Take, make, dispose: Those are the three imperatives of the so-called “linear economy."
That's the economy in which we all function now. Roughly speaking, it's a resource-intensive economy in which raw materials feed into the front end of the process and are transformed via mass production into the myriad items that we consume. At the end of the line, the system ejects the process's waste materials into the environment.
The virtues of the linear economy are beyond dispute. No one can deny its power in generating wealth, for example. But it can be wasteful with resources and disruptive of the ecologies that it touches. So recent decades have seen theorists start thinking about whether there's a better way to do things economically—a way that allows us to do business even more effectively than we have been, while also doing right by the environment.
Enter the idea of the circular economy. This is a “restorative" economy that reintegrates waste products back into the cycle, either as raw materials or as nutrients that enrich the environment. If take-make-dispose is the linear economy's paradigm, the circular economy functions according to four different imperatives: maintain, reuse, remanufacture, and recycle. Recycling, in fact, is a last resort in the circular economy. When the circle is working effectively, reintegrating its byproducts as new inputs at the top of the cycle, there should be nothing to recycle.
Far from damaging the environment, the circular economy builds and rebuilds it, shoring up its overall health. To the extent possible, circular economy assets are designed to be re-deployed or re-purposed instead of thrown out. They're often modular, for example, and thus easy to disassemble and repair. Biodegradable materials are put to use as much as possible.
It's easy to see where the IoT can play a role in enabling the circular economy. IoT sensors can monitor the functioning of industrial assets (or any assets), collecting detailed condition data in a way that facilitates long-term maintenance, thus extending machine lifespans. IoT-enabled data analytics can maximize asset use, shutting down or switching between machines with a level of precision that used to be impossible—ensuring, again, that gear lasts longer.
On farms, sensors and the data-crunching algorithms that they feed information to can indicate with precision when it's best to fertilize a field, letting growers deploy agricultural chemicals with as little waste as possible.
The IoT also promotes the shift to an economy of users rather than consumers. These days, for example, a building doesn't have buy its own lighting system. Now it can simply “rent" lighting as a service. For a recurring fee, the provider, which retains control of the lighting hardware, ensures that the light stays on. Building management is relieved of the need to own a lighting apparatus that will eventually grow obsolete. The provider, for its part, has every economic incentive in this “pay per lux" scheme to keep the lighting system running for as long and efficiently as possible.