Technological convergence is the intergration of a number of disparate technologies or functions into a single integrated system. The Internet and digital convergence are classical examples of this.1 Virtually all modes of telecommunication are rapidly converging upon the Internet protocol as a single standard for telecommunications. Digital convergence refers to the merging of four distinct industries into one conglomerate: Information Technologies, Telecommunication, Consumer Electronics, and Entertainment. The digital format is driving rapid convergence, as a previously disparate array of media from books to television to films and photographs are all converging upon a single format. Electricity cables are starting to become information transporter. As the Internet’s infrastructure and power grids merge and as cars become electric, they too are becoming merged into the power grid. Some of the major factors behind this convergence are primarily the information revolution but also globalization, sustainable technologies and rise of the services economy.
Since the advent of early stone and wood tools, technology has become increasingly differentiated into specialized functions, as today one can find many millions of technologies and services available on the market. Whenever we have a major technological transformation, or new energy source like the advent of petroleum combustion, we get the emergence of a whole new ecosystem of technologies. If we look at the development of new consumer technologies in the 20th century, it was largely a history of different ways to apply the newfound energy source of electricity and petroleum-based plastics, with the result being the proliferation of ever more consumer technologies filling ever more specialized functions.
Information technology is central to this process of convergence, as it is increasingly becoming the interface between people and the technical infrastructure that supports us. Devices such as smartphones or tablets allow us to access a wide variety of functions through a single interface. As we previously discussed, the Internet of Things is driving massive convergence of hugely disparate technologies from tractors, to washing machines to factories. They are all becoming operated through the Internet protocol suite and often accessible through mobile devices, and of course behind of all this is the so-called “cloud” and computer virtualization as data is converging into centralized data centers. This architecture to next generation I.T., with on the one hand the centralized systems of cloud computing, big data and analytics, and on the other the massive proliferation of mobile devices and Internet of Things devices, is a good example of the complex interplay between increased convergence and divergence.
The services revolution is an economic paradigm shift that moves the focus of economic activity from the provision of discrete products and technologies to providing end-users with integrated services, called product service systems. Within this paradigm the focus is on the end user and providing them with not a one off product but instead a seamless service experience. This is a much more sophisticated business and marketing model that adds value and differentiation, and it is aligned with the dominance of the services sector within post-industrial economies. It is a key factor leading to convergence in that it is focused on integrating disparate technologies into single seamless service systems.
Sustainability is also another driver of convergence but more on the macro scale, as it requires us to focus on how different subsystems interoperate in order to make whole systems more efficient and sustainable over their full life cycle. Sustainable cities are urban environments that identify how their different subsystems can work together, and this means designing integrated systems. For example this might involve asking how the structure of the urban environment relates to its transportation systems and how their energy consumption relates to the city’s air quality and so on. Again, this has a networking effect as we cut across traditional domains, and it drives the convergence of different functions and silos onto common platforms.
Lastly, globalization is also a factor, creating a geographic convergence as infrastructure systems no longer stop at borders but become networked on a multinational and regional or even global level. Information technology and financial and economic frameworks allow us to create multinational markets as something like electricity can be traded across borders, seamlessly creating interdependency between previously autonomous national infrastructure systems, the best example of this being the European Union as it starts to create the regulatory frameworks for transport and utility systems to span the entire continent.
Positives & Negatives
This process of rapidly increasing convergence creates both challenges and solutions within our technology infrastructure. On the positive side we have dematerialization, as convergence typically means we can do more with less physical resources required, and dematerialization is very important to achieving sustainability. Convergence is critical to dealing with the complexity of our next generation of technology and it also enables seamless processes instead of discrete silo technologies and functions. But there are also many challenges including the heightened complexity of engineering these multi-functional systems that require a much higher level of abstraction. Dealing with fuzzy ill-defined borders and system boundaries is another challenge. Creating increased security risks and ensuring basic functionality despite greater complexity is an added engineering challenge.
Convergence requires the use of significant abstraction. Abstraction is where the system as a whole becomes increasingly removed from any individual instance of its functionality. An example of this might be a computer’s operating system. Early mainframe computers had no operating systems. One simply wrote an application and put it into the computer to be run and then the next person came along with their application and put that in. Of course, each of these application developers had to write a lot of low-level code for managing the computer’s’ hardware resources. Over time the modern operating system evolved in order to provide a generic platform for performing basic common hardware resource management. The operating systems provided a layer of abstracting so that the computer’s hardware can be easily used for many different applications while also being independent of any particular instance. In order to enable convergence, new abstractions have to be invented. They have to work and be implemented.
Fuzzy Borders & Security
The complexity of designing and managing these complex systems is not trivial. Convergence means that our traditionally well-defined borders become fuzzy. When things overlap, it is no longer clear who is responsible or whose jurisdiction we are in. Traditional regulation and management structures that were designed as domain specific start to erode and appear less relevant.
The overlapping and integration of many different systems and being able to access all these systems though a single protocol creates significant security challenges. This interconnectivity and interdependency creates heightened risk of cascading failure. It becomes very difficult to understand and model all of the linkages and interdependencies within these complex networks. With convergence, the end user wants to be able to switch seamlessly between different functions and domains. Building firewalls, buffers and redundancy in order to reduce failure propagations often reduces their capacity to do this, and thus security may become more of a concern and more difficult to deal with.
Abstraction is the engine behind convergence. These convergent technologies need many layers of abstraction in order to enable the many different functions they may be required to perform. Abstraction creates engineering challenges but it also increases functionality challenges because it typically involves a much higher number of dependencies within the system. As the number of functions in a single device escalates, the ability of that device to serve its original basic function decreases. For example, the iPhone (which by its name implies that its primary function is that of a phone) can perform many different tasks, and thus the telephone’s functionality is dependent upon many levels of abstraction involving millions of lines of code, with many possible errors occurring. Compared to this, a simple mono-functional telephone will likely be much more reliable and trustworthy.
Solution To Complexity
Convergence and abstraction are in many ways central to the solution space of dealing with the complexity to our industrial systems. As Oliver Holmes once said, ‘I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.’ Convergence is in many ways the only hope for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. These factors driving convergence, in particular, product service systems integrating disparate technologies into seamless processes, and information technology providing a single interface are critical to dealing with the complexity. They are central to encapsulating the complexity of next generation infrastructure and providing end-users with integrated solutions, in so doing enabling technologies to disappear into the background and higher value added activities to come to the forefront.
A corollary to this is that convergence enables processes instead of discrete functions. We live in a world where we have to stay switching between devices and systems. With convergent technologies, functions can be strung together into processes, and processes are really how our life works. Often quite simple ones, like going to pick up the children from school, you would interact with many technologies in the process of this activity. From our coat to the house security system to the car, the transportation systems to one’s mobile phone and so on, all of these systems are completely ignorant of the fact that they are part of a process. We spend our time continuously coordinating these different technologies into the processes that we are performing. Convergence through product service systems and information technology offers the possibility of taking us into a much more processes orientated world.