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February 18, 2016

What the word smart actually means (and why a smart meter isn’t smart)

Some of my best friends in the IWMS field are in marketing—and I am not just talking about the marketers that work for Planon. In general, I think that people in marketing have very nice characteristics: they have a sense of humor, are open-minded, intelligent, and supportive and can certainly handle the element of surprise. In other words, they are great people to work with and are fun in and outside of the office.

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However, there is one element of their trade that continues to puzzle me: the language they use often seems ambiguous and confusing by nature. I am not just talking about a single individual, or team or even organization; this seems to be a profession-related thing.

As a result, I often find myself spending a considerable amount of time trying to understand the true meaning of 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 talking about.

Analytics or Business Intelligence?
Originally, the term Business Intelligence (BI) was predominantly used for reporting and KPIs. Nowadays, it seems that all vendors who used to do BI have rebranded to “Analytics” instead. In my quest to understand the added value of Analytics when compared to BI, I could not find a single answer. Even respected analysts in the field say the terms are used in various contexts and have various connotations. I’ve deducted that generally the term Analytics is used to describe features of BI or 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 of no clear definition, however, is that if I were to purchase two Analytics tools, I could potentially end up with two completely different products.

Everything is becoming Smart
The most striking term we encounter today is “smart.” Almost everything has become “smart.” Smart cities, smart materials, smart assets, smart meters, smart homes, smart logistics—the list is endless. What actually makes these things so-called smart? The most obvious example in facilities management perhaps is the smart meter. What is “smart” about the smart meter? My guess is that the device is able to communicate its readings to other systems. That is all. I would prefer to call this “connected” and not “smart.”

So, what would smart really look like? This time I was luckier in finding a definition: Gartner, the leading information technology research and advisory company, recently defined “smart” as the capability of the system to learn. This 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. With this definition, can a meter ever become smart? I say no: there is nothing to learn for a meter.

Back to my friends in marketing
So why do marketers create these terms? I am no expert on the matter, but I have given the subject some thought and believe one of the main drivers behind this could be the effort to make the language—and therefore the subject or product—more appealing. Who would blame them? That is their job.

But can we at least all agree to not get carried away with 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