John Baekelmans is a man at the pointy end. After 21 years at Cisco Systems, the world’s biggest player in IT networking, this softly spoken 47 year-old Belgian finds himself with the lofty title of Chief Technology Officer overseeing the ‘Internet of Things’. It’s not easy to define what this means in a comprehensible paragraph, but in a single sentence, John is in charge of making machines talk to each other.
The fast approaching tidal wave of connectivity is what makes Baekelmans’ position quite so critical. “It took thirty years” he explains “to connect 17 billion smartphones, laptops and other devices with one another. In four years it will be around 50 billion.”
The technology that is doing this is also connecting our cars to one another, to their drivers, and to the roads we’re driving on. If you’re a pessimist, the smart motorway vision is one of constant automated regulation, a grim-looking procession of robotised tailgating to minimise congestion and maximise fuel efficiency. But Baekelmans, one of the overlords facilitating this level of connectivity across Europe and around the world, is doing it from behind the wheel of a Porsche Carrera Cabriolet today. He’s having his waffle and eating it.
In his hometown, the ancient city of Antwerp, the medieval old plays havoc with the demands of the new. There is nowhere to park, and traffic circles aimlessly, playing motorised musical chairs in the city’s cobbled streets.
Europe’s slow adoption of modern infrastructure worries Baekelmans, a man uniquely placed to see how whole countries are being left behind in the global race to peak connectivity. He has worked recently in South Korea where the ultra-connected town of Songdo was designed and built from scratch to allow every element of daily life to be accessible to all 75,000 residents in a maximum twelve minute walk. All the streets are constantly monitored, both for security and to enforce speed limits. “This extremely efficient orientation isn’t lively enough for me,” remarks Baekelmans as he nudges his 911 out of rush-hour Antwerp and points it south towards the small town of Kontich. And eats another metaphorical waffle.
A man of contradictions then, Baekelman loves the 911, particularly in this Carmine Red, and is keen to show it to his fellow volunteer firemen in Kontich. His work here gives him perspective: “If you’ve ever had to make life-and-death decisions within seconds, the decision for or against a multimillion dollar business deal seems relatively straightforward.” His tech acumen well reported, Baekelmans was once asked to run the entire Antwerp fire department but declined. “I have to think in unconventional ways, stay innovative. I’m very happy among creative people and happy when people confront me with seemingly insoluble problems.” Among which, pretty soon, will be the union of his sportscar and his smart road network.
“There’s one thing I’m very good at,” Baekelmans concludes. “Getting people to change their lives.” Of that there can be no doubt, and there’s a glimmer of hope when our plugged in, self-policing, super-sensible future is being planned by a man who loves the 911.