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18 February 2016

What does the word ‘smart’ actually mean (and why a ‘smart meter’ isn’t ‘smart’)?

Some of my best friends in the profession work in marketing. Before you read any further: I am not just talking about the marketers who work for Planon. Some of them work for other companies. In general, I think that people in marketing have very nice characteristics: they have a sense of humour, are open-minded, intelligent, supportive and can certainly handle the element of ‘surprise’. In other words, they are great people to work with and fun in and outside of the office.

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However, there is this one element of their trade that keeps puzzling me: the language they use often seems ambiguous and confusing by nature. I am not just talking about individuals, teams or even organisations; this seems to be a profession-related aspect.

As a result, I often find myself spending a lot of time trying to understand the true meaning of certain things in an effort to grasp their real potential and value. It would help if clear and unambiguous language was used. Below are two examples that may help you understand what I am trying to say.

‘Analytics’ or ‘Business Intelligence’?

Before, the term ‘BI’ (Business Intelligence) was predominantly used for reporting and KPIs. Nowadays, it seems that all vendors that used to do ‘BI’ are doing ‘Analytics’ instead. In my quest to understand the added value of ‘Analytics’ compared to ‘BI’, I could not find a single answer. Even respected analysts in the field said that ‘the term is used in various contexts and has various connotations’. My conclusion was that the term Analytics is often used to describe features of BI/Reporting systems that help us discover patterns that are not obvious or easy to see. Not a great definition in my opinion, but it will do. The risk is however that if I were to buy two ‘Analytics’ tools I could end up with two completely different products.

Everything is becoming ‘Smart’

The most striking term we encounter nowadays is ‘smart’. Almost everything has become ‘smart’. Smart cities, smart materials, smart assets, smart meters, smart homes, smart logistics: the list is endless. What is it that makes all these things ‘smart’?  Again, we see different courses of reasoning. The most obvious example in facilities management perhaps is the ‘smart meter’. What is ‘smart’ about the ‘smart meter’? I guess it is the fact that the device is able to communicate its readings to other systems. That is all. I would call this ‘connected’ but not ‘smart’.

But what does ‘smart’ really look like then? This time I was a bit more lucky: Gartner (the leading information technology research and advisory company) recently defined ‘smart’ as the capability of the system to ‘learn’. This really is a simple and clear starting point. With the emergence of technologies that allow systems to ‘learn’ (also referred to as ‘deep learning’ or ‘machine learning’) it is easy to make distinctions between ‘smart’ and non-‘smart’ devices and systems. Can a meter ever become ‘smart’? I guess not: a meter has nothing to learn.

Back to my friends in marketing

So why do marketers come up with these terms? I am surely no expert on the matter but I have given the subject some thought over the past weeks and I think one of the main drivers behind this could be the effort to make language – and therefore the subject or product - more appealing. Who would blame them? That is their job.

But could we at least all agree on the use of the term ‘Smart’?

The world is becoming a ‘smarter’ place. Planon is working towards it too. By the time we announce our ‘smart solutions’ you will know what distinguishes them. I will be working with my marketing friends. It is going to be fun.

Erik Jaspers
Global Product Strategy & Innovation Director