One of the benefits of having kids is they give you an excuse to explore areas you thought you no longer had time for. First, it was building elaborate train track systems, then it was hours-long Lego marathons. And now? I’m thinking DIY Internet of Things.

It’s been around for a while already. Since the advent of high-speed wireless and cloud-based video storage, you’ve been able to hack together your own home surveillance system with a few webcams.

Pick up a few tiny Raspberry Pi computers, write a few lines of code, wireless-in a few sensors, and voila! you have your own connected life. Sites like SmartLiving are dedicated to DIY IoT recipes, even selling kits with all the ingredients needed for a hackable, fully automated life.

Should Big Companies Be Concerned?

Few big companies are going to be threatened by your newly created app that connects your coffee maker to the alarm clock on your smartphone. But where there is sun and light and rainbows for us as individuals, in this golden age of the consumer, there are dark clouds on the horizons for very large enterprises.

 self-driving tractor Last week, WSJ published an article about how a 30-year old Canadian farmer named Matt Reimer hacked together a self-driving tractor using drone parts, open-source software, and a Microsoft tablet. How’s that for self-sufficiency?

He’s part of a small but growing group of farmers who are building their own robotic equipment, satellite-navigation networks and mobile applications, fueled by the falling prices of electronic hardware and, as the WSJ notes wryly, “off-season boredom.”

That’s terrible news for heavy equipment companies, who are already scrambling to innovate in the sudden emergence of the “farm tech” sector. It was bad enough that they had to compete with other manufacturers, then with software companies. Now, they’re competing directly with their own buyers.

So, what’s a large, incumbent company to do? Here are two ideas–I’d be interested in hearing more:

1. Go on the defense. Use copyrights, code tweaks, standards bodies, and intellectual property law to prevent people from messing with embedded software. Problem is, in addition to positioning the company as an adversary to its customers, this strategy would collapse if open-source software advanced enough to replace proprietary code entirely.

2. Reinvent. “Poverty is the mother of invention,” said one of the farmers interviewed in the article. He created a system that matches the flow of seeds to the soil’s capabilities, estimating that he spent $750 versus $5000 for a commercial system. That’s a hard cost structure for large firms to match. . . and maybe they shouldn’t. Large company innovation models abound, including Forget, Borrow, Learn.

While Corporate Darwinism has almost always favored the most adaptable. Only now, the timescale of change has contracted: the average life expectancy of an S&P500 company has apparently shrunk from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years in 2012 (though there is some more nuance to this).  So if poverty is the mother of invention, short runways are the mother of innovation. Go to it!

Irene Sandler

Irene Sandler

Irene Sandler leads marketing for Cognizant’s Emerging Business Accelerator and Cognizant Digital Works. She’s based out of leafy Portland, Oregon.