How the Internet of Things is transforming sustainability

2016 will be the year that the Internet of Things market starts to make a profound impact on the world of sustainability, with endless possibilities to slash global emissions through interconnected devices and objects.

So says Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, the VP of sustainability and corporate responsibility at global ICT company Ericsson.

Weidman-Grunewald told edie that 2015 was the year when the Internet of Things – which connects physical objects through electronics, software and wireless networks – had started to emerge as a genuinely feasible and scalable concept thanks to the launch of a number of new initiatives, projects and concrete ideas.

“I think 2016 is going to be the year we realise the huge range of applications of the Internet of Things – and that’s a huge opportunity from a sustainability point of view,” says Weidman-Grunewald. “The possibilities are just endless”.

Already this year, Weidman-Grunewald’s Ericsson has launched its ‘Connected Water’ scheme, with the installation of smart water sensors in a river basin in Atlanta that provides water for more than four million people. The sensors allow the city to remotely monitor the quality of the city’s water, ensuring a cleaner water supply.

Ericsson has also just joined the AT&T Smart Cities Alliance, which aims to “build smart, sustainable cities using IoT innovations”. An initial focus for the Alliance will be smart transport. Here’s where the Internet of Things comes in, with the potential to allow various modes of transport to communicate with one another, optimising route and traffic data. Further down the line, we could even see fleets of self-driving cars operating as super-efficient taxis.


Key to this vision of a connected planet, Weidman-Grunewald says, is the development of 5G mobile networks. The successor to 4G is expected to be hundreds of times faster than current internet speeds. In addition, the bandwidth (the amount of devices and data that can be handled at once) will also be exponentially larger, allowing almost anything to be connected. A car, for example, could be able to offer high-speed Wi-Fi wherever you are. 5G is expected to be commercially available by 2020.

“4G is about connecting people, 5G is about connecting everything”, explains Weidman-Grunewald. “It’s a wide open field right now, and we are trying to work out how to use all this technology in a way that’s beneficial for business and the environment.”

Ericsson has already demonstrated some of the capability of the technology, using 5G to carry out mining and excavation operations wirelessly. 

Emissions busters

Ericsson estimates there will be 28 billion connected devices on the planet by 2021, more than half of which will be machine-to-machine (M2M) or Internet of Things connections. These smart systems, alongside more efficient devices, could help cut global emissions by 15%.

To reach this lofty goal, however, Weidman-Grunewald believes more “political will” is needed. One major thing Ericsson would like to see is the development of more behavior change initiatives to embed sustainable thinking into the users of mobile devices.

“Video conferencing, for example, is a very easy way to cut emissions – politicians could do a lot more about encouraging smarter ways of work, avoiding travel and meetings,” Weidman-Grunewald adds.

“We had a case in Sweden where the government incentivised cars that could run on ethanol while taxing people that worked from home. It was a very poorly thought out policy, essentially encouraging more people to be on the road.”

Weidman-Grunewald said that ICT ministers should now start working “horizontally” across departments, working with environment minsters, for example, to formulate an integrated approach that targets the potential emissions savings of ICT.

“The technology is there, but it won’t happen on its own.”

5 sustainable uses of the Internet of Things

1) Smart bins – Last year, Vodafone set up ‘smart bins’ in cities, which transmit data to the local council, alerting them when they need to be emptied. By only making trips when necessary, a refuse fleet in one city cut transport emissions by 18%.

2) Eye in the sky – In the Netherlands, public transport operators are using internet connections to share information about the driving efficiency of 1,500 bus drivers. By delivering feedback to drivers, one bus operator – Connexion – expects to improve fuel efficiency by more than 5% a year, saving over £2m.

3) Smart parking – Spanish carmaker SEAT has developed an app, being trialled in Barcelona, called Parkfinder. The app indicates where there is available street parking thanks to data gathered via Barcelona’s iCity platform. In theory, Parkfinder could almost eliminate the 20 minutes driving it takes on average for people to find a parking space in main European cities.

4) Connected homes – Perhaps the most well-known use of the Internet of Things is to create smart home hubs, such as the Google-owned Nest device, which allows users to efficiently manage temperature, lighting and any other connected devices in the home. Samsung and Microsoft are also scrambling to create their own smart home hubs.

5) Efficient testing – In pharmaceuticals, the use of connected devices is helping the industry move away from human and animal testing. Connected smart devices such the “Organ on a Chip” replicate the behaviour of real organs during medical testing and allow companies to run frequent rapid trials, saving money, time and energy.

Brad Allen

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