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    Driving sustainability breakthroughs with the IoT

    Systems issues require systems solutions

    Environmental sustainability means more than energy efficiency. It means a fundamental shift in the way we think about consumption and relate to the environment—and in the way we do business.

    Sustainability is, at heart, a systems design issue—so confronting it requires systems solutions. As a system of systems, the Internet of Things (IoT) could drive significant sustainability breakthroughs.


    Here are three ways how.

    Enabling the circular economy

    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.

    Moving towards a carbon neutral world

    The IoT can also promote carbon neutrality—the condition of having a net zero carbon footprint, and something that enlightened corporations increasingly set for themselves as a goal.

    Connected motion and acoustic sensors are even now helping cities reduce their energy use by dimming street lighting when it's not necessary. Why light up a street that's completely unpopulated? Municipal crews no longer need to drive around cities, burning gasoline as they look for burnt-out luminaires and malfunctioning traffic signals. The IoT makes remote centralized asset surveillance possible.

    IoT tech is enabling better fleet management for businesses, making sure that carbon-emitting delivery vans save fuel by taking the shortest, fastest routes to their goals. And not only delivery people, but any driver will benefit from IoT-enabled smart parking systems and smart traffic signals. Such solutions save time and money spent on fuel, while keeping the air cleaner.

    Energy and fuel consumption sensors and emissions detectors can dramatically improve carbon disclosure, an important step along the path to carbon neutral—or even carbon negative—operations. Sensors can identify unexpected changes in pollutant levels, sending out repair alerts or automatically shutting down equipment until the problem is corrected.

    Making renewable energy adoption easier

    The IoT will also close the “convenience gap" between non-renewable and renewable energy sources.

    Non-renewable energy is perfect for the supply-driven power grid we currently live with because such energy lends itself to consistent output. Renewable sources don't. Solar and wind power loads, for instance, vary based on the conditions outside. This variability has posed a stumbling block to sufficiently massive renewable energy adoption.

    But what if the power grid was an IoT-enabled demand-driven smart grid, and didn't require consistent output? In a smart grid, the IoT can facilitate the immediate transfer of energy from a node where it's in surplus to a node that's running an energy deficit, thus smoothing out the system. Or else the IoT can make sure that excess energy is stored up today so that the system can use it tomorrow. In both cases it makes renewable energy sources feasible to use. Variability is no longer an issue.

    The IoT can also collect energy data that analytics platforms can use to draw conclusions about power grid management, and in general facilitate an energy grid that's supple and responsive to fluctuating needs. No longer will the power supply be something that must function only in one of two states: on and off.

    The conditions for true sustainability

    Sustainability is a word that's used a lot these days, but it's often misunderstood. Talk about “making the world more sustainable" ignores that sustainability is a binary concept. A business, process, community, or anything that consumes resources in such a way that they're never used up, or are replaced as quickly as they're used, is sustainable. If the business or process or community will eventually use up its available resources, it's not.

    True sustainability, then, isn't a matter of degree, and mere lifestyle changes on the individual level aren't enough to achieve it. It requires fundamental shifts in how we consume, in our relationship to the environment, and in how we structure our economic life. One of the truly transformative technologies of our age, the IoT is helping create the conditions in which those shifts can happen.

    About the author

    Jonathan Weinert - A person wearing glasses and looking at the camera
    Jonathan Weinert has been researching and writing about LED lighting and the IoT since joining Signify in 2008. He focuses on the full range of professional connected lighting systems, including smart cities, smart buildings, and other global trends in the illuminated IoT.

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