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Digital-physical blur

Extending intelligence to the edge


The physical world is coming online as objects, devices and machines acquire more digital intelligence. What’s emerging is more than an “Internet of Things”; it’s a new layer of connected intelligence that augments the actions of individuals, automates processes and incorporates digitally empowered machines into our lives, increasing our insight into and control over the tangible world. In the U.S., the digital-physical blur, and the immediate access to data it enables, will give federal agencies unprecedented real-time connections to the physical world, accelerating responsiveness. Decisions will be made by federal employees when they’re needed in informed, social and easy-to-use ways, allowing agencies to reimagine the possibilities for engaging with citizens.

In this point of view, Accenture examines the emerging world of the digital-physical blur, including a new world of user experiences, technologies that are refreshing traditional ways of working and the disruptions that lie ahead.


The physical world is coming online due to an explosion of connected devices, such as tablets, smartphones and wearable devices—and even autonomous drones and self-driving cars. The installed base of the Internet of Things is estimated to reach approximately 212 billion in 2020. This will include 30 billion “connected (autonomous) things” that same year. Between 2013 and 2016, global IP traffic is expected to nearly double, and broadband is expected to speed up more than twofold.

The ubiquity of network connectivity and the proliferation of smart devices are creating platforms upon which every agency can innovate. For example, the power of these platforms will enable federal IT leaders to develop more intuitive “decision spaces,” where employees can access real-time data and analysis. At the same time, these developments will challenge agencies to re-imagine the end-to-end delivery of processes and services with the goal of identifying and replicating productive behaviors and optimizing every user experience.


While consumers rapidly adopt wearable technologies and the waiting list for Google Glass grows, federal agencies will be more cautious about the migration of decisions to the “edge”—using mobile devices at the point of decision making. Accenture anticipates three phases of uptake:

  1. The first phase will consist of making current ways of doing things more efficient.

  2. The second phase will see digital-physical systems start to create disruptions. Disruption will begin as it always does—by changing users’ expectations of what is acceptable and normal. The agencies that proactively alter users’ experiences—whether the users are federal employees or constituents—will be the disrupters.

  3. The outcome of the third phase will depend on how agencies approach the digital-physical blur. They will need to ask questions about how truly intelligent automation can change interactions with and expectations of their stakeholders. Will it open up new opportunities? Will it change productivity? Will it simplify or increase delivery of services? The agencies that arrive at the best answers will be setting themselves up to thrive in a new environment.


Agencies can take steps right away to promote decisions at the edge, starting by taking an inventory of devices at the edge of the network and categorizing them as devices operated by a human or those that act on their own, such as sensors and embedded intelligence.

IT leaders will also need to catalog how data is currently being collected in the agency and understand how having more data about daily operations could improve outcomes. With that understanding, IT leaders can define and prioritize the processes in which constituents engage with agency services and make these processes available to pilot program transformation.

In addition, agencies can look to early adopters in peer agencies to glean best practices before developing a portfolio of pilot programs. Pilot programs should deliver actionable insights to employees and constituents and improve digital-physical experiences. Pilot programs should also include the proactive consideration of data privacy issues.

Finally, agencies should develop a governance strategy to act on real-time feedback and start planning for known technology disruptions coming down the pipeline.