The spirit of openness and the return of borders
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Is the new protectionism a threat to connectivity as well?
by Dr. Volkmar Denner
Generally speaking, epochs are only given a name once they are over. It was only after the event that people spoke of the Industrial Revolution or the Age of Discovery. Even so, I would like to try to give our present age a label, and suggest we call it the Age of Openness. The openness of borders following the fall of the Iron Curtain. The openness of trade as a result of globalization. And above all, the openness of technological development that has been made possible by the internet. In the sense that we understand it today, connectivity has always been an open-source event — not the creation of a single company or inventor, but instead of a global community. And today, we connect not just billions of people, but billions of things as well. This will trigger data-driven solutions, in manufacturing just as much as in smart homes and connected cars. And again, these solutions will not be the work of a single individual, but depend on open exchange among the companies involved — large and small, young and old, wherever they are in the world. However, we also have to ask ourselves how long this Age of Openness will last.
On the surface at least, current events in our connected world suggest that nationalism is rearing its ugly head again. Protectionism, populism, Brexit, and “America first” are the slogans dominating economic policy debate. They are usually regarded as the antithesis of globalization, as the expression of people’s desire to cocoon themselves against the cold reality of worldwide competition. But this is only the half of it. The desire to pull up the drawbridge also threatens the spirit of openness that is so essential for the connectivity of people and things.
Admittedly, data traffic cannot be hindered by walls or protective tariffs — data needs neither passports nor delivery notes. It is a fact that internet communications can escape the influence of national governments more easily than flows of people and goods. Nonetheless, people are trying, or are tempted to try, to establish network sovereignty, or indeed to bring the internet under control. In the opposing camp, the IT industry remains strongly interested in global networks and marketing. So while Silicon Valley is in the U.S., its suppliers also come from Asia and Europe. And while the smartphone is not a German invention, Bosch micromechanical sensors can be found in two-thirds of all smartphones. Moreover, although the IoT market is still in its infancy, it can only ever be conceived of as a global market. None of the players in this sphere would be doing themselves a favor if they tried to restrict their operations to their own country.
We explicitly welcome the EU's aim of creating a digital single market. We have to protect individual privacy and at the same time do all we can to keep the web as free as possible of national interference and restrictions.
Connected manufacturing is a prime example of the collaborative nature of IoT development across national borders. This is not just about companies such as Bosch and General Electric working to create common standards that will help machines understand each other. The Industrie 4.0 platform and the Industrial Internet Consortium have also been closely collaborating for a long time now — so closely that the two parties see themselves not as a German or U.S. venture, but as an international initiative. This is truly a giant and significant leap forward.
On a more practical level, the product performance management protocol, or PPMP, is being tried out at the Bosch plant in Homburg, Germany, as part of a joint Industrie 4.0 and IIC testbed. Bosch itself developed the PPMP, which is available to all at no cost. It allows small and medium-sized enterprises to transmit data from their sensors quickly, simply, and securely to the production systems of large companies. This helps remove some of the obstacles preventing entry into connected manufacturing. This first practical experience will be used to further refine the new protocol — work which will be done by Eclipse, an open-source community. Once again, we see that openness is our life blood.
In the future as in the past, it would in fact be self-contradictory for a company or indeed a country to want to achieve connected manufacturing on its own. Connectivity can only be a the result of a combined effort. Its guiding principle is that we are stronger together than alone. And true to this principle, we will continue to build bridges, also across the Atlantic. My sincere hope is that this idea, which is so crucial for connectivity, will not be lost as politics become more nationalistic.