First published on LinkedIn – September 2015
A glance at my LinkedIn profile will show that over the past few years a lot of my work has been with early stage companies developing technology to measure and report sustainability performance. Sustainability is one of my great personal and professional passions and so you will not be surprised to learn that I always look forward to the annual publication of the Sutainia100 report.
If you have not seen it before, it features 100 new stories annually from the forefront of sustainability innovation. The 2015 report gives case studies on projects deployed in 151 countries that showcase new ways of saving water, managing waste, building homes and safeguarding our food production. It’s always an inspiring read and I would recommend it to everyone.
However, there’s one aspect of this year’s report that has disappointed me. Let me explain.
Take a second look at my profile and you will see that my other great professional passion is the Internet of Things and the use of automatic data capture (AutoID) technologies like sensors and RFID. So, you can imagine just how enthusiastic I become when I see combinations of sustainability and the IoT. My deeply supressed inner-geek just bursts through!
Imagine my feelings then when I saw that only 2 out of the 100 projects described in the 2015 Sustania100 were using IoT technologies.
Having said that, they are two superb examples of the power of the IoT to contribute to a sustainable future. The first is Enlighted’s sensor technology that can monitor ambient light, temperature and occupancy and adjust lighting needs accordingly. Each sensor is also connected to the cloud via a mobile app and Enlighted are able to save their customers 60% on lighting electricity consumption. What’s more, they have commercialised the technology by offering it on a “savings-as-a-service” basis demonstrating that the IoT is as commercially disruptive as it is technologically.
The second is Enevo One, a waste logistics solution that uses wireless sensors to measure and forecast the fill-level of waste containers. It uses this data to generate smart collection plans using the most efficient schedules and routes. The solution thereby reduces the impact of miles covered by waste lorries, saving fuel, carbon emissions, and congestion, improving the quality of life in cities and delivering 50% in direct cost savings.
Such excellent examples as Enlighted and Enevo are rare though.
The first and most obvious place that the IoT will make an impact on sustainability is with Smart Metering. The potential of these technologies to improve the efficiency of power and water use is huge and the market is emerging strongly with very active players (not just NEST) and good commercial and legislative drivers.
Like every other IoT technology however, the data that Smart Meters produce and the ability of enterprise systems to capture and use that data are still far from connected. For many companies, sustainability reporting on energy and water use is still a manual data capture process and one that usually involves an intern entering data from utilities bills into a spreadsheet. The emergence of standards such as HyperCat will certainly revolutionise that over the coming years by enabling data from connected Smart Meters to be captured and used in a variety of energy and sustainability performance measurement apps.
This is great but what I’m not yet seeing are the applications that utilise AutoID and the IoT to solve problems in other aspects of sustainability performance measurement.
Many examples come to mind where there are opportunities to – at least – explore the potential but one that intrigues me relates to “wet” processes in the apparel supply chain.
Greenpeace and other campaigning groups have done much to highlight the serious impact that the dyeing and laundering processes used in the clothing supply chain can have in China, India, Bangladesh and other countries where the world now sources its fashion. Dyes and other chemicals are discharged recklessly by companies producing product for major international brands and most, like M&S, H&M, Adidas and others have now put initiatives in place to address the issue in their supply chains. These initiatives, like the ZDHC, are designed to set best practice standards for chemical and waste management and then educate the supply chain in their adoption. As with other supply chain standards and initiatives, the brands then rely upon a system of factory inspections and audits to ensure that their suppliers are compliant.
Like any audit process, this can only ever achieve a snapshot of reality and so technologies like Historic Futures “String” have given brands a means to enhance this by gathering sustainability performance and traceability data direct from the factories and making it available on a SaaS platform. However, this data gathering is still highly manual.
So, how could the IoT technologies help here? Could floating sensors be installed in outflow pipes and other systems in dye houses that would detect the presence of chemicals that are not compliant with Restricted Substances lists? Such sensors could be made a mandatory condition of supply by the brands and would report their readings directly to the sourcing teams. Under REACH regulations brand owners have a responsibility to know and be accountable for the chemicals used in their products but there are few reliable ways in which they can monitor these.
For all I know, there is a company that is already developing this idea and every other use case that I have pondered whilst writing these thoughts down. If so, I wish you well and I would love to know how you progress. Having said that, I still get the impression that we have barely scratched the surface of the potential for IoT and Sustainability. What, for example, can we do with IoT technologies to support the Circular Economy?
My intention with this post was to ask questions rather than suggest answers but amidst this uncertainty there are three things that I am absolutely certain of:
- That the IoT will be the most transformative technological shift of the coming decade
- That climate change and sustainability are the greatest challenges that we face as a planet
- That compelling challenges and ground-breaking technology come together to produce something truly special and significant and this is why that inter-play between the IoT and sustainability is just so compelling for me.
If you come across companies and technologies that sit in this fascinating space, please do let me know.