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Putting a little fun in problem-solving with the Ignite Innovation Challenge

It's not often that we get to talk about fun in this industry, and it's even less often that someone tells me "we did it for fun" when I ask them about the impetus for a project.

But that was, indeed, the answer I got from Dr. Roberto Aiello, managing director of the Itron Idea Labs, when I asked him why Itron decided to launch the Ignite Innovation Challenge this year. Why did they do it? Why, for the fun of it, of course. 

It was certainly a refreshing answer.

Now, in the end, it's not all about the fun factor---well, not entirely. The contest, which allows developers to "play" with Itron's Riva platform, is, at its core, about fixing problems and unlocking the possibilities within the Internet of Things (IoT) for utilities and smart cities.

In fact, this contest is really just another step in the work Itron's already doing with developers around the Itron Riva platform. (The Itron Riva platform allows for network-edge computing power, basically allowing for IoT thinking in a more plug-and-play format.)

And some people have already been plugging and playing---so to speak---long before the Ignite Innovation Challenge. 

"We have a lot of developers already interested in working with us. We just wanted to make this more public and see what kind of applications and interest we would get," Aiello said. "We've seen hackathons, of course. We've seen other contests out there. We just thought this new contest would be fun."

And it must have been. The numbers were better than they expected for a first-round contest, which helped confirm for Aiello and his team that maybe they were onto something---with IoT, with Riva and with the contest.

"It's so hard to tell at the beginning," he added. "When you start new things, it's hard to tell if anyone will care. We have to have the courage to try things. Some will work. Some won't work. This one worked. We're very happy with the response level."

There were a few surprises in the process, of course. There always are. But most of them were pleasant surprises, including interesting applications that mix hardware and software. 

"The one we picked [in the utility category] was definitely the most compelling in terms of use case and execution," he added. "The winner emerged clearly, but it was interesting to see some applications were more local, some were more data-oriented. It was such a variety of ideas."

Related to smart cities, Aiello said he was happy to see some real solutions around citizen engagement and running an efficient city come through the process.

And he showed some real excitement about what those smart city ideas reveal---namely that smart city applications are about to happen. They're no longer "stuck on the drawing board. It's becoming real," he added.

That reality was one of the lessons from this contest--at least for Aiello. The judges weren't just looking for technical prowess. Nor were they solely seeking stats and numbers that prove (or predict) results. They were, in fact, most interested in just how compelling the application was. In simple terms: They were most interested not so much in the perfection of the solution but in the pain level of the problem it solved---or at least mitigated. 

"This isn't just an engineer's exercise," Aiello said. "We really wanted to solve real problems." The most compelling ideas may not have been the cleanest, the leanest or the meanest, but they tackled some big issues. Those were key.

There was some engineering required for this exercise, however, even if it wasn't just an engineer's exercise. Aiello and his team took the core Itron Riva tech, stretched it and pulled it to be more generic for the Internet of Things and made it easy to build upon. 

"The best thing we did was take this core tech, apply it to IoT and make it available on the Internet for anyone who wants to use it," Aiello said. "This is a first. Vendors are usually playing things tight, keep the tech to themselves. We made parts of it available, some of it open source and very open to IoT."

Once again, that fun comes back into play. Aiello wants you to take his tech and see what you can do with it, like an industry-oriented Erector Set. (In fact, you can purchase your own developers kit outside the now-closed contest link right here. Take a stab yourself.)

And, of course, as with any new project, this open, IoT-waving developers contest did teach some personal lessons for Aiello and his team. When they restart round two of this contest next year, they will encourage more utilities to enter themselves and try to consider levels of experience with each entry, gaging the breadth of experience in the process. 

And, if you're interested in applying for next year's contest, Aiello has this advice: Find a very, very good problem, one that's clear to the industry, one that we all care about. That's the key. Then, solve it with your customized platform. 

"Find a pain point for the customer, and be a pain killer," he said.


To find out the winners of this first Ignite Innovation Challenge, pop in on Itron Utility Week Oct. 14-21 in Orlando or keep an eye out on the discussion chain below this story. We'll update you live from the show.




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Thank Kathleen for the Post!
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Kathleen Wolf Davis's picture
Kathleen Wolf Davis on Oct 18, 2016

The Ignite Innovation Award was given out this morning at Itron Utility Week. The winner is: Cyient, a global provider of engineering, manufacturing, data analytics, networks and operations solutions. Learn more here. 

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