Sustainability is not only the most important question of our time, but also the largest business opportunity today. And smart technology is finally here to help. By adding connectivity and intelligence to our everyday objects we can vastly increase resource efficiency, reduce waste, keep people healthier, and make our societies safer. And can all be on a global scale. Along with its ability to create vast economic value, the Internet of Things – or IoT – will improve people’s lives to an even greater extent.
“How come these opportunities arise only now?” you might wonder. “Haven’t technologies like these been around for decades already?” Well, yes and no.
In the 1980s and ’90s – during the infancy the Internet – researchers started analyzing the possibilities of creating networks of smart devices. But the sensors needed were not cheap, small, or ‘smart’ enough for mass-market adoption until quite recently. Over the last twenty years or so, as 3 billion people connected to the Internet, the ways we communicate and do business with each other have been completely transformed. However, the products themselves have been largely unaffected. And that is where we were yesterday. Today, we are on the brink of the ‘connected’ society and IoT is about to hit a mainstream audience. We will soon understand that connecting all our everyday objects to the Internet is not only possible, but it is already happening. In fact, there are more connected devices today than there are people on the planet.
Then you might ask, “How can all these smart, connected buildings, vehicles, power tools, clothes, coffee machines, and toothbrushes make the world more sustainable?” Good question.
First of all, we must understand that the value of the Internet of Things has very little to do with either the Internet or the things. Rather, the real value lies in harvesting and analyzing the data that all these objects generate, and in turning those insights into meaningful action.
The real-time data from the billions of connected objects already exists. And it provides us with a completely new understanding of how our world works – not theoretically, but practically. In turn, this allows us to analyze transactions and interactions on both a societal and an individual level, giving us the ability to improve efficiency, safety, and usability at every possible station. (Paul Huggins at the Carbon Trust compares it to the recent advances in telescope and microscope technology which provides us with mind-blowing insights about both the macro- and micro cosmos.)
Today, we are on the brink of the ‘connected’ society and IoT is about to hit a mainstream audience. We will soon understand that connecting all our everyday objects to the Internet is not only possible, but it is already happening. In fact, there are more connected devices today than there are people on the planet.
Remember – this isn’t in the future – this is now; we already have the data. And unfortunately, this data paints quite a dismal picture. Our society is full of inefficiencies, affecting both personal wellbeing and society-at-large. Here’s one example: Americans average 55 days per year stuck in traffic jams, resulting in “extra” yearly CO2e emissions about three times higher than the total emissions of Sweden (not including consumption of goods and services produced outside of Sweden). Yet there are so many things the IoT can help to remedy this situation. How about eco-driving, connected traffic lights, fleet management systems, driver assistants based on real-time traffic data, car- and bike-sharing services, and other IoT-enabled logistics systems. Implementation of any one of these technologies would help ameliorate the problem – but just imagine if we could implement all of them.
Saving time and resources is obviously not limited to the transportation sector; it can be applied across the economy. A global implementation of IoT solutions in energy, transportation, agriculture, buildings, manufacturing, and consumer services could, by 2020, reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of today’s total emissions of the United States and India combined. (For you scientists, that is an annual reduction of 9.1 Gt CO2e.)
“Okay, that sounds pretty great, but what are these solutions in more practical terms?”
Well, if we take energy as an example, might I put forward the concept of the smart thermostat? With one, you can track of the energy consumption in your home, including doing so device by device, but also compete with your neighbors to see who saves more.
And you can be active as well, not just monitoring your usage. If you forget to turn off your lights, you can open an app on your phone and adjust your lights and heating remotely. Even if you don’t have the app, you can have your electricity and heating optimized through smart sensors. Thus, if a sensor does not detect any presence, it can cut down on wasteful heating as well as save you money at the same time. This can of course be done on a much larger scale as well. It’s already used a lot by companies as well as governmental municipalities. Furthermore, IoT is the key enabler for the development of smart energy grids, where the supply and price of energy is optimized in relation to demand in real time. Besides increasing efficiency and reliability in general, smart grids also make it easier to integrate renewable energy into the system.
“That’s so interesting, but all of your examples are with things that are electronically-based – cars, houses, energy grids. What about everyday things like food? What would IoT have to do with something like that?”
Agriculture is actually one of the sectors where smart technologies have the most potential. It’s possible to survey live weather and farm conditions, helping farmers optimize their use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. And smart monitoring systems also help to keep track of larger areas to see how the land is used by the minute, helping to stop deforestation.
And to anticipate your next question, IoT is already widely used to in manufacturing to automate production processes, increasing efficiency, conserving resources, and saving cost. Additionally, as global resources decline, IoT is equipped to combat this increasing scarcity. In a truly inspirational way, IoT systems can be used to match end products and “waste” to new uses, recycling on an international level. This fundamental concept is referred to as a circular economy – and it’s already in play. IoT’s circular economy is estimated to add US$1 trillion a year for the global economy by 2025 and 100,000 new jobs over the next five years.
Finally, as for consumer services, IoT has many tons of existing uses that make our life more convenient and efficient. These ideas, such as ordering online with your phone, are probably the most well known to the average person. But did you know that there are buttons that you can program with a certain function and stick anywhere you’d like? You could have one on your washing machine, and push it to automatically order another laundry detergent. It’s possible now to even pay for your coffee with a smart reusable cup. And this cup, in turn, makes it more likely that you will carry it with you, thus reducing the use of disposables.
In essence, smart technology is about making products and services more efficient, in all parts of society. Greater value can be delivered from a smaller amount of resources.
“One last question: How are you certain that smart technologies will make the world more sustainable?”
Yes, concerns have been raised suggesting that improving availability and customer convenience though smart technologies will actually increase total resource use, as well as use more energy due to the manufacturing and powering of trillions of low cost sensors. These concerns are perfectly valid. And yes, IoT solutions themselves will have an impact on the planet. The most important part to understand about this: even though IoT’s own footprint is projected to rise in the years to come, its abatement potential is 7 times as much as its footprint cost.
And we should keep creating smarter solutions, embedding sustainability as a principle across the entire life cycle of any smart product or service. The investments that are made during the coming 15 years will set the path of development for the next 50 years. If we utilize IoT to its full potential, ‘low carbon’ will be synonymous with ‘economic growth’ and ‘sustainable prosperity,’ now and in the future.
And the best part? The smartest solutions are yet to be invented.
If you want to learn more about how to make both businesses smarter and the world a better place – simultaneously – then please visit our blog regularly and follow us in social media. We publish trends, interviews, cases, handy tips, and news on sustainable business, smart progress, and the Internet of Things.