One of the most exciting features of the internet of things is its ability to make the invisible, visible. That has huge implications for climate change, and for protecting the environment and people’s health. At the same time, IoT is also a growing source of e-waste and electricity consumption. And so I have spent a lot of time over the last decade thinking and writing about the promise and pitfalls that IoT holds for the environment.
Since it’s Earth Month, and because sometimes it’s good to tie a bunch of disparate ideas together to help provide a new perspective, I’m pulling in years’ worth of coverage that I believe makes clear how we can use connected devices for environmental good while also mitigating some of the potential harms.
The growth in cheap sensors and cheap computing has made it possible for governments, startups, and non-profits to track air pollution at the local level much more cheaply than ever before. Startups such as Aclima and BreezoMeter are able to sense and share air pollution data on a block-by-block basis. Non-profits are using sensors to monitor heat islands in New York City. The goal of all of these efforts is to provide information that citizens and governments can use to make better decisions.
At the individual level, a consumer might check the air quality before taking a hike or deciding to pack their asthma inhaler. At the municipal level, cities might be able to route polluting traffic away from schools or track how much damage a factory’s emissions cause. I’d like to imagine a future where cities can sue polluters or tie tax breaks to companies that show a marked improvement in reducing pollutants in the air or water.
IoT can’t just help cities and individuals track pollution; it can help companies adjust their manufacturing processes to meet carbon reduction goals. I wrote about Schneider Electric’s factory optimization efforts, for example, which cut carbon consumption by 12% in the first year and 10% the following year. This week’s guest on the IoT Podcast, Phil Skipper from Vodafone Business, also shared tales of reducing fuel consumption in vehicle fleets by using IoT to plan routes and track cars.
Skipper also detailed how Vodafone is considering redesigning electronics to use fewer materials and creating recycling programs for connected devices. (Samsung has announced plans for smartphone upcycling, letting consumers download software that turns their phones into sensors that can help automate their smart homes.) Redesigning electronics for recyclability is essential. As is building better recycling programs so users can reuse devices or send them to manufacturers for recycling. But both retailers and manufacturers need to get involved.
Another area where manufacturers can step up is on battery life. Changing batteries requires physical labor, costs money, and results in millions of batteries loaded with toxic chemicals ending up in landfills. That’s why I research chips that can reduce power consumption and energy-harvesting sensors that can replace batteries. Companies such as Wiliot, Everactive, and Atmosic are all working hard to remove batteries altogether — or, at the very least, reduce the number of times they get thrown out.
Even when devices are plugged in, the internet of things will help enable a smarter energy grid that can better respond to the demands of electric vehicles and more electric appliances coming online. Smarter appliances will help reduce energy, too, especially if the appliance is a simple smart hot water heater or HVAC system.
It’s clear that the tech industry is trying to fight climate change with true action along with some silly gimmicks. In the meantime, the underlying technology that enables the internet of things is making it easier for us to understand the impact we are having on the world. But to really help the environment, we’re going to have to build smarter systems that don’t just optimize for profit, but optimize for carbon reduction, the smart use of resources, and healthy air, soil, and water.