Meaningful innovation in a hyper-connected world


6 July 2015
Shawn DuBravac of CEA

The driving force behind many of today’s greatest technological innovations is the connected web of sensing devices known as the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT connects us with people and information wherever we are. The massive amount of data that can be collected will allow us to make more informed decisions and even optimise almost every aspect of our lives, from our sleep patterns to our commuting schedules.

It started with our computers connecting to the Internet, followed by our phones and now our watches. Very soon we will connect our cars, our homes and even entire cities. Although fully connected cities might be some years away, envisioning what a future smart city might offer allows us to better comprehend just how transformative the power of IoT technology is.

Cisco estimates there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. In a discussion about the future of IoT at CES Asia in Shanghai in May, Dr Wei Sun, IoT global strategic initiative leader at IBM Research, said the Internet of Things has shifted from hype to the “accelerated development phase.” Today, IBM estimates 90 per cent of data generated by devices like smartphones, tablets, connected vehicles and appliances is unused. Companies like IBM, Google, Samsung and others are out to change that, harnessing the power of IoT to create smart, 21st century cities.

Smart cities, smart roads

In smart cities, our transport systems and energy networks and commercial buildings are sensorised and connected to the Internet, collecting and sharing huge amounts of data to ensure maximum efficiency. Our cars and homes are also connected, so every part of our daily routine is personalized and optimised.

Much of the innovation-making headlines at the inaugural CES Asia centred on IoT and connectivity. From in-car technology and wearables to drones and robotics, it is obvious that technological innovation – across a range of industries, such as automotive, 3D printing and robotics – is becoming more integrated and connected.

In his opening keynote address, Rupert Stadler, chairman of the board of management at Audi AG, unveiled Audi’s R8 e-Tron concept car to the Asian market. The German car manufacturer has emerged as a world leader in automobile innovation and its piloted car, which was available for driverless test-drives around Shanghai, may be road-ready by 2017.

Driverless cars can communicate with one another, sharing valuable speed, location and traffic information, creating safer roads where human error will no longer cause accidents. Ford is another manufacturer making waves in this innovative sector. As CES Asia, the company announced the My Energi Lifestyle pilot programme for China, a plan to increase the number of renewable energy-powered vehicles on Chinese roads.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, also known as drones, are another important building block in the creation of smart cities. Drones equipped with cameras can quickly transport food and medical supplies to areas in need, such as disaster relief zones, assist law enforcement, and even service our logistics needs by transporting goods. Amazon Prime Air is an early example of how drones can facilitate more efficient delivery. At the commercial level, drones can also provide aerial video coverage of sports, travel and real estate.

We’ll track everything from our sleep patterns to the weather, to the traffic along our commute routes for the day ahead. We’ll receive personalised alerts and recommendations designed to help our days run smoothly.

Buildings and homes connected to smart energy grids and smart thermostats will intuitively turn down the heat when no one is inside and monitor the physical state of the occupants via their wearables and smartphones. Initiatives like Qualcomm’s Smart City will help usher in better connected urban landscapes. Outside the home, more energy-efficient street lighting will operate based on the surrounding human activity and pedestrians’ proximity.

Meaningful innovation

With so many possibilities for IoT, the question now is whether this connectivity makes a difference in the physical world. That is the measure of meaningful innovation. The technology we will see in our smart cities could prove to be among mankind’s most meaningful innovations, helping to address one of the biggest challenges facing society – accommodating the mass urbanisation that is taking place across the globe.

Today, many cities around the world struggle with pollution, contaminated water supplies and heavily congested roads. But smart cities can control and monitor electricity and vehicle use, ultimately helping curtail pollution and improve efficiency. Smart water management ensures this precious resource is distributed as efficiently and safely as possible. Smart public transport reduces running costs and accommodates more passengers, easing congestion on our roads.

Fostering a smart ecosystem

As the world moves closer to achieving the full potential of IoT ecosystems, we are sure to face many challenges. Cities do not develop as one harmonious organism working in sync – they are result of millions of individual entities all jostling together as one. Smart cities represent IoT on the largest scale – rather than consumer-to-device connections, we are talking about society and infrastructure. Millions of consumers connected to millions of devices.  

With IoT technology requiring connectivity and collaboration across industries, realising our plans will need discussion and collaboration – an ecosystem for developers.

Smart cities will absolutely enrich our lives. They will have a direct impact in tackling urbanisation problems, and an indirect impact by freeing up manpower and resource to develop further ways to alleviate the burden. Although we face economic and logistical challenges along the way, smart cities represent a brighter future for all of us.

Shawn DuBravac is the chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the author of “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live and Communicate.” Follow him on Twitter: @ShawnDubravac.