Last Thursday, the organizer of the Ted X Cambridge conference invited our Internet of Tomatoes team to feature the prototype technology developed by our lead sponsor, Analog Devices, and become the centerpiece of the event’s Innovation Lab (see two preceding entries in this blog for a description of the project). We turned out to be mobbed all evening, with some of the geeky Cambridge crowd heading straight for the prototype devices and farm data displays, while foodies gravitated toward the new local tomato sauce offered by Heritage Food Truck Catering, or wanted to palm the beautiful heirloom tomatoes displayed by Wards Berry Farm in Sharon. Many were curious to find out what this strange mix of science, agriculture and food was about. And of course, this was the idea …
As the evening progressed, and since tomatoes were in the air, I started thinking of the development of Internet of Things technologies as the equivalent of a ratatouille. Throw some tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, squash, onions, and garlic into a large pan with a bit of olive oil, let it simmer for hours, try it, add some herbes de Provence, try again, throw in more stuff, invite a few friends, get them to tell you what’s missing, have them bring those ingredients from their garden, and let them recruit other people excited about coming and sharing in your gastronomical production.
Technology development, like ratatouille, is no longer about creating a recipe in the lab and following a step-by-step process: it’s a series of culinary jam sessions happening over time, as the technology team moves from farm to farm and kitchen to kitchen, and the team fuses new components in reaction to what it learns at each event. Each public session is a performance, and each session acts as a forcing function for the technology development. Marketing people force the technologists to deliver at fixed intervals of time rather than meander as butterflies in the orchard of knowledge, which would be their natural tendency.
In the new co-creation approach, scientists still need to be technically irreproachable and (minimally) rehearsed, but a lot of the technology development happens in real time, with the marketing staff asking the technologists more and more anxiously, as the event gets closer, “whether the demo will be ready in time”. The answer is always yes, and miracles nearly always occur. At TedX, some of the actual fusion occurred on stage in the hour that preceded the beginning of the show (“does this conference offer Internet access?”). The best integrated narrative across farmers, chefs and scientists was developed on the fly, led by questions from visitors.
Watching my two brilliant Analog Devices technology colleagues in action at TedX, I found myself reflecting on how much personal transformation will be required of traditional scientists to move from developer of a traditional cook book recipe to becoming an improv’ artist able to engage others in preparing a large-scale meal where an entire community makes a contribution. This is what an Internet of Things project is like. It involves building a community of interested people adopting a common platform and set of data to change an entire ecosystem. Yes, the same engineering skills and ability to solve complex technical problems are still needed, but IoT scientists also have to develop an interpersonal ability to engage lay people, make the science accessible to them and get them on the collective road to discovery. In a world where scientists are called extroverts when they look at the other scientist’s shoe instead of their own, this represents a considerable challenge…
Being in Cambridge for TedX also reminded me of ratatouille because this is where Julia Child was from and her ratatouille recipe is my favorite (a statement which will undoubtedly cause my French country fellowmen to disown me). The best ratatouilles are inextricably linked to the personalities of their creators, and her infectious enthusiasm still brings a smile to my face whenever I think of her. The same is true for IoT technologies. Most of the fun for the public at TedX was in engaging live with the technologists describing the agony of sending data to the cloud when most farms have no Internet, the farmers describing the anxiety of the potential arrival of late blight, or the chefs waxing eloquent on the challenge of removing water from the pasta sauce when you use New England heirlooms instead of plum tomatoes.
Products are no longer the mysterious output of behind-the-curtain development processes. The technology kitchen is now wide open to the public, and customers want to acknowledge the artistry of scientists, just like they recognize the food artistry of great chefs. In the future, companies will have to become talent agents for their best scientists and market their personalities as an integral part of their value proposition on an equal footing with their products (the scientists and their oeuvre). And the best of them will have to learn to rock on the stages of technology festivals.
Sadly, the tomato season is now over, and I will have to either fly to the Southern Hemisphere or wait until next summer for ratatouille. Or better yet, I’ll talk my scientist colleagues into launching an Internet of Potatoes project to continue jamming together this fall and winter. I’m having too much fun.