The Internet of Things (IoT) is a key function in driving sustainable development and sustainability.   There are many ways in which an organisation can do this and for that matter, many ways in which we can all have a consistent, daily impact on sustainability.  With the advances in technology, digital transformation, and the Internet of Things, it is key that businesses embrace technology into every aspect of their operations in order to contribute towards sustainability.  The World Economic Forum (WEF) through its research shows that IoT can contribute towards sustainability and that current IoT projects can have an impact on the United Nations 2030 mission and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Most current IoT projects can contribute to achieving both the SDGs and the UN’s 2030 mission. In fact, through its research with IoT Analytics,  the WEF showed that 84% of existing IoT deployments can address the SDGs.  The purpose of this article is to describe the simplicity in which we can embrace IoT within our business processes and every day lives hence having a positive impact on sustainability and the overall health of our planet.  Everyone, whether for business or personal reasons, should embrace technology in order to improve sustainability. With three simple examples on energy optimization, water consumption, and waste management we can see how IoT can optimise activities and processes in order to directly impact sustainability and the SDGs.

IoT refers to devices that are connected to a network (like the Internet) in order to collect and analyse data.  This helps better understand key processes, optimise them, and increase productivity. Sustainability is the focus on meeting current demands without impacting the ability of future generations to do so.  The intelligence brought by IoT can have a positive impact on the output of a business and greatly improve sustainability.

There are a few very distinct characteristics of smart solutions and the Internet Of Things.  These characteristics are the very essence of a connected ecosystem and the primary driver behind implementing IoT within your business.  The clear driver to IoT is the ability to optimize processes in order to reduce costs and drive new revenue within your business. In turn, this can accelerate progress on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

IoT Business Model

The factors that define any IoT deployment are the collection of data from any given process, analyzing that data, running the relevant analytical models on that data to get insights that you can act upon, streamline those actions, and finally operationalise the outcomes back into the relevant processes.  This clear framework represents a scalable and replicable business model. Together with collaboration across industries and public authorities, this can support the design of commercially viable IoT deployments that maximise social impact for sustainability. The World Economic Forum states that these are the fundamentals of the IoT for Sustainable Development project.

This is best illustrated with an example.  Take energy usage, i.e. electricity usage within your business. (which is further described below).   In any business, the use of electrical devices and equipment can be monitored with an IoT solution to optimize the energy usage of that particular device and piece of equipment.  Firstly you would have to enable the collection of energy data from the device in question. Attaching a sensor to connect to a network makes the device “SMART” as it can then transmit that usage data from the device or equipment to a central system.

Energy usage data is collated in a central system and analytical models are applied to that data which uncover patterns and trends within the usage of that device.  Analytical Models and Recommendation engines are able to provide the right courses of action to take in order to optimise the usage of that device. This can then be matched against tariffs and charges so that you can make an informed decision on the usage of that device.  In most circumstances, this can be automated within a wider connected ecosystem and the optimisation of that device then becomes continuous. This means that you are continuously monitoring that device, running analytics on the data collected, and feeding the results back into processes to maintain the optimization of the device.

In the next section, we discuss the technology required in order to make this happen.  As the business model, the technology platform is also replicable and scalable and must be part of the foundations of any IoT deployment.

IoT Platform Architecture

By virtue of the common characteristics within the framework of energy optimisation, there are also common characteristics within the technology architecture of the IoT platform in place to facilitate energy optimisation.  We will look at detail into the smart devices and IoT related to this in another article. Here we will share the architecture applied to the core of all IoT platforms.

Central to any IoT Platform is a set of technologies to ingest and store data.  This database is often based on the cloud and is elastic in nature. Rather than a traditional relational database, this would be a time-series database in the first instance.  Where that data goes from there is really dependant on the use case in question and also, the business in question and is out of scope of this article as we are simply explaining the common characteristics of an IoT platform.

Once data is being ingested into the database, some basic and standard dashboards and reports can be created.  This could monitor any of the variables being collected and transmitted from the device. With regard to monitoring energy usage, this could be the health of the device (and the sensor), the aggregated energy usage within a given time period say day, month or year, the comparison of usage with other devices with sensors and so on and so forth.

This is useful indeed and already gives you valuable insights into usage which you act upon in order to better optimise usage and drive down costs.  However, it doesn’t stop there and to get the true benefit of any IoT implementation, the use of analytics is critical.

Analytical models are run on the data collected in order to provide useful insights and long-term benefits of an IoT implementation.  With the case of energy optimisation, this is often referred to as Energy Analytics. Analytics can really give you meaningful insights by way of tailoring the output of these models to fit your desired outcomes.  It is often the case you will want to optimise usage of the device without jeopardising the overall production or deliverables of the process in question. So you may want to optimise the usage of cooling devices within a factory and either maintain or preferably increase the yield and drive revenue from the production line.  Herein lies the true benefit of analytics. This is the ability to reduce costs and drive revenue within a given process, organisation, or marketplace as a whole. There are numerous applications the benefits of analytics but this is outside the scope of this article.

The rest of this article focuses on three use cases for IoT that have a clear and fundamental impact on Sustainability and the SDGs, namely Energy Optimization, Water Consumption, and Waste Management.

Energy Optimization

As with all IoT use cases, Energy optimization also starts with monitoring energy usage.  As Energy usage is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions, this is the top IoT use case for sustainability.  Monitoring how we use electricity can be broken down practically all the equipment and devices we use on a daily basis from heating, cooling, cooking, charging, lighting and so on.  Monitoring usage of these devices at the home, workspace, and facilities such as factories and manufacturing plants can give you a deep understanding of how you are spending on electricity and which areas need focus.  From a household perspective, heating and cooling systems tend to add most to your bills. At a factory, this could be any or all the equipment needed on your production line. Whatever it is, using IoT sensors to monitor the usage and transfer the data to central systems for analysis can really add value in terms of reducing your bills and in turn, your carbon footprint and the sustainability of our planet.

Once data is gathered from your sensing devices, you can run analytics in order to uncover trends and patterns in your data.  This information is vital for understanding how you can optimize energy usage per device and within the wider ecosystem of all energy-consuming devices and equipment.  In combination, the information derived from this data allows businesses to make informed decisions in all aspects of energy usage. From actual usage and optimisation of the particular device to preventative measures in the maintenance of that device, we now have a technology and business framework that impacts the bottom line of any business by reducing costs and driving revenue while continuously contributing to sustainability and the 17 SDGs.

To further describe this, the two use cases that follow show how the repeatable and measurable technology business framework used for IoT can be applied to Water Consumption, and Waste Management.

Water Consumption

Much like Energy Optimization, Water Consumption is another use case well placed for IoT.  According to the United Nations, a third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are already in distress (Richey et al., 2015) and it’s simple to see that IoT as a framework is well placed in minimising the potential threat ahead.

To describe the relative simplicity of IoT solutions that have a measurable impact on the levels of water consumption, let’s look at how connected devices can assist with water management and conservation.  Applying the concept of monitoring to reservoirs of all shapes and sizes, it is easy to understand that the continuous monitoring of water tanks and stores can firstly give businesses an understanding of their water usage and hence optimise their usage in order to reduce costs within their processes.  Combining this data with other variables such as weather and time of day, month, and year lends for advanced analytical models on usage and consumption. Through the optimisation of water usage in every facet of business and our daily lives, we can ensure we make data-driven decisions on how to better manage the use of this essential resource.

Waste Management

Using the same technology business framework for IoT, you can see just how simple it is to conceptualise any use case for IoT.  While the devil is always in the detail, having a clear understanding of how to approach IoT implementations, and where to draw benefit both for business and society at large through sustainable development, is a key to an outcome-driven methodology.

Waste management also involves monitoring and in this case, it is the refuse containers stores that are measured with IoT devices.  The benefit here is two-fold. With the implementation of a well-architected IoT Platform, simple dashboards and reports can directly benefit businesses of all sizes to have visibility of the amount of waste they are creating and properly implement strategies and processes to reduce this within any workspace and business premises.

Further on from this, and with the use of advanced analytics, the actionable information gathered from SMART bins can be shared with authorities in order to optimise waste collection routes and troubleshoot any potential issues ahead of time.

It is clear from the above examples that IoT can have a positive and exponential impact on sustainability and the SDGs.  What is key to any IoT implementation is the partnership ecosystems and a replicable scalable technology business model within an agile framework to cater for all kinds of use cases.

To summarise, the measurable and repeatable technology business framework is key at the outset of any IoT implementation.  The following characteristics can be considered the 5 pillars to any IoT implementation has been proven in the industry to significantly impact productivity.  With these capabilities, practically any business can use IoT to contribute to sustainability and the 17 SDGs.

The key to any business initiative is the partner ecosystem that can make things work over and beyond initial expectations and can drive your business into the 21st century incorporating a much-needed focus on sustainability alongside traditional measurements of a successful business.

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