Revealed: Current’s killer app, overarching strategy, and whatever happened to indoor positioning

Jan. 3, 2017
LEDs Magazine’s contributing editor Mark Halper talks with John Gordon, chief digital officer of GE’s newfangled energy and lighting group, Current, powered by GE.

LEDs Magazine’s contributing editor MARK HALPER talks with JOHN GORDON, chief digital officer of GE’s newfangled energy and lighting group, Current, powered by GE.

No company embraces the modern Internet of Things (IoT) lighting ethos more than General Electric. The industrial giant co-founded by the best known of all the incandescent bulb inventors, Thomas Edison, is so convinced that lighting has moved into a brand-new era of IoT-connected LEDs that in October 2015 it marginalized its traditional bulb business by starting up a pioneering energy company to sell LED lighting into the commercial market: Current, powered by GE. Current treats LED lights and infrastructure as part of a sensor-packed network that collects and analyzes data, helping building and city operators run more energy-efficient operations. In Current’s scheme, luminaires are tools and cost items in a service model, no different in that sense from other connected items such as solar panels, energy storage devices, and electric car chargers — they are information nodes that send data off to GE’s Predix software platform to help give facilities folks a better handle on energy use. It’s a perfect fit in GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s overarching industrial Internet strategy, which stakes the future of the company on digitally connecting everything in GE’s industrial orbit — gas turbines, jet engines, locomotives, and so on — into an analysis system that makes the most of those assets.

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The man tasked with making the most of Current’s digital connections is John Gordon, who is the company’s chief digital officer — a newfangled role at a newfangled company if ever there was one. He joined Current in November 2015 from IBM, where he was a vice president at the Watson business unit that markets cloud computing and big data services powered by the renowned Watson supercomputer.

LEDs Magazine contributing editor Mark Halper recently spoke with Gordon about Current’s first year and its future. Gordon made clear that for all of the many things that smart lighting enthusiasts espouse, energy efficiency is Current’s raison d’être. It even trumps the heralded indoor-positioning systems (IPS) which, before Gordon joined, GE had been championing as a driver of smart lighting. IPS uses lighting-based communication technology to many advantages such as guiding shoppers around stores and engaging them in promotions, yet Current has yet to announce a single commercial implementation, while competitors such as Philips have. But watch this space: Current has formed partnerships with about 60 technology companies, some of which are location specialists. Gordon also spelled out a present and near-term future that emphasized indoor intelligent environments more than outdoor — something of a surprise given that before Current, GE had piloted a few well-known smart city implementations such as San Diego and Jacksonville.

LEDs Magazine started by asking Gordon what it’s like having left an IT company for a lighting company — a bit of a loaded question given that, despite the prominence of LED lighting in Current, the group considers itself an energy company. He didn’t take the bait...

LEDs: You’ve been on the job for a year. What’s it like leaving a computer company and joining a lighting company?

John Gordon: I think I left a purely digital company and joined an IoT company. And that was actually the reason I did it. I love the type of projects I got to do with IBM — smart cities work, work that we did with Watson. Great projects. But all were 100% digital. I was looking through data sets; we were looking for predictive patterns…if it was in a computer, we could work on it. To me, the biggest growth opportunity in the world was what’s happening when you connect digital with the things that are outside of computers. And the only way to do that is to expand IoT into a much broader spot. And I thought this being GE and the connectedness to digital and having a really strong set of people that actually work in the real world — I come from a digital background, I’m not a lighting expert, I think about it as a digital problem and how to build a digital platform. So one of the biggest things that I brought in and that I’ve been happy to see us progress on was the whole concept of making an intelligent environment, using sensors and different technologies — IPS being one of the many in the mix.

GE is not going to be good enough to go and solve all the problems for every industry. However, the information and data we can collect from these intelligent systems becomes foundational to just about everything. So I said let’s take all the information and data, and instead of us trying to go build solutions for every industry — it’s really hard to be best in class on everything — we opened it up to partners. We’re going to open information from everything from IPS to temperature, humidity, to occupancy to all kinds of sensor information as to what’s going on, to partners, and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys plug into this? We’ll make it available through Predix, and then you can plug on top of it and you can bring your expertise.’ And from that concept — that was probably one of my first movements, that this is an open platform, it’s not a product solution — we have nearly 60 partners who have now signed up in all kinds of industries who are way more expert in their industry than we ever could have gotten to at this point, who are doing great solutions for us in everything from retail to commercial office space to warehousing to you name it.

GE has no ulterior motives. We don’t take data and go use it to go try to go drive other outcomes that we’re going to use. We tell our customers it’s their data. We have a very clear transparent relationship with how partners can get involved.

We’re building the digital engine for intelligent environments. You work at GE; people like to build engines. We didn’t have one, so we built a digital engine for intelligent environments. Once you have the engine in you can make it sense, respond, and do lots of different things. It just has to be open so it’s not tied exclusively to what we can do.

LEDs: What is Current’s killer app?

JG: Our focus is on intelligent environments. Energy savings is an important piece of that story, and we see energy management beyond just LED as the first killer app in the IE space.

LEDs: Have you de-emphasized IPS?

JG: We have continued to expand our work developing IPS solutions in coordination with some of our partners. Since we began creating our digital ecosystem around intelligent environments, we’ve now signed up nearly 60 partners, and approximately 15 of them are interested in or actively building solutions involving IPS technology. We also have a few pilot projects ongoing with 5 major customers. We’re hoping to be able to share more about some of these programs next year, but our focus will continue to be on the holistic value created by an intelligent environment rather than any one technology component.

LEDs: Many of your partners make sensors. Do the sensors typically reside inside luminaires/lighting fixtures, or are they more typically wall/room/light post/furniture mounted?

JG: Sometimes standalone sensors are more cost-effective and offer more options around placement, but in other cases, it makes more sense to integrate the sensors into the light fixtures (like in high-bay applications, for example). It really depends on the application need, the coverage area, and the cost effectiveness.

LEDs: Where do you draw the line? You have nothing to do with gas turbines or jet engines — looking at GE as a whole, that’s not part of Current, right? Or is it?

JG: GE looks at the industrial Internet in terms of two big things: asset performance management and digital thread. Asset performance management, for some divisions it’s airline engines; for some it’s gas turbines; for some it’s locomotives. There are lots of different assets that we figure out how they work more effectively. For Current, “asset” is a building. Or it can be a venue or a stadium, it can be a space, it can be a city. But it’s not a particular device like a locomotive or an engine. It’s like a building. So the side of these that we think about is how do you make that more efficient — things like lower energy consumption, etc.

And the second side of it is, how do we run the processes that go around it? So if you’re in transportation, you’re not only thinking about how do I make the locomotive run better, but how does it help with logistics and train management and fleet management and stuff like that. For Current we think about the processes that happen within a building. So productivity of employees in a conference building, or hospital workers in a hospital, or shoppers in a retail site, or warehouse efficiency. Our asset that Current cares about is really environment, building. Our mission is not to run product lines of individual technologies. Technologies could come and go. We own the mission for the company to make environments intelligent.

LEDs: You keep saying “buildings” more than any other example. But to be clear, Current does provide these services to smart cities, right? Smart cities are a Current marketplace?

JG: Yes, our focus where we do most of the work right now is the commercial and industrial side. And we launch into the cities, and we’re trialing a few them in that space right now and we have early adopters. It’s much of the same philosophy of an intelligent environment — of how to collect information, make data available, build application partners on top of it, and allow other people to develop. It’s a lot of the same principles. It’s just a different market, a different segment.

LEDs: Do you focus more on building than you do on cities? Are you more of a smart buildings play than smart cities play?

JG: Yeah, overarching we have materially more people, coverage, that are in the buildings segment. Because we have more expertise there, we have more technology. We are launching in the smart city space, [it’s] a startup segment within a segment of how do we go test and move that through. It’s a different type of model for us. I’m excited about the things we’ve learned so far. But it’s an incubator within an incubator.

LEDs: So first and foremost, buildings?

JG: Yes. I would see commercial and industrial all over the place as kind of being the core segments for Current. It goes across buildings like retailers, warehouses, manufacturing sites.

LEDs: Having said that, some of the early examples pre-Current, for GE Lighting and smart stuff, were cities. San Diego, Jacksonville, one or two others.

JG: Yeah. My experience is I try to incubate new digital businesses and industries for kind of global companies. All of those kind of things, I always think you need an example that is relatable to the public. So even if we can make warehouses smarter and a lot of industry-specific things, that’s not something that everyone is going to generally understand. Examples like cities are examples for people to understand. It’s great.

LEDs: Let’s drill into your focus on buildings, and go back to indoor positioning. GE has been talking about this [IPS] for a long time. It promotes the concept very well. Having said that, I haven’t noticed any named customers yet.

JG: It will continue to be an important technology in the intelligent environment. It’s one of the many tools that are there. Since we went through and said let’s not have GE write every application for every industry and pretend that we’re experts at retail or anything else — and we’re not — let’s open up to partners, we now have a whole bunch of partners that have signed up that are leveraging that technology and data into the solutions that they’re building. We’ve done probably half a dozen-plus live deployments, at least 5 pilots that are moving through. I’m optimistic that the technology continues to be part of the story, but for us it’s going to be part, just like everything else is part. It’s one thing you can understand in an intelligent environment. We aren’t pushing technologies. We’re trying to push outcomes.

I honestly don’t believe that any vendor who’s expert in lighting or wherever they come from could be expert in every industry. We build a handful of very basic reference apps. Consider it like the calendar function you have on your phone. It’s like the basic stuff you can use with others. I want to partner with the best in the world who have been working in retail for 30 years. Who have been working in these other spaces for years. So that has been much, much better for us. We’ve now been working with third parties and starting to roll those out. That is a piece where you’ll hear more names coming up soon. But the important evolution from us, it’s not about what GE does anymore. It’s about how GE enables experts to work in these spaces. And I think that’s much more interesting to customers than what someone whose expertise was in lighting and infrastructure can do to solve an industry problem.

MARK HALPERis a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).