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How the Internet of Things is changing our homes – and cities

Leading thinker Rob van Kranenburg weighs in on the tech's inexorable role in the daily fabricbw-1

By Rosalind Gibb

“The Internet of Things is like the new air,” states Rob van Kranenburg matter-of-factly over the phone from the Netherlands, his home country. “You don’t see it as such but it is becoming something that is essential to how we exist.”

If there’s anyone who should know about how the Internet of Things (IoT) has crept stealthily into the fabric of our lives it is van Kranenburg. The founder of the think tank, the Internet of Things Council, he is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the topic. So when he says that IoT is crucial to the future of our cities and population centres, he is speaking from a position of knowledge.

IoT, the connection of the digital with the physical through networked devices, has been a buzzword in tech and innovation fields for several years now. And while the term itself doesn’t resonate with everyone, IoT is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, with everything from shared public bicycle systems, fitness trackers, wireless plan watering and self-driving cars making use of its capabilities.

[pullquote]“What we see is an efficient factory: an engineering dream which runs efficient, optimised energy resources.”[/pullquote]

Last month, Amazon launched a system where customers can reorder household goods at the touch of a button on dishwashers and washing machines, which can detect when items such as detergent are running low. Google, on the other hand, has a self-driving car project underway. Meanwhile, more and more thermostats and home alarm systems can be controlled remotely – from the other side of the world if desired.

“IoT is necessary because we have a planet with a population approaching nine billion, with many people moving to cities. These cities as they are at present cannot deal with that,” says van Kranenburg. “They could deal with it better if people are connected by technology. It’s like a big factory where everything runs efficiently and we’re all happily involved. That’s the dream.”

Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Auto-ID Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first coined the term IoT in 1999. Previously known as ubicomp and ambient intelligence, IoT came into its own in the 2000s with the advent of cloud computing, which allowed new technology to be linked remotely.

Advantages of the innovation are varied. They include creating faster commuting times, helping “time-poor” people with tasks, and saving on household bills. Then there are deeper, potentially longer-lasting effects, such as tackling climate change and generating massive economic benefits.

[caption id="attachment_59657" align="aligncenter" width="740"]shutterstock_272458334 In Barcelona, digital bus shelters and motion-sensitive streetlights are part of a drive to deploy responsive technologies across urban systems[/caption]

The world’s population is predicted to reach nine billion by the year 2050. In 2012, 1.96 billion people or 46 percent of the population in the Asia Pacific region lived in urban areas, compared with less than 40 percent 10 years earlier, according to the United Nations. By 2020, the area’s urban population is expected to reach 50 percent.

This shift towards urban centres inevitably puts huge pressure on infrastructure, healthcare, education and housing. To proponents such as van Kranenberg, IoT has the potential to compensate for this population, using technology that, not so long ago, would have seemed like something out of a science fiction novel.

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For example, IoT is a vital component in the running of Smart Cities throughout the world. Singapore’s Smart Nation project plans to gather data across huge urban areas using cameras and sensors. In Barcelona, meanwhile, more than 3,000 streetlights have the intelligence not just to activate when motion is detected, but to also track humidity, noise and pollution levels.

To some, these developments seem somewhat creepy – a wholesale abandonment to the God of technology. Others, like van Kranenberg, see it as a progression as natural as the evolution of aircraft or advances in stereo equipment.

“What we see is an efficient factory: an engineering dream which runs efficient, optimised energy resources,” he says. “The younger generation has grown up with the smartphone and do not question how it works. I was born in the 1950s and grew up with the telephone – I did not need to know how the switchboard and wires worked, I used it regardless.

[caption id="attachment_59651" align="aligncenter" width="740"]shutterstock_86973980 Tokyo's famous Shibuya crossing is indicative of how heavily urbanised the world is becoming[/caption]

“People seem to accept that they are nodes in this network, that they are a small part of this machinery. Had you predicted this in, say, the 1980s, it may have been viewed as a prison-like matrix. But now here we are in 2016, when there is connectivity everywhere, people are addicted to their smartphones and are going on Pokémon hunts.”

[pullquote]"If you don’t start running your city like this efficient factory, then one day it’s going to be like ‘Mad Max’.”[/pullquote]

And because IoT is such an integral part of many urban environments across the world, it is necessary to continually incorporate the very latest technology. Otherwise, says van Kranenburg, there is the danger of being left behind. “It’s a matter of survival to a certain extent; if you don’t start running your city like this efficient factory, then one day it’s going to be like ‘Mad Max’.”

Despite his tech evangelism, van Kranenburg’s appreciation of IoT is tempered with notes of caution. His original intention when setting up the IoT Council seven years ago was to ensure that information on IoT could be simplified and disseminated to communities around the globe, not just by industries and the tech-literate.

"Ideally IoT can be deployed so that everyone has ownership,” he says. “It’s about a balance. This technology is necessary to sustain our growing population, but we need to have an input of sensibility. Often this installation of technology doesn’t take into account style, history or sensibility. It can be very reductive. Although it is an efficient system, there’s more to people and cities than just efficient systems.”

Expanding on this point, van Kranenberg does not fully rule out a somewhat disconcerting future. “It could be like the full matrix,” he laughs. “Like a dystopian movie where people are viewed only as resources.”

Nevertheless, he prefers to conclude on a more optimistic prognosis. “Ideally IoT would work as a new balance between people: fostering peace, employing better energy management and offsetting climate change so everybody is happy and involved and technologically literate.”

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