Business innovation | Opinion

How will the ‘internet of things’ help us control sustainability impacts better?

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Can IoT enable supply chain transparency?

As a fully-connected world develops, smart technology will help reduce energy use and promote more sustainable lifestyles.

The “internet of things” (IoT) is the embedding of infrastructure, devices and buildings with sensors and electronics to communicate with each other and users. Through connected devices, big data gives us knowledge to better manage our health, resources, infrastructures and other efficiencies.

The interesting thing about IoT is that it is still very much in its infancy, but growing up at mind-boggling speed. We simply cannot imagine all the possibilities yet, just as we were unable to imagine many the possibilities of a mobile phone say 10 years ago.

Many leading companies are working hard to develop products that can be fully interconnected over the next few years. No doubt, some of the biggest benefits to consumers (and to society!) will be developed by 2020, even if they are hard to imagine right now.

Impacts on society

From a sustainability point of view we are exploring a host of ideas at CDRC. What will the impact be of the “smart home” on energy use and cost, and how can smart homes enable elderly people to live independently for longer – and thereby save healthcare systems money? How can “smart cities” help to manage traffic flows better? How can IoT enable supply chains to become more transparent at a lower cost?

We can imagine consumers being better able to control their household’s energy use not only for heating and cooling but also in terms of use of appliances and devices. This can lead to households being smartly connected to the wider energy grids where appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers and electric cars use power when there is grid capacity.

This is where potentially larger emissions reduction could be achieved through reduce in energy wastage. Smart hub devices can connect devices, enable sharing of content, but also real-time monitoring of energy use from anywhere using a smartphone.

In addition, connecting the autonomous or self-drive car to city transport systems could help better management of traffic and make journeys more efficient. Of course the data collected by these sensors and electronics will help us to understand how consumers behave and create opportunities for nudges towards sustainable lifestyles.

This of course has to be balanced with the energy use of IoT sensors and electronics as well as the resource use and recycling of the equipment. Without this the benefits of IoT could be reduced.

Skills required

A final important point is this. Will the world have enough people with the skills to grasp the sustainability opportunities hidden in all that data? Currently there are five million young people unemployed in Europe. Yet at the same time, there are more than 800,000 ICT vacancies. Why? Part of the reason is the digital skills gap; young people are currently leaving university without gaining the digital skills that employers are crying out for.

The CDRC is investing significant resources to develop data science capability in the UK, through training and education, but also through collaborative projects with companies such as Samsung, who are also investing in the digital skills of 6-24 year olds across 28 European countries.

This content is sponsored by

Free big data webinar: Monday 25th April 13.00 BST – CDRC and Innovation Forum webinar on big data and sustainability. With: William Young, professor of sustainability and business, University of Leeds; Chris Brown, senior director of sustainable business, Asda; Andy Peloe, concept manager, Callcredit; Wouter van Tol, director of sustainability and citizenship, Samsung. To register for the webinar click here. For more details click here.

Wouter van Tol is director of sustainability and citizenship at Samsung Electronics Europe. He leads a programme to improve the digital skills of 400,000 young people across 28 European countries and is closely involved in social and environmental impact in the supply chain.

Prof William Young is part of the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), which is led by the University of Leeds and UCL. He also leads the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, UK. This is the second of three opinion pieces for Innovation Forum, ahead of the webinar on big data in April.

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