How the Internet of Things is changing sustainability practices

We are on the cusp of a technological revolution. Like the World Wide Web before it, the Internet of Things hasn’t come crashing into our lives overnight with all the fanfare of a new iPhone launch.

Rather it is slowly and subtly embedding itself into our everyday lives behind the scenes, changing everything from the way our goods are manufactured to the way we heat our homes.

What could prove one of the most important areas the Internet of Things is having a fundamental impact on is sustainability practices, both commercially and in the private sphere. In this article I want to look at four areas the IoT is changing our approach and attitude to sustainability.

We begin with that great and often unwieldy gift our interconnected world has bestowed upon us – big data.

Sustainability Data

It’s easy to see the IoT as merely geared towards enabling tangible and physical benefits to our everyday lives, whether that’s our heating coming on when we are nearing our homes after our daily commute or security systems that we can view and interact with directly through our smartphones. But these practical conveniences mask the truly revolutionary potential of an interconnected world where IoT devices are building up datasets of our world that are at once microscopic in detail and macroscopic in scope.

The concept of big data has been around for a while but the exponential volume of terabytes and zetabytes that are being created have shaped the way for a new era that is only beginning to be realised. This is what Michael Fertik of reputation.com calls 'Big Analysis'.

In the manufacturing sector, for example, there is huge untapped potential for data collected throughout the supply chain via IoT enabled devices to inform and direct sustainability policy. Mapping all this white noise, so it can be meaningfully interpreted and acted upon, involves developing complex sustainability data topographies that span entire organisations. The complexity involved in the way organisations approach sustainability practices and supply chain management, has in many ways lead directly to the industry that I now work in, whilst the rapid growth of sustainability data management software is testament to the huge commercial potential many businesses are seeing in this area.

A Circular Economy

In 2014 Project Mainstream was launched at the Davos Economic Forum with the express purpose of bringing businesses together to create the conditions in which a circular economy can develop and thrive. The projected $1tn in annual savings that could be made by 2025 would be realised by replacing the prevailing ‘take, make and dispose’ economic model with one that puts reusability and recyclability at the fore.

The Internet of Things would undoubtedly form a crucial component of realising this vision, through the use of passive and active tracking technology to allow companies to monitor the condition, usage and location of electronic products throughout their lifecycle. “Until now, each “thing” in the Internet of Things was silent. Now, it can speak to its creators,” says Joy Tan of Huawei.

By identifying when products or industrial machinery needs maintenance or servicing, their natural lifespans can be increased and their energy efficiency maximised. The project estimates $52bn worth of savings by rescuing products from landfill through recycling, reuse or remanufacturing.

Supply Chain Management

The Internet of Thing’s impact on the manufacturing sector has been monumental, as I’ve already alluded to. You only need take a recent survey of 600 manufacturing companies to appreciate the pace and scale of change when it comes to the IoT in industry. Amongst the respondents, 97 per cent believed the IoT the most significant technology of the decade, with 83 per cent already using IoT technology or planning to in the next year.

“The industry has been working on IoT-style technologies since I was first involved with automation in 1986,” says Jim Hilton of Zebra Technologies, who conducted the research. “The trouble then was that it took a modem 25 minutes to get the data up to where it could be seen.” The need for automation and data collection in manufacturing is probably as old as the industrial revolution itself but it is only now that the IoT has enabled this to be realised on such a large scale and to such exacting degrees.

The desire to drive down costs by driving up efficiency using IoT technologies is having a huge effect on the sustainability practices across major manufacturing industries. From the ability to remotely monitor and automate the energy efficiency of devices and equipment in the field to tacking the location and condition of assets, personnel and inventory levels, the IoT has amounted to nothing short of a revolution in supply chain management.

Smart Cities and Smart Objects

Beyond the world of industry, the Internet of Things is slowly changing the cities and homes we live in. In the consumer sphere, the steps towards mass commercialisation of IoT based technology have been tentative, with wireless thermostats and fitness tracker watches being two of the most recent success stories. If we take the former as an example, the modest improvement in our individual carbon footprint from saving a few quid off our heating bill every month might not sound like much, but multiply this across half the households in Britain and the impact is significant. The question therefore comes down to how affordable and desirable these technologies can be made to the market.

Across the infrastructure of our cities as well, the IoT is slowly embedding itself, driving efficiency and sustainability through smart heating and lighting systems in office buildings to smart water and energy provision, as well as transport systems.

Many of these integrated systems are in their infancy and require huge investment but the drive towards sustainability is inextricably links towards financial efficiency and motivating factors don’t come much bigger than this.

Joe Jones is a sustainability expert at SustainIt,

Image source: Shutterstock/Cienpies Design