Technology network analysis is the study of systems of technology via the lens of network analysis. It uses models and analytical tools to study how connectivity shapes technologies; particularly within complex engineered systems that involve many diverse component parts that are highly interconnected and interdependent. Such analysis can help in both understanding the structure of large composite infrastructure systems – such as multimodal transport systems, logistic networks or urban infrastructure – and in making an assessment of their vulnerabilities and points of potential cascading failure.
Over the past few decades with the rise of information technology and globalization, we have networked our world. Global logistic networks enable global manufacturing networks, multinational gas and power grids where energy gets traded across borders, and dense multi-modal urban transportation networks. With all of these networks being supported by telecommunication networks on all levels from the local to the global, today our daily lives are embedded within and enabled by a mass of technology networks, and as we transit farther into the 21st century, this is only set to increase as it has become apparent that networks are the fundamental organizational structure to the information age.
Understanding these networks is central to analyzing our globalized world of what is sometimes called hyper-connectivity, brought about by the exponential growth in connectivity across almost all areas. But this huge and rapid proliferation in connectivity has left us in a world of often unknown interconnections and interdependencies that we are still scrambling to make sense of. Modeling and analyzing these networks is the subject to the domain of network science. The study of networks has in just a few decades gone from almost complete obscurity to one of the hottest areas of research today by combining the formal mathematical language of graph theory with network analysis software and new data sources.
As we go from a system with a relatively low level of connectivity to one with a very high level of connectivity, the make-up and behavior of the system change fundamentally. In relatively isolated systems, our focus is on the components and their properties. Due to the high cost of interaction, the system is typically bound into a centralized monolithic configuration to reduce the organization’s overall cost of transactions. But when we reduce the cost of interaction, as IT, transport and other innovations have done, then connectivity increases and the system can become unbundled from this centralized configuration as components become distributed out and re-coordinated through the network.
As an example, we might think about manufacturing. Traditionally, the majority of components for a technology were manufactured in a single factory or leased by a single company. As transportation and outsourcing costs have dropped, manufacturing processes have started to span the globe integrating many diverse producers to deliver a finished product. Going forward, manufacturing is set to become ever more distributed as it becomes Internet-based with the rise of digital manufacturing and 3D printing.
Connectivity is really a very abstract concept and in many ways, it is quite counter-intuitive, because it really requires us to see things in a different way. Network analysis is a very practical tool but it is also a new paradigm. It gives us a more appropriate way of looking at these highly interconnected systems, one that is less focused on the static components in the system and more on the nexus of relations and how this shapes and defines the components. This is a very different way of seeing things to our traditional analytical approach. It is a paradigm shift that is central to understanding this networked world.
With technology network analysis, we are asking how the technology component is created by the network. At a certain level of connectivity, we stop asking how the components create the connections, and things become flipped around as we start to ask how the network creates the components. When the level of integration is high enough and the cost of interaction low enough, there will be very many interactions as we get the emergence of an integrated system that needs different functions performed, and this feeds back to reshape the components. This is quite abstract so we will take some examples to solidify it.
We might ask how has the city of Dubai gone from complete insignificance as an air transportation center to becoming a global hub, surpassing London & Tokyo all within just a few years? To explain this, we need to understand the network. Dubai lies along an important stop on the trade routes between Europe and Asia, a key point in aviation’s new Silk Road, and it is within an eight-hour flight from two-thirds of the world’s population. Dubai’s rise as an air transportation hub is largely because it connected into the global air transportation network and performed a specific differentiated function that the rest of the network required. This differentiated node was created by the network. To go back to our manufacturing example, China’s rise as a manufacturing center happened because it connected into the global logistic network and performed a specific function that was required by the rest of the network.
The point that is being illustrated here is that technologies do not just happen in isolation. They are the product of a network that is delivering some service, and they emerge out of this because they perform some function that the network requires to fulfill that service. Although we have been talking about this on the macro level in the form of globalization, it is of course also a micro-level phenomenon, as it describes the emerging paradigm of the Internet of Things, a technology revolution currently taking place that will very likely reshape the whole architecture to our engineered environment on the micro level.
To give it some more formal terminology, we might borrow this definition from the European Research Cluster on the Internet of Things: “The Internet of Things (IoT) is a concept and a paradigm that considers pervasive presence in the environment of a variety of things/objects that through wireless and wired connections and unique addressing schemes are able to interact with each other and cooperate with other things/objects to create new applications/services and reach common goals.” In many ways, we can think about the Internet of Things as the information revolution brought to our engineered environment as it networks our technologies in the same way that the web has networked our society.
Within this paradigm, technology is less about things and more about platforms. The Internet of Things is not a device or object. It is a platform or network that integrates components in order to deliver functionality. Vertically defined stand- alone products and applications will become increasingly part of large networked horizontal systems, and defined by their role within that network. When systems become unbundled, devices and technologies are available for reconfiguration through different networks depending on the context, and thus the context defines the service and the service defines the network, which brings together the technology components. As we embed chips into technologies, they are capable of adapting and configuring themselves in real time. This is driving a new networked-architecture that is based on services called services oriented architecture, also called SOA.
There are many definitions for SOA but basically, it is an architectural approach to creating systems built from autonomous services that are aggregated through a network. SOA supports the integration of various services through defined protocols and procedures to enable the construction of composite functions that draw from many different components to achieve their goals. It requires the unbundling of monolithic systems and the conversion of the individual components into services that are then made available to be reconfigured for different applications.
SOA originates in information systems design, but with IOT, information technology is starting to permeate and reshape all areas of technology and make this SOA paradigm more pervasive, as it reflects the emerging next generation structure to our technology landscape built on IOT. Of course, we still need physical technologies, machines, devices, turbines, and airplanes. But as we network our world, the next generation of technologies is not so much about these things in the way that it was during the industrial age, but instead about services enabled by networks that connected up things to deliver functionality.