmeshed in our surroundings. In this world, people can command their physical environment to meet their own needs, choosing what they see, interact with and experience. Meanwhile, businesses leverage this enhanced programmability to reinvent their operations, subsequently building and delivering new experiences for their customers.
Already, nearly 80% of executives surveyed believe that programming the physical environment will emerge as a competitive differentiation in their industry. An early example of what’s to come in this space is Amazon’s Sidewalk service. For years, Amazon deployed hundreds of millions of Echo, Ring and Tile products in neighborhoods worldwide. Sidewalk creates a Bluetooth network that can extend connectivity up to half a mile beyond Wi-Fi range and lets anyone with compatible devices connect. If your dog escapes, a Tile tracker on its collar could stay connected thanks to Sidewalk bridges from your neighbors’ homes. This approach of connecting existing IoT devices to create instant smart neighborhoods hints at the power that connecting other, even more sophisticated technologies will soon unleash.
Leading enterprises will be at the forefront of the programmable world, tackling everything from innovating the next generation of customizable products and services, to architecting the hyper-personalized and hyper-automated experiences that shape our future world. Organizations that ignore this trend, fatigued from the promise of IoT, will struggle as the world automates around them. This will delay building the infrastructure and technology necessary to tap into this rich opportunity, and many organizations may find themselves playing catchup in a world that has already taken the next step.
Preparing for the Programmable World
To begin building a new generation of products, services, and experiences in the physical world that meet our new expectations for digital conveniences, enterprises will need a deep understanding of three layers that comprise the programmable world:
1. The connected. The connected devices that enable seamless interaction with our surroundings: IoT and wearables today, ambient computing and low latency 5G-based devices tomorrow.
2. The experiential. Digital twins of the physical world that provide real-time insights into environments and operations and which transform peoples’ experiences within them.
3. The material. A new generation of smart, automated manufacturing alongside innovations like programmable matter and smart materials; programmable matter can — as the phrase suggests — be “programmed” to change its physical properties upon direct command or by sensing a predetermined trigger.
Becoming a leader in the programmable world requires wide-ranging experimentation and continuous development across these three layers. Companies that achieve “full stack” programmability will blaze a trail, so it’s important for this journey to start as soon as possible. We recommend that organizations begin addressing the following as a priority:
- Level up the connected layer. 5G will be a game-changer in terms of speed and low latency, but rollouts are still in early days. This presents an opportunity for organizations to pilot new use cases that leverage 5G capabilities, so that they can hit the ground running when it’s more broadly available.
- Get involved with industry-wide alliances. Industry alliances will shape the development of new technology standards for the programmable world. Businesses that take part in these alliances will help ensure that the world evolves in a way that benefits their customers. From an interoperability perspective, this could mean participating in ecosystem-wide efforts to set standards for how devices connect and communicate.
- Bridge the digital and physical worlds. All businesses should now consider building digital twins. Even without the full maturity of the programmable world, these platforms provide significant operational and competitive advantages to companies today. Over time, digital twins will become the engine for every enterprise’s programmable world strategy, letting them invent products, design experiences, and run their businesses in ways that would once have been unimaginable.
- Innovate in the right areas. Start by looking at where purely digital or purely physical experiences have yet to excel. For instance, apparel shopping comes with major pain points both in person and online (e.g., limited selections and wait times in store vs. difficulty finding the right size/style online). Virtual dressing rooms using AR filters and 3D avatars are a perfect solution, enabling online customers can try on items before they buy. Similarly, physical dressing rooms can be enhanced with improved lighting and interactive screens, so shoppers can get more out of trips to the store.
- Explore future materials technologies. Partnerships with start-ups and universities are a good way to stay right at the forefront of real-world technology innovation. For instance, a team of researchers at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms published their work around four new material subunits called voxels. Researchers believe voxels could be programmed into certain combinations to create objects that change and respond to the environment around them – like airplane wings that shapeshift in response to different air conditions — and they believe tiny robots could be used to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble the voxels into a nearly limitless variety of objects.
The programmable world promises to be the most disruptive turning point for business and society in decades. Soon, we will live in environments that can physically transform on command and which can be customized and controlled to an unprecedented degree. With these environments, a new arena for innovation and business competition will be born. Businesses that prepare first, will be best positioned to succeed.