“Potentially the biggest business opportunity in the history of mankind” – this is how one IT engineer describes the internet of things. With up to 30 billion connected ‘things’ likely to be in use by 2020, how will it adjust our economic and social landscape?

Technology research company Gartner’s definition of internet of things (IoT) is as follows: “A network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to sense or interact with their internal state or external environment. The IoT comprises an ecosystem that includes things, communication, applications and data analysis.”

What we are looking at is a growing network of interconnectedness between intelligent electronic devices. This could mean, for example, all the ‘things’ in our kitchen working together, with sensors, alerts and apps to let you know wherever you are, that there isn’t enough milk in the fridge, before connecting with an online shopping app so you can top up your supplies. However, the potential goes far beyond the kitchen, to whole communities, cities, and even countries, interconnected and sharing information like massive self-monitoring nervous systems.

The ultimate goal is to make our lives easier and safer, and the opportunities IoT could present are hugely exciting. The technology will be applicable across all sectors, enabling us to, for example, improve our energy usage, healthcare, and the way we do business.

Jeremy Green, principal analyst at machine to machine communications analysis company Machina Research, describes the scale of IoT’s future impact: “The language people are using, they’re talking about this as the fourth industrial revolution, with the first being steam, the second being electricity, the third being about information, and this the fourth: connected things.”

Plamen Nedeltchev, from leading technology company Cisco, believes IoT could see us “inching towards utopia”.

“What we are looking at is a growing network of interconnectedness between intelligent electronic devices.”

He says: “People will be the beneficiaries of this new IoT economy, which will create opportunities unknown today and transform every facet of society. People will be able to reduce waste, protect our environment, boost farm production, get early warnings of structural weaknesses in bridges and dams, and enable remotely controlled lights, sprinkler systems, washing machines, sensors, actuators, and gadgets.

“Although we may never solve world hunger, in this new economy, some aspects of utopia could likely become reality. Imagine the following scenarios: If resources were allocated based on people’s needs, perhaps poverty and hunger could be significantly alleviated.

“If we could eliminate parking problems and reduce urban traffic by 20 to 30 per cent, auto accidents and road deaths could also decrease. If improvements were made in waste reduction and management of street lighting, emergency notifications, traffic lights, and environmental monitoring, which saved South Korea $13 billion in 2013, other countries and cities could achieve similar gains. If factories could decide how to better produce goods on the assembly line, they could optimise energy and save about 20 to 30 per cent on their energy bill.”

While the concept sounds futuristic, IoT is already here. Cisco CEO John Chambers says: “This transformation is happening now. It will change the way people live, work, and play.”

British Gas’ Hive enables your thermostat and boiler speak to each other while you regulate hot water and heating from mobile devices. Products like Mother from IoT company Sen.se, can intelligently interact with other devices to manage your life, providing reminders for when to take pills or wake up, whilst analysing your sleep patterns, caffeine consumption and levels of exercise.

Food supply chains are improving transparency by becoming interconnected, and disease prevention is being planned, as technology is developed to learn, predict and warn. Smart farming and connected agriculture is on its way, with irrigation becoming more efficient, based on real-time data, tackling the major problem of the world’s water overuse.

Fascinating developments are afoot across the globe, giving us a glimpse into the future. Onyx Beacon, a team of young entrepreneurs based in Hungary, is using IoT to help visually impaired people use public transport.

In partnership with the Vodafone Foundation, the Tandem Association and the public transportation company in Bucharest, Onyx Beacon plans to deploy hundreds of ‘iBeacons’ in public transport vehicles, linked to mobile applications that will notify users, building “a solid communication infrastructure that will help visually-impaired people get on the right bus when the vehicle arrives in the station, customize complicated routes, and not get lost on their way to a precise destination”.

Swedish company Sustainable Innovation is working on a number of energy-saving projects with IoT, for example buildings that control ventilation based on the number of mobile phones that are on the premises. Chief technology officer Joachim Lindborg said: “It’s much better than running the fans on all the time and if you also add humidity and CO2 you can start to deliver air quality instead of changing the volume of air”.

The Airkami and WaterBank project in Yogyakarta Java, Indonesia, is creating “an urban intervention in compromised water resources”, delivering biosensor-based pathogen analysis data and creating a public water well and water sharing system that makes clean water available to locals.

“The potential goes far beyond the kitchen, to whole communities, cities, and even countries, interconnected and sharing information like massive self-monitoring nervous systems.”

Professor Marc Böhlen from the University of Buffalo, the project’s principle investigator, manager, and engineer/designer, explained IoT’s role in the technology: “Healthcare workers collect water samples from the water wells and bring them to the healthcare centre. There a high-end miniaturised bioincubator automatically evaluates the contamination levels of E.coli and total coliform overnight. The results are sent to a local server and from there to the cloud (Amazon AWS) for storage and analysis. After analysis, we send the results to local physicians’ mobile phones with a water boil advisory for whichever wells are currently not drinkable.

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“There is also a weather system connected to the network. By combining real-time weather data with water quality data, we have been able to establish relationships between well water quality and seasonal rain fall.

“Finally, we have added a public water well and water improvement system based on the results from the analytical work. This way we create a complete ecosystem from analysis to urban intervention.”

On a larger scale, South Korea’s Songdo International Business District (IBD), often dubbed the world’s first smart city, is due to be completed this year after a decade of development. Built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land, it features sensor-regulated street lighting, traffic control and automatic garbage sorting. The plan is for Songdo’s citywide water recycling to reach 40 per cent and waste recycling 76 per cent by the year 2020.

A spokesperson says: “Long-term sustainability and the minimisation of the city’s carbon footprint have been considered in every design and engineering decision by master-plan architect Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) and chief engineer Arup”. KPF believes that the overall energy use in Songdo IBD will be up to 40 per cent less per person than an average existing city.

Machina Research’s Green says that since much of the world’s carbon footprint comes from cooling and heating buildings, making them intelligent is the obvious way in which IoT could be a force for good.

Self-driving cars too, will be a major advance, according to Green. They will produce fewer accidents and make roads more efficient as they can drive closer to each other and communicate with each other. Since your car isn’t doing anything most of the time, IoT would also allow other people to make use of the vehicle when you aren’t.

The message is clear with all these examples; as Green puts it, IoT will be force for good as “it’s about reuse of resources and more efficient use of resources.

“It’s a finite planet, we’re not making any more planets, and if we can use what we’ve got more efficiently, then we don’t have to waste so much of it,” he adds.

Estimates suggest that the IoT market value could reach almost $15 trillion by 2020, so businesses are advised to prepare themselves. Furthermore, there are privacy concerns as ‘things’ become ever more intelligent and interconnected. Therefore, experts advise companies to ensure they are ready if they are to make the most of what’s to come.

A Gartner study, which surveyed hundreds of IT and business leaders, suggested that while IoT is a “revolution waiting to happen”, organisations need to do more to prepare themselves.

Businesses could use IoT as a major force for good, to reduce waste and maximise human resources, for example. However, the research suggests that only a small number of organisations have deployed initiatives.

Companies need not invest millions of pounds to get prepared: “The falling costs of networking and processing mean that there are few economic inhibitors to adding sensing and communications to products costing as little as a few tens of dollars. The challenge of the IoT is less in making products ‘smart’ and more in understanding the business opportunities enabled by smart products and new ecosystems,” says Gartner.

The survey showed that leadership is needed in companies, with only a quarter of respondents saying they had established clear business leadership for the IoT. It revealed that small and large companies had been more active in setting up IoT leadership than mid-size businesses, while the Asia/Pacific region is the most ready globally.

Organisations expect IoT to have a major short- and long-term impact, but need to ensure strategies are in place. Gartner’s recommendations are as follows: “Appoint an individual to head up IoT initiatives and act as a technical and business focus for the domain.

“Educate the organisation on the IoT to improve general understanding at all levels of the organisation, especially among staff in non-technical roles. This will help the organisation improve its understanding and identify opportunities.

“Begin skills planning immediately, if you expect the IoT to impact you in the short term, identify which new skills will be required and find staff and sourcing partners.”

First published by Salt. Twitter: @SALT_now

Photo credit: © Designed by Freepik

  • jane devlin

    When will anyone get it? no amount of technology can solve the real problems, this internet of things sounds like the backstory for a sci fi horror story. Our problems are spiritual, social, political. Hasn’t anyone anywhere in the alternative movement read any Ray Bradbury? he knew what was going on – because his politics were quite rightwing from what I could make out, and interestingly the right wing types have a clearer grasp on reality in some ways, they do not live in an abstract intellectual world but a concrete world of material things, which is why they are so good at thriving and winning and why they have no idea about ethics – that’s an abstract. They totally get their own survival and know that caring too much about other people in the abstract won’t help them pass on their genes. The only difference between them and the middle class intelligensia who want a utopia that excludes more or less anyone who is not exactly like them is that conservative types don’t pretend to be anything else but totally out for themselves. I am surprised that Positive News doesn’t get the lie that technology can solve anything, it is just one more excessive material wealth burden on the poor and on the ecology. I don’t want a gadget in my kitchen thet tells me we need more milk – I want a loving family circle that will notice and do it anyway, I want a society where everyone actually has a kitchen and money for food, and I believe that the cows would quite like their own milk back to feed their own children…how can all these silly dangerous excessively powerful toys make us into a better more loving and trusting society? it can’t. It can only make things worse and I am dumbfounded that the intelligent folk who subscribe to this paper can’t see that. Open your eyes.

  • jane devlin

    Indeed, taking away yet more need to think and act for ourselves, reducing still more the need for face to face communication and cooperation with other people, especiallyother people of differing social class, sounds horrific. Already you can get your money from one machine and walk into a shop and buy goods made who knows where by who knows who, mostly machines, and pay for the goods using another machine. No human contact at all. And the fallout from this vanity and nonsense is the beggar by the cashpoint who is ignored by most and seen as the problem when he is merely a symptom of the problem. But why should the middle classes care that their silly intellectual games lead only to more suffering for those of us who live in reality? The conservative types are handicapped by their inability to think on these levels, and by their enormous all encompassing self interest. The Guardian reader types claim to care, but I see no compassionate intelligence here. He even states that ‘we will probably never eliminate hunger’ what rubbish, I could eliminate it tomorrow if I had the political support. Alll this silly technology will do is eliminate the danger that some ridiculously rich hippy won’t be able to have a choice of 47 types of coffee for five minutes of their day. It’s all vanity.

  • Claudia

    I see some parts of this as positive news! helping the world at large with Co2 emission problems is commendable! But I share the concerns of the other comments: when did it become main stream not to think for ourselves anymore? And, to me more importantly, WHO has access to all that data? From then on: what can they do with it? I always thought of Minority Report as a rather horrid version of the future – a ‘Big Brother’ environment that I wouldn’t care to live in.

    I wish the article would also look at some of the downsides, or focus on the ‘positive news; of data being secure (if there is such a thing).

  • Jennifer Miller

    Thanks for voicing my concerns so ably. However sifting though this article I can see a few (a very few) positives that could be useful to some of us in some ways so lets be careful not to throw out the tiny baby hidden amongst all the shiny, noisy toys in this bathwater. Unfortunately in both reality and virtuality (!) its the mindset of the individual which determines the outcome. Manipulation is rife in interactions on all levels. Caveat Emptor and ‘do your own research’ seem watchwords of value here. The debate on where to go next on a real, practical, face-to-face, ‘reach out and touch someone’, Pay It Forward, heart level and how technology can support and assist us all in this with those we cannot meet has to be had. Your contribution is valuable and I await the growth of this thread with interest.
    PS I constantly remind myself that what we call reality is also illusory but must be lived as if it were real. Very Zen of me, eh?

  • Jennifer Miller

    I share these concerns. However sifting though this article I can see a few (a very few) positives that could be useful to some of us in some ways so lets be careful not to throw out the tiny baby hidden amongst all the shiny, noisy toys in this bathwater. Unfortunately in both reality and virtuality (!) its the mindset of the individual which determines the outcome. Manipulation is rife in interactions on all levels. Caveat Emptor and ‘do your own research’ seem watchwords of value here. The debate on where to go next on a real, practical, face-to-face, ‘reach out and touch someone’, Pay It Forward, heart level and how technology can support and assist us all in this especially with those we cannot meet has to be had. I value very highly the contribution to me and my life from Facebook friends in many other countries.
    PS I constantly remind myself that what we call reality is also illusory but must be lived as if it were real. Very Zen of me, eh?

  • John Baker

    And when the overarching ‘God’ system suffers a drop-out or breaks down? I have a bad feeling about this.

  • Martin

    In modern language, the use of the word ‘smart’ applied to an object usually indicates that it is emitting radiofrequency energy that in the estimation of the UN IARC is possibly carcinogenic to humans. Do we want to find out whether their suspicions are true?

    We have a younger generation that are largely unable to look up because they are so addicted to their phones. If they were to actually switch them off for a few days, they might regain some sense of perspective, and realise that the real world still exists. Retreating into a technological cocoon will not make us happier, and will instead push up the already fast-growing rates of mental illness.

    This extremely unhealthy and surreal phone addiction is not only regarded as normal, but may soon be foisted on the rest of the population. What happens if there is a power cut? Do our lives go into suspended animation until it comes back on? Electrosensitive? ‘I’m very sympathetic, but I’m I can’t let your disability get in the way of my addiction.’ Privacy? ‘I think I once heard my grandparents talking about it.’ Don’t own a smartphone? Open-mouthed silence. (Turns back to phone and starts furiously downloading apps.)

    Ultimately much of this technology obsession is playing into the hands of controlling forces in the government and corporate sectors, allowing them to regulate our lives from a distance, and create the type of surveillance state that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley strove to warn us about.

    Any holistic evaluation of mobile phones will also need to look at the high-global warming potential greenhouse gases (perfluorocarbons and nitrogen trifluoride) used in their manufacture, the use of conflict minerals from Central Africa that support slavery, and the addiction-driven waste and unnecessary consumerism caused by the need to have the latest model.

  • Rob Morgan

    All sounds lovely, if you’re actually connected. For those who have no internet access, or very limited, this is all pie in the sky and yet another tool for exclusion.

  • Féidhlim Harty

    Having had initial concerns about the contents of the article – the inability to envision a future where we actually share our hoarded resources sufficiently to solve hunger particularly jumped out at me – I’m heartened and encouraged to see the steady stream of intelligent and insightful feedback in the comments section. Keep up the good commentary!

  • jane devlin

    Yes, as the song says ‘guns don’t kill people, rappers do’. Just as we can’t blame any technological invention for the use it is put to, we also can’t talk as though use follows function. Such powerful technologies without the wisdom to use them is not good news. Technology can’t solve our problems because our biggest problems are not material ones. I just came back from the Green Gathering in Chepstow where the Climate Change debate ended the weekend. I sat in that tent for an hour, listening to men talk about how to save the world. Ther were 3 men and one woman on the panel and although a couple of women got to talk – stammeringly in one case, because us women often feel frightened to speak out in these situations – about 80% of the time was given up to one man after another being handed the mike by the man in charge of it. I had my hand up repeatedly. Only when there were two minutes left did they grant the women a token chance to speak. I still didn’t get to speak, someone else got offered the mike at random but she was unprepared and could not speak, then it was offered to another woman. The best microphone technology in the world could not have made my voice heard in that room, because it was sexism that kept me quiet. And all I wanted to say was that we could never solve our problems if we continue to deprive ourselves of the input of women, the poor, all the excluded people. The internet has allowed me to be heard, there’s an example of when tech can help, I’m not anti-tech, you understand. Mobile phones don’t allow us to communicate, our own voices and hearts and minds do that. There ain’t an app for that.

  • Kurt Specht

    Another point that is not addressed by the article relates to privacy and control issues in an all connected Internet of Things. The amount of data collected lets say in an household gives you a pretty precise idea of the behavior of the tenants. The corporation or organization how controls the network will also have control over the devices. The latter ones may not work if they are not connected or can be manipulated remotely. There are a lot of undefined parameters in the IoT that should be looked at. And yes, it will like save some issues but not the ones that we should be concerned of – as mentioned in one of the comments above – social, communication between us human beings, burning conflicts etc. In addition it will likely allow the rich countries to consume more rather than less.

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