The Internet era as we know it officially began in the year 1993. A mere two decades on, 19 billion devices now access the Web, with that figure set to increase exponentially to around 30 billion by the year 2020, according to Gartner. This is the age of the Internet of Things (IoT). Simply put, a network where everyday appliances and devices are connected via the Internet.
The industrial and economic impact of this step-change has been studied by analysts for the best part of a decade. The proliferation of networked industrial mechanisms will ultimately enable automated organisations to track, harness, analyse and exploit real-time data in the workplace.
In a few short years, the reality of this environment will be studied in Dubai, if the emirate realises its vision of becoming the region’s first ‘smart city’. With more than half the world’s population living in cities, the need for significantly improved urban management systems is critical. A smart Dubai will see thousands of sensors placed across the city collecting, managing and analysing real-time data. The trend is gaining momentum in new and old cities alike.
For example, governments in Paris have discovered that the amount of shade produced by roadside trees positively impacts the lifespan of the tarmac. As a result, they’ve begun placing sensors on the trees to track their health, both for conservation as well as road maintenance. Also in the French capital, sensors have been installed in city parking lots to alert drivers of the nearest available space. A recent study by UK-based Parkatmyhouse claims the average motorist spends 2,549 hours of their lifetime hunting for parking spaces. The annual economic cost in France alone is estimated at €700 million ($947 million), according to data supplied by Sareco, a parking analyst. While the IoT isn’t new, experts say it is now on the cusp of transforming the way we work, live and play. The costs? Huge. The opportunities? Bigger.
The model most commonly adopted so far is to attract businesses which develop software and hardware applications for the Internet of Things, and encourage them to put their ingenuity to use to smarten the surrounding areas. Public money is often put up as an incentive to do so – an example is Glasgow, Scotland, the government has offered £24 million ($37 million) for technology which will make the city “smarter, safer and more sustainable”. Applications developed or planned for the program include intelligent street lighting which will switch itself off to conserve energy when there’s no one around, mapping energy use around the city to better understand demand, and mapping how people get around to maximize the use of bicycle and foot paths.
Of course, there are plenty of people voicing the need for caution over this wave of new technology. The systems are designed to collect and interact with intimate details of our personal lives such as where we travel, who we associate with, and even how we dispose of the waste materials we generate. There is a danger that in the rush to be the first to develop and market solutions aimed at improving citizens’ everyday lives, some aspects of privacy or information security could be overlooked. On top of that, others have voiced concerns that, particularly in the developing world, living in Smart Cities could be prohibitively expensive for much of the population, leading to them becoming enclaves of the elite, with local governance enforcing social apartheid by keeping out the poor.
These are challenges which will have to be overcome by the architects behind the new systems, as well as legislators and civic authorities. With smart phones and mobile technology increasingly becoming available to a larger number of people, it should be possible to create inclusive systems which are available to all.
However, the potential applications are endless if the technology is leveraged in the proper manner.
Anders Lindbald, president of Ericsson Middle East, claims that automated government-run processes can leverage the IoT in simple, yet highly effective ways. For example, priority vehicles, such as ambulances, can communicate with traffic signals to ensure that roads en route to an emergency call are clear of red lights. Rabih Dabboussi, managing director of Cisco UAE, says that injecting intelligence and connectivity into everything we use is the logical next step in the development of the IoT. While it may sound like science fiction, having sensors on your clothes, shoes, watches, spoons and toothbrushes is inevitable.
The full impact of the IoT on households is something that will take a little longer to realise, but as the cost of microprocessors falls, connectivity in the home will increase. Cisco foresees a future when a child’s toothbrush will notify parents how long they’ve brushed for, the fridge will re-order food from the store, household security systems will switch on the lights before an owner returns home and a reduction in daylight hours will inform a home’s thermostat when it should raise the interior temperature.
The bottom line: The Internet of Things presents huge opportunities for smart economies in the 21st century.