The Internet of Things has been hailed as the biggest technological revolution of our era, with the power to transform our day to day lives, agriculture, industry and maybe even turn the economy on its head. But what does it actually mean? How will it affect our lives? Are there any potential dangers? And could the IoT help us live more sustainably?
A 2015 study by Accenture into the Internet of Things revealed that 87% of participants were unfamiliar with the term. The same study concluded that mainstream consumer adoption of IoT technologies was to be widespread and inevitable in the next five years. Which presents us with an interesting conundrum. It seems there is a revolution happening (or about to happen) that could transform the way we life, but the majority of people don't understand quite what it is that is going on.
So, What Is the Internet of Things?
Putting it simply, the Internet of Things refers to a sort of technological umbrella, a smart infrastructure that connects physical objects and allows them to send and receive data – to and from us and between each other. That means all kinds of objects – household appliances, machines, vehicles, even plants and animals – can be identified and localised, communicating with each other and transforming into “smart” objects that can react to their surroundings and interact intelligently with people. It’s the sum of three key ingredients: sensors (embedded in the objects), connectivity and people.
So while we’re using social media in the web 2.0 to put our lives on the internet, in the IoT we’re moving the internet to the real world. Where previously computers, smartphones and tablets were the connection points, now it’s everyday objects, that via sensors, cloud structures and big data are transformed into smart sources of data.
The Internet of Things is a network of physical devices that communicate with each other and the external environment.
Much like the World Wide Web did back in the 1990s, the Internet of Things has been gradually seeping into our lives. Think that you're immune? You’re probably wrong. Something as simple as using your computer’s built-in GPS and Wi-Fi to track and display your location, or your fitness tracker to count how many steps you take each day and upload them to the internet, is an example of the Internet of Things in action.
Why Does It Matter?
When talking about concrete examples of the internet of things in action, the classic one that comes up is the smart fridge that can tell if your milk’s gone bad and lets you automatically order a new carton via your smart phone. Or, more recently, the Internet of Things toaster known as “Toasteroid” that can print the weather report on your breakfast each morning.
It’s often the more frivolous examples of the Internet of Things in action that get the most coverage, but its potential – from resource-protecting to potentially life-saving – shouldn’t be underestimated. By 2008 there were already more things connected to the internet than human beings. And current estimates say that by the year 2020 there will be somewhere between 17 and 30 billion objects connected to the internet of things.
IT and industry are investing billions in industry 4.0 technologies, carrying out their own research and buying up innovative startups. This latest technological revolution is well under way and whether it’s public infrastructure, our private lives, industry, science or the economy, its sphere of influence seems practically limitless.
Can the IoT Make Our Lives More Sustainable?
When it comes to sustainability, IoT systems are ideal because of their ability to not just analyse but also communicate. Ecosystems, and the complex interactions between elements within them, are just too complicated for single technologies to tackle. By working in pairs or as part of even larger networks, IoT solutions are different.
Let’s take "smart" homes as an example. They might be fitted with smart meters, where heat sensors inside a building analyse the current temperature and communicate with the thermostat to turn the heating down on warm days. Or there might be a sensor in your mobile phone that communicates to the smart lights that the device (and therefore you) has left the house, and the lights can be turned off. A house with these kind of functions doesn’t just promise an increased level of comfort – it also helps protect against the environmentally-damaging effects of human error, allowing for reduced resource use and improved energy efficiency.
By streamlining and optimising processes, the IoT can improve resource-efficiency in numerous areas of our lives.
By monitoring the day-to-day workings of humans, the environment, industry, transportation, climate and the way they live, work, move, it’s possible to collect vast amounts of data on a micro level about their interconnectedness, and thus build up an image of the world and the way it works on an all-encompassing macro level. This information can then be used by governments, businesses and individuals to inform and influence sustainability practices - meaning fewer missed opportunities for conservation.
Let's take a closer look at the potential that the IoT has to affect different areas of our lives: from cities, smart grids, industry and farming, all the way to our capitalist economic system itself.
By the year 2050, an estimated 75 per cent of all people in the world will live in urban environments. Fast growing metropolises will face the huge challenge of reducing their environmental impact whilst sustaining mobility networks and preserving resources. The Internet of Things is often touted as a possible solution.
A research organisation in the UK recently published their list of the “World’s Smartest Cities”. Second on the list was a city you might more quickly associate with Gothic architecture and cobbled streets than innovative technologies - the Catalonian capital of Barcelona.
The Spanish city of Barcelona is an example of a smart city that has improved quality of life for its inhabitants.
But ever since the city launched a smart city project back in 2012, it's been held up as an example of the way that a digitialised city can improve services for its inhabitants and save resources at the same time. A couple of the things the city did include:
installing smart waste bins that monitor waste levels and optimise collection routes
switching the city’s lampposts to LED (thus instantly reducing energy consumption) and fitting sensors on them that can tell when streets are empty and dim the lights wherever possible
guiding drivers to available parking spaces via sensors imbedded in the asphalt, thus reducing both congestion and emissions
regulating irrigation systems by measuring rain and humidity and modifying the amount of water actually needed – an intelligent move after the city literally ran out of water in 2008
Scaling up the Internet of Things to city level can certainly save a huge amount of resources, time and money, but there are a few obvious downsides to governments being able to collect and store so much information about the day to day lives of ordinary people. I guess it depends on whether we’re happy to give up our anonymity, in some ways our privacy – for some kind of greater good, whether it’s more resource-efficient cities or cleaner and quieter streets. Check out RESET’s more in-depth article on the topic - Smart Cities: Efficient, Sustainable, Digitised Living - for more information about smart cities.
Smart Grids and Smart Meters
The use of renewable energies is on the rise throughout the world, but the majority of our electricity is still generated by burning of fossil fuels such as coal, which emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In order to both facilitate the increased use of green energies and meet the increasing demand for power, it's essential for us to develop electricity grids that are more reliable, energy efficient and thus more sustainable.
The IoT could hold the key here, by turning traditional energy grids into “smart grids” – networks that automatically track energy flows and help us to balance electrical consumption and supply, reduce power losses and successfully integrate and use renewable energy sources.
The IoT can help modernise electricity grids - making them better adapted to the wide-scale takeup of renewable energies
Renewable energies present conventional electricity grids with new challenges - the power supply has to stay flexible and manageable, regardless of when the wind blows or the sun shines. Load management, aka the systems in place to match supply with demand, can be balanced effectively thanks to the IoT - by monitoring the performance of wind turbines and solar panels and sending the information to the cloud, the electricity supply can be controlled automatically based on the data received.
And when it comes to the end consumers, smart meters can be used to receive consumption information, thus allowing people to adapt their energy usage to the varying prices during the day, enabling them to optimise their usage and save money on their energy bills. The EU aims to replace at least 80% of electricity meters with smart meters by 2020, possibly reducing emissions in the EU by up to 9%.
Farming and Industry
Farming without the help of IT is unthinkable nowadays. Tractors, combine harvesters and even plants are all communicating with each other in order to optimise work processes and achieve greater productivity - whilst conserving resources at the same time. And with Business Insider predicting that IoT installations in the farming world will increase from 30 million in 2015 to a total of 75 million in 2020, the future of farming is set to be an interconnected one.
Drones and satellites can survey a farmer’s land and generate crop and topographical data, sensors in fields can measure the acidity and climate forecasts can be generated and weather patterns predicted for the upcoming weeks based on their location – all of this information can be delivered in real time to the farmer via their smartphone, which allows them to make informed decisions about what to plant and where.
Drones can help generate crop data for farmers, helping them plan and organise their resources more efficiently.
German agricultural machinery manufacturer CLAAS even has a smart tractor with plant sensor technology that measures plant nitrogen requirements and applies enough fertiliser in exactly the right places to meet but not exceed those needs. And the OnFarm system uses sensors to check soil moisture, weater and pesticide usage and allows farmers to use the data to remotely monitor their assets, their resource usage and prepare in advance for possible upcoming crop issues. This is so-called precision farming – which saves resources and protects the environment by decreasing crop loss, and thanks to more concentrated and efficient land use, will help cut back on deforestation.
The situation is similar in manufacture and industry too – in a 2015 survey of 600 manufacturing companies, a huge 97% of them rated the IoT to be the most significant technological change of the last decade. Sensors on production lines can increase efficiency and cut down on waste, ultimately resulting on decreased costs, but also increased sustainability. And when it comes to distribution, IoT can also play a role, tracking products from the factory to the consumer and hopefully cutting down the distance that products need to travel.
Sensors installed inside equipment can also be used to monitor the current repair status and indicate to manufacturers when they require maintenance - fixing them before they stop working all together. And when a certain device is literally beyond repair, sensors can let manufacturers know which components can be reused or repurposed, thus retaining their value and protecting the environment in the process.
Economy: Circular, Sharing or the End of the Economy as We Know It?
Systems like this, based on recycling and reusing rather than the current “take, make and dispose” model, are key to the much-talked about circular economy. The capability that the IoT has to improve the working life of machinery, and its ability to initiate repairs, is likely to prove particularly important when it comes to issues such as e-waste. Mobile phones, televisions and computers are usually discarded when they reach the end of their useful lives, rather than being recycled or repaired, creating a growing on our environment. It’s estimated that over six kilograms of e-waste per person is created every year.
baselactionnetworkBy pre-empting repairs and helping to recycle components, the IoT could reduce electronic waste.
But will companies and manufacturers be willing to increase the lifespans of their products, considering the way in which they are benefiting from planned obsolescence? Will they really buy into a technology that will ultimately result in consumers buying fewer of their products?
Find out more about the environmental, social and economic effects in our in-depth article on the Circular Economy.
Another alternative economic system that could be given a valuable boost by the IoT is the sharing economy, with some scientists even going so far as to say that the IoT is exactly the high-tech platform that could transform society’s growing sharing culture into the new dominant economic paradigm of the 21st century. Oh and it could well narrow the income divide and make the whole global economy more democratic in the process.
The disruptive effects of a social and economic system based on sharing, a “collaborative commons” are already clear to see in today’s society: car rental schemes are making car ownership unattractive for millennials, taxi revenue is down due to Uber and Lyft, people are booking Airbnb apartments rather than hotel rooms.
Home solar systems give users independence from centralised energy providers.
And people are becoming prosumers too, sharing their own products and content with others: with blogs putting traditional publishers under pressure, e-learning competing with universities, and solar cells on our houses that are making us at least a little less dependent on energy companies and fossil fuels.
The IoT helps facilitate all this, thanks to its distributed, peer-to-peer nature that is able to connect a huge number of small entities — social enterprises, prosumers etc — into larger (even global) collective commons networks.
And the influence that the IoT has on productivity and efficiency is also key here - the American scientist Jeremy Rifkin believes that the combination of the IoT and the sharing economy is enough to bring about a so-called Third Industrial Revolution.
His vision sees a world in which: “prosumers will be able to share their 3D printed products with others on the Collaborative Commons by transporting them in driverless electric and fuel cell vehicles, powered by near zero marginal cost renewable energy, facilitated by an automated Logistics and Transport Internet.”
The result: fewer products being produced, fewer resources being used, thus a reduction in greenhouse gases, and economic power shifting from the powerful few to the many, thus making economic life more democratic. It sounds super-futuristic, but also, in some ways, not entirely foreign. Can we really achieve all this, as he believes, by 2020?
Smart but Fragile: Problems and Dangers of the Internet of Things
“Sometimes I’m terrified by it," said the American computer engineer Vinton Cerf at the Heidelberger Laureate Forum 2015 - "It's a combination of appliances and software, and I'm always nervous about software – software has bugs.". Cerf, also known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet“ sees two main dangers to the IoT: a lack of clarity on legal issues and technological safety flaws.
First, the legal and political questions that haven’t as yet been clarified: Who is responsible for faulty software mechanisms? And what happens when IoT applications get into the wrong hands? And what is the bottom line on the issue of data transparency? IoT devices, by their very nature, collect a huge amount of personal data on people – personal details, their habits, their location – sharing the information with other devices and storing the data in huge databases. How much information a health care insurer knows about its clients for example, isn’t a technological issue, but a social and political one. Users should therefore not only have the opportunity to understand exactly what kind of data is being collected on them, but also which data isn’t allowed to be passed on.
And secondly: although data security is a number one priority in the digital age, almost all security experts seem to agree that protection against cyber-criminals has been neglected in the production of IoT devices. Most are said to be unsecure by design, with most products produced with convenience in mind (e.g. with default passwords that are easier to hack) rather than security or privacy. This allows for wide-scale DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks where numerous compromised computer systems put a server or other online service out of action by overwhelming it with traffic.
It's generally agreed that the Internet of Things is still undermined by data privacy and security issues.
This happened notably in September of last year, when the botnet Mirai knocked out the internet for huge numbers of people in the US. And it doesn’t seem to be going away. A few months later attacking phone companies services in Germany in November and then the UK the next month. There are a predictions of a large security breach in 2017,
So, how can the IoT be made more secure – on a legal, political and technological level? April 2016 saw the introduction of new guidelines for data privacy in Europe, the GDPR (the European General Protection Regulation). They will have to be enforced by May 2018 could see hefty fines handed down to data controllers and data processors who fail to keep personal information secure. Blockchain has also been presented a possible solution – its “distributed ledger” technology a possible way of ensuring that records and requests made by IOT devices are accurate and acting as they should - a method of transaction verification and a way of making the whole system more resilient.
The Internet of Things = Potential World Saver?
A study by the Carbon War Room calculated that global CO2 emissions could be reduced by 9.1. gigatonnes a year if the billions of machines in homes, factories and agricultural industries were able to communicate with each other via the Internet of Things.
That’s more than the yearly emissions of the USA and India combined.
A reduction of this size could be enough to keep global warming at under 2 degrees. So, would that be enough to save the world as we know it? Probably not entirely – the IoT revolution will have a CO2 footprint all of its own.
In order for it to exist we’ll have to produce countless new, energy-intensive machines (like server infrastructures for example), and those global network setups will probably have to be powered contantly, 24 hours a day. And data servers are energy guzzlers – accounting for around 2 per cent of all energy consumption in the US. And as more and more information is collected and stored, that means increased power consumption. Will the extra energy used by all the new data centres end up cancelling out all the “good” done by extra efficiency? Or will the new energy usage be offset, or even topped, by the increased energy savings?
Judson WeinsheimerWill the IoT's extra data centres - and their carbon footprint - cancel out all of the good done by the technology?
Maybe, maybe not. What is there to stop data centres using the very same IoT technologies to increase their own efficiency? Projects are underway into “smart” data centres – ones that monitor server loads and reducing energy consumption or going into standby wherever possible. And according to Greenpeace’s 2017 Click Clean Report, big tech companies are also increasingly using renewable energies to power their servers, thus massively reducing their carbon footprint, or even, like in the case of Facebook’s huge new data centre in Lulea, Sweden, using the warm air produced by their servers to warm offices and reduce power consumption.
The Internet of Things is without a doubt the biggest technological revolution of our day and has huge possibilities for creating a more sustainable future – improving quality of life and curbing resource use. By connecting physical objects in order for them to communicate and interact with their environment, we are able to not just collect data about the way we live and things work, but also leverage it - analysing it in order to gain some kind of advantage for society or the environment. That means a fundamental transformation of the world we live in.
The IoT offers the chance to be more efficient - in transportation, buildings, manufacture and agriculture - and allows us to rethink the way that goods and produced and services delivered, maybe even leading to a fundamental shakeup of our economic model.
As increasing numbers of IoT devices come online, we are sure to face a number of challenges - including security, energy and e-waste issues - but hopefully innovation will be developing rapidly enough to comfortably tackle the hurdles that crop up along the way. And maybe, with the general increase in efficiency across all areas of life, that will grant us more time, space and freedom to develop, invent and innovate.