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business models, strategies and technologies

Business models for identity and uniqueness

Digital unique identifiers – luxury, advantage, prerequisite or opportunity?

What do we do with identity?

In our current world of branded identity and social media profiling, identity has become an often-artificial construct – something you engineer and use to illude, rather than something innate, immutable and earned. But engineers, techno-geeks and forensic detectives don’t think about identity in the same way as the Kardashians or the Twitterati.

Identity is also – or can become – a key element in how society works, and can perhaps be made to work better. Perhaps even to comply with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 9, focusing on building resilient infrastructure, promoting industrialisation that is both inclusive and sustainable, and fostering innovation.

In the technical world – as I humbly attempt to understand it – a unique identifier (UID) is a numeric or alphanumeric string that is associated with a single entity within a given system. Unique identifiers are often represented in the now-familiar bar code format, or via other AIDC (Automatic Identification and Data Capture) media. All AIDC technologies seem to have the potential to encode a unique identifier that can be digitally read/deciphered. Among the better-known varieties in the voluminous, complex nomenclature associated with this specialist field are 128-bit text strings or labels known as GUID (globally unique identifier) or UUID (universally unique identifier).

Unique identifiers carry big import, so they aren’t an arena for wilful mucking about and proprietary territory-staking – they are regulated by lots of standardisation thingies like ISO/IEC 15459-4:2014 and the ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31 Technical Committee for automatic identification and data capture techniques. There’s also the (seemingly US-centric) AIDC 100 non-profit, aiming to enlarge the business community’s knowledge and understanding of AIDC technology and capabilities.

At the higher end, in particular, it’s an arcane world that seems to be populated by insanely clever people, and I won’t have the temerity to claim any in-depth understanding of the nitty-gritty of how it actually works. My angle is simply about how such “unique identifier” technologies are used and could be used, and the strategic/commercial opportunities these capabilities might provide.

Identity or value?

According to some sources, various forms of illegal and/or counterfeit goods currently account for 3.3% of the entire volume of world trade. Serial numbers and identifier plates of every kind (from VIN numbers to bar/QR codes and beyond) can now be convincingly faked, so some kind of modern, digitally dextrous UID technology (think: the relatively new FIDO Alliance passkeys, for example?) to identify or authenticate such goods seems a good idea to help owners, buyers and sellers “prove” the legitimacy of a particular item that’s somehow important to them.

But what is such provenance really doing? What is really being protected here? Is it the identity of the item, per se, or is it the value of that item? That question is particularly pertinent because UIDs are an opt-in feature – and one that the manufacturer/source has to pay for upfront. This represents a not-insignificant additional complication and expenditure that will almost inevitably get passed on …

In the everyday scheme of things for us cash-strapped mere mortals, no one is really interested in the unique identity of ordinary or mass-produced items. This means the whole idea of UID technology quickly becomes associated with high-end/high-significance goods whose value depends on their uniqueness, limited-edition identity or provenance. All of which support some kind of value attribution, whether monetary or otherwise, “real” or illusory. High-end/high-value consumer goods often have problems with copycat knockoffs – Danish designer-furniture makers, for example, have long been plagued by low(er)-price copies that probably only cognoscenti can differentiate.

Two-way protection?

The conventional narrative about unique identifiers tends to focus on the value of the item. Anyone forking out big bucks wants to be sure the item is genuine = what s/he is paying for. It’s not normally perceived as being the manufacturer’s actual fault if the item turns out to be counterfeit, because the ill intent, deception or subterfuge comes from elsewhere.

But modern commercial frameworks have brought about significant changes in the supplier-to-user business model. Mass-market platforms like Amazon and companies like Walmart are now often the shopfront and enabler for countless more-or-less faceless manufacturers and suppliers – some of whose credentials definitely don’t stand up to scrutiny (here‘s an example).

As a result, it might well be desirable to introduce UID-facilitated protection to run in the other direction, protecting the validity and credibility of the supply chain and thereby protecting the reputations of the supplier or retailer. In the world of corporate reputations and perceived brand value, the protected value usually accrues to the “branded identity” rather than to the actual item sold – regardless of which end of the price/value spectrum it occupies.

Protect the rich/empower the capable?

One obvious/facile objection to UID and AIDC technologies in general is that they just help affluent people and companies protect their assets and increase the value of their already non-typical wealth. Can we/how can we democratise this apparently otherwise-elitist capability?

If successfully moved into the digital world, unique identifier technologies represent a key point at which the physical and virtual/digital worlds meet and interlock. But there are big limitations to their usefulness if they are limited to physical objects, highlighting the validity and credibility of the supply chain – as in the stringent OEM requirements in aviation, for example.

With modern digital tools, manufacturing is no longer restricted to the size-as-the-prime-enabler domain. A small, one-person business (of any kind) can market and position its capabilities just as effectively as big companies with huge budgets, by instead making effective use of market-building tools such as YouTube, Instagram, TikTok/Douyin and other digital channels. Countless tiny operations all over the world have built successful, satisfying and profitable businesses, with the “small volume” not being a sign of high-value exclusivity but instead reflecting customer responsiveness and attention to detail, along with quality, individuality and flexibility. In such business models, the individualisation process is often at least just as important as the finished item. Wouldn’t there be big opportunities for UID-facilitated identifiers to enable the capable to do more, and to do it better? And to certify the uniqueness of the processes themselves, rather than focusing on the mere physical results of manufacturing or artistic endeavour?

Leveraging robotic opportunities?

Modern manufacturing and processing operations are increasingly automated: the rapid acceleration of digitalisation and robotics are altering many of the fundamentals of high-quality goods and of value attribution. Sometimes seemingly paradoxically, automated processes pave the way to greater individualisation and customisation of products, so that even mass-produced items can feature unique configurations, colour schemes and technical specifications (think ICE vehicles, for example). Digital processes make it easy to distribute and “democratise” a wide range of value-adding industrial and artisanal operations, as well as helping and empowering designers and other innovators to get to market quicker, with products configured to meet individual preferences, tastes and peccadillos, and with greater customer satisfaction as a result.

Intelligently applied robotic or robotically assisted processes (think cobots as assistance for craftspeople and artisans, for example) help introduce a significantly different dynamic between uniqueness and value. As a result, uniqueness can quickly become a basic design prerequisite, rather than a traditional-style exclusivity bonus. How can “unique identifier” technologies get involved with such key changes, and how can they establish new “added value” opportunities in such changing market configurations?

PUF’ing chemicals

My first real, conscious awareness of these “unique identifier” opportunities for physical objects (as contrasted with the whole blockchain idea for the more ephemeral dimensions) followed from reading about something called PUF technology being used in some high-end eyewear from a company that I used to do work for. PUF stands for Physical Unclonable Function, and has long been intensively studied in conjunction with different forms of information security.

A PUF is a Physical Unclonable Function, and is a product’s uncopiable serial number

One particular way to deploy PUF technology is marketed by a Danish company called Pufin ID that apparently uses chemistry-derived PUFs to reliably identify any specific product throughout its life cycle – from the proverbial production cradle to end-of-life grave. It seems that Pufin ID makes it (relatively) easy to instantly verify, authenticate and trace a product using just a smartphone, thus elegantly lifting this important function from the world of esoteric research and complex academic studies to real-world ease of use.

Pufin ID puts out the protection message

As far as I could find out, Pufin ID uses a chemical signature mark so small the naked eye can’t even see it. This mark consists of a tiny amount of transparent ink/dye containing microparticles that form random but unique patterns of tiny dots – impossible to remove or alter – when applied to a specific area. As with fingerprints, the company asserts there is zero risk of two identical patterns emerging, thus (seemingly) making the Pufin ID mark impossible to copy.

The Pufin ID explanation

The company apparently also provides customised – rather than generic/standardised – solutions for embedding its chemical-flavoured, digitally driven PUFs into physical products. The customer chooses the shape, size and colour of the PUF to make sure it suits the product and its design language, along with the company’s way of thinking. Each individual product then receives a unique PUF that is impossible to copy, and is therefore 100% secure. Identity guaranteed, it doth seem.

Tell the whole story

The Pufin ID website begins in traditional techie-style by diving into the solution, only then giving the reader/potential customer/licensee any gen about the problem that their particular PUF technology flavour, or the conceptual, strategic and commercial opportunities this could represent for customers. It’s quite natural that a tech-driven company like this tends to dwell on its own “inside out” perspective, but this can quickly give us ignoramuses outside this specialist field an impression of “drowning in the details”. It’s only when the visitor digs further into the website menus that a sense of the full potential and opportunities emerges.

However, the Pufin ID approach made me think about the potential that would lie in turning the narrative around, moving from tech companies’ traditional approach featuring a supplier-centric need to explain “how we do it” over to instead addressing “how our capabilities help you/the (potential) customer, and help you with your interactions with your customers …” and moving from supplier-centric “case stories” to focus on customer-centric and society-supporting, SDG-compliant benefits.

Scaling up

PUFs and other “unique identifier” technologies represent a key point at which the physical and virtual/digital worlds meet and interlock. But how are such capabilities to be rolled out and scaled up?` Imagine if only half the population had a national identity number (or whatever it’s called in different countries), or if only better-off people and companies had an address or phone number. How would the basic functions of society then work? Doesn’t the same apply – at an even more fundamental level – to “verifiable identity”? Especially in a digitally connected world, with so many physical disconnects and potential avenues for dishonest and deceptive representation.

Conventional thinking about “unique identifiers” is based on the “protect value” mantra, but this doesn’t usually provide bankable benefits for any other parties outside such business transactions. If (at root) a company has to market and sell such “unique identifier” capabilities and technologies to other companies/purchasers, this all adds up to a relatively-hard-slog business model, involving convincing one customer at a time. How can such potentially valuable “unique identifier” capabilities be scaled up?

IoT, SDGs and future infrastructure

In many countries – Japan is a perhaps surprising example – physical media are (still) considered as providing a degree of authenticity that any digital replacement does not and cannot.

If they are to achieve “critical mass” and widespread acceptance, reliable unique identifier platforms and frameworks to replace this millennia-old functionality have to be easily manufacturable, easily accessible and (perhaps most importantly for mass uptake) fully street-credible. Any element of doubt or uncertainty kills the validity and credibility of the whole supply chain and the whole commercial premise. This would require a roll-out plan that is fundamentally less defensive than now, removing the element of new-tech doubt, and making such unique identifiers ubiquitous and perhaps even a sine qua non for the protected items’ “place in society”.

The ideal solution would therefore probably involve weaving the basic idea (rather than any specific proprietary incarnation of it) into the infrastructure of society, moving forward. Coincidentally, there seems to be a spectacular opportunity for this right now, with the forthcoming exponential proliferation of “entities” that will characterise the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0/the Industrial Internet of Things, based on 6G opportunities for automated, multiplex communication between such entities. This kinda’´ presupposes a reliable infrastructure for validating the identity of the myriads of physical entities in which the electronic identities are embedded.

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the heart of The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that all United Nations member states adopted way back in 2015 were – and are – an attempt to provide a shared blueprint for future prosperity and planetary survival and human prosperity. SDG number 9 involves a focus on building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation. The whole “unique identities” strategic narrative seems to fit well here, providing an effective way to link physical products to the digital world, as well as providing key new tools for establishing and sustaining the highest standards of responsible, transparent sustainability in the future.

Desiloed paths to identity verification

Conventional thinking isn’t going to give us many breakthroughs. The brainpower roster visible on the Pufin ID website seems to be ramping up to ambitious achievements, with a big extra dollop of chemical engineering capabilities for that particular company’s take on PUFs. This might involve integrating UIDs into the increasing numbers of manufactured items in which nanoparticles are an integral part of the structure or the inner workings. One example might be the remarkable solar-generating glass structures made by ClearVue in Australia, but there are many more.

However, the next generation of UID innovation is unlikely to come from within the blinkered confines of any one discipline, as in the traditional academic research model. Accessing and integrating specialist know-how available within multifarious often-siloed disciplines and fields of capability – like cryptography, mathematical modelling, advanced electronics, data science, software development and artificial intelligence – seems to provide good potential for innovative thinking, integrated digital engineering and cross-disciplinary solutions related to UIDs in their many flavour variants, with a wide scale-up scope.

Thinking about unique identifiers as an integral, can’t-do-without part of SDG 9-compliant infrastructure (as well as part of a mindset fundamentally related to that of blockchain technology, and to the idea of Web 3.0-related digital IDs, such as those from Inrupt) seems to present substantial commercial opportunities at the heart of a transformational rethink of the infrastructure needed to make a society work effectively in a new generation of technology whose conceptual and strategic assumptions are radically different from its predecessors.






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