Homage to Catalonia: What I learned at IoTS World Congress, Barcelona

There are plenty of reasons to visit Barcelona. The football, of course, with the biggest club side in Europe (if not the world) a dominant feature of the city. Architecture, history and art, too, draw tourists who want to gaze up at Gaudi’s eccentric, unfinished La Sagrada Familia, and tour galleries and museums dedicated to the work of Miró or Picasso. And the food’s pretty good, whether you prefer the busy tapas bars or the ‘are you sure that’s edible?’ fancypantsery of El Bulli, the brothers Adrià and their disciples.

But, reader, it was not one of these venerable attractions that drew me to the Catalan capital in October (while generous with the ol’ benefits, Octopus Group do not go as far as funding cultural or culinary European city breaks – alas). Rather, my reason for travelling to Barcelona during the 2017 independence referendum and subsequent protests was…

…a conference about the Internet of Things.

Like a digital transformation Bruce Chatwin I was dispatched to Barcelona by Octopus Group to cover IoTS World Congress on behalf of one of our recently acquired clients. IoTSWC is a three-day carnival of ideas and insight about new technology, what we can do with it and how it’s going to change how we live and work – everything from driverless cars to why advertising is going to know what you want before you know you want something.

Writing about tech can often lead you into dark little alleys, where the chat is all about functional things that do something clever but tend not to make a great difference to how we actually live. So, in that way, IoTS was quite refreshing. Panellists in the sessions I covered talked in tangibles about how smart cities work today and how they might in the future. And about current shifts in retail that are changing how people shop.

Also, happily, some of it was quite surprising. Rather than long diatribes about the inevitability of fully driverless cars, experts talked about the challenges they’re likely to come up against. Whether that’s the legislative issues that will have to be addressed before cars can traverse state and national borders; or the cultural shift that ends with people accepting the fallibility of automation – something that still feels a few years away.

Similarly, discussions about smart cities focused on the real world impact of clever tech. Like how Google’s New York kiosks will eventually aid city attempts to reduce air pollution. Or the interesting (yes, really) ways Dublin’s council is reforming their waste management programme, using AI and IoT.

Humanising tech like this makes writing about it easier and far more interesting. Reading about it, too. It’s all very well knowing that a piece of technology can analyse ten billion whathaveyous a millisecond. But unless that translates into something we can touch as humans, it’s hard to really get behind it. It comes back to what Jonah Berger said about how people think in terms of narratives rather than information. Tell me about what your tech means to people, not what it does. That’s where the story is.

Fortunately, many of the sessions at IoTSWC did just that. So while there was no tiki taka, and not much tapas, during my visit to Barcelona, the tech was actually pretty interesting.