It’s a small world. It’s also an increasingly hot, crowded and contentious one. The double wallop of climate change and society’s own impact on the earth’s atmosphere are intensifying struggles over natural resources while also threatening our infrastructure, food systems and quality of life.

It’s increasingly clear that today’s environmental conditions are not sustainable. We have made huge progress the past few decades fighting disease, poverty and educational illiteracy. Now we must urgently apply that same ingenuity to make more progress addressing global warming and the damaging consequences of human activity on the earth and each other.

Confronting these challenges requires political will, sure, as well as a new approach to business–one that puts people and planet on equal footing with profits. But it also calls for innovative technology approaches to solve these growing problems. To that end, we are starting to see how the Internet of Things (IoT)—which marries advanced software with sensors and other end-devices on a communications network—can help us transform our world for the better.

In fact, along with advanced data analytics, IoT-enabled devices and sensors are being used to do things such as reduce air pollution in some of our world’s biggest cities, create smarter agriculture and food supply systems, even improve detection and containment of deadly viruses.

Smart Cities Reduce Traffic Pollution; Save Energy and Water

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities—up from just 34 percent in the 1960s. By mid-century that figure could reach 66 percent according to the United Nations. Cities are major contributors to climate change, and some are already feeling its impacts through rising sea levels and increasingly severe weather events.

But cities are also wonderful incubators for IoT-based systems that improve the things that make cities attractive, such as fast, convenient transportation systems, safe lighting and efficient, comfortable buildings. For example, in Barcelona, a citywide WiFi and information network linked to sensors, software and a data analytics platform, enabled the city to provide smart water technology, automated street lighting, remote controlled water irrigation in green spaces and water fountains, “on-demand” waste pickups, digital bus routes, smart parking meters, and more.

Collectively, the result of these IoT-enabled urban services have dramatically reduced traffic congestion and associated pollution as well as water, light and energy usage. But it’s far from the only example of a city putting IoT to work. Chicago is testing a city-wide, edge computing initiative with a network of sensors called “Array of Things” nodes installed throughout city streets. The nodes serve as a sort of “fitness tracker” for the city, collecting data on air quality, climate, traffic and other metrics before sending the information to an open data portal where user groups can consume it for range of applications. Las Vegas is betting on IoT improving traffic flow to smooth out bottlenecks and idled vehicles emitting carbon dioxide into the air.

In South Korea, the emerging smart city of Songdo is being built around expansive IoT networks designed to ensure its buildings, transportation system and infrastructure are as efficient as possible, helping to optimize its resources.

Smart Cities Create a Cleaner Environment

The IoT can also help cities improve public health. A recent study found dirty air and water led to a staggering 9 million deaths in 2015 alone. For this reason, cities with chronically unhealthy air, such as Delhi and Beijing, are beginning to leverage  sensor networks designed to alert residents  when particulate levels are dangerously high. But dirty air even blankets High Street in London, a city where up to 9,000 deaths per year are attributed to air pollution. London-based Drayson Technologies has been testing the use of networked air quality sensors that are distributed to bicycle couriers and to a fleet of fuel-cell cars. The sensors, which transmit data to smartphones via Bluetooth, allow Drayson to create real-time maps showing air pollution levels around the city.

In Oakland, California, an environmental sensing startup called Aclima, partnered with Google, EDF and researchers from UT Austin to create a highly detailed block-by-block map of air pollution, using a fleet of Google Street View vehicles carrying specialized sensors. By expanding this model across cities, mobile technology using networks of sensors could help policy makers identify pockets of dangerous air quality in order to better regulate or eliminate the sources of that pollution.

But how can smart city projects scale? That’s the question that tech providers (disclosure, this includes Cisco), the UK government and the city of Manchester are asking with CityVerve. By launching projects focused on everything from culture, healthcare, energy and travel, CityVerve is developing IoT infrastructure to make Manchester a more sustainable city while also providing a blueprint for others.

Agriculture sows technology to produce more efficient operations         

Growers of every size and in every part of the world, from massive agribusiness players like Cargill to small organic farmers, are putting IoT to work in order to reduce the amount of water,

fertilizers or other inputs they need while also cutting waste and improving the quality or yield of their products. Specific applications vary widely, from installing sensors to track microclimates across cropland, to closely monitoring temperature and humidity as perishable goods move from field to warehouse to store in order to extend shelf life and eliminate waste.

Managing crops with less water and fertilizer

California’s recent epic drought forced many growers throughout the Central Valley to search for ways of using water more judiciously, and tech providers were eager to apply IoT tools toward that task. The result is a crop of precision agriculture solutions—valuable tools for farmers everywhere–that use everything from drone imagery to soil sensors in order to understand real-time conditions. According to The Nature Conservancy, precision agriculture can enable farmers to cut water and fertilizer use by up to 40 percent, without reducing yields.

Detecting and preventing crop-destroying diseases

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, around one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year is lost or wasted somewhere along the supply chain. That’s 1.4 billion tons of lost nutrition for a growing planet. IoT can minimize crop losses and help the food industry to be more productive.

For example, through a combination of advanced cameras, sensors, weather stations and artificial intelligence, Israeli startup Prospera can help farmers respond quickly to signs of trouble such as crop disease, while also boosting productivity by as much as a third. A professor at the University of California, Davis, Shrini Upadhyaya, devised a wireless sensor system to continuously monitor leaf health, which helps farmers know exactly where and how much they need to irrigate. And throughout rural Africa, startups such as Farmerline and ArgoCenta are using mobile technology and Big Data platforms to empower smallholder farmers who need access to market data quickly in order to cut waste, improve operations and digitize their supply chains.

Connected healthcare: sustaining quality of life

The IoT can also unlock a staggering amount of value in the healthcare industry by helping doctors gain faster access to health-related data from patients, collected through continuous monitoring and measurement. Wearable, internet-connected sensor devices that track heart rate, pulse, or even blood pressure are increasingly affordable, compact and accurate. While there are serious concerns about how to best safeguard the collection and transmission of this data between patients and their doctors, and how doctors could best leverage it for insights into patients’ health trends over time and between checkups, wearables are one of the most promising IoT applications in healthcare.

Increasingly, technology is also helping doctors and other healthcare workers monitor the day-to-day wellbeing of patients who live independently. Sensors mounted throughout the home, or even in-home robotic assistants, can alert caretakers via text if, say, an elderly patient under their care has not taken his medicine on a given day, or left his bedroom by a set time.

As mobile technology proliferates across the developing world, healthcare workers are identifying new applications to tackle profound challenges. In response to the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Scripps Translational Science Institute brought together medical device companies to test a patch with integrated sensors to track heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, respiration rate and temperature. The device, which transmits data over Bluetooth, reduces physical interaction with people who may be infected.

IoT bra may speed up early detection of breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. While screening and treatments have made it less deadly, traditional mammography may not detect a tumor until the disease is advanced. But the iTBra, developed by Cyrcadia Health, uses embedded temperature sensors to track changes in temperature in breast tissue over time. The data is transmitted wirelessly to the user’s mobile phone and shared securely with her healthcare provider. By applying machine learning and predictive analytics to this data, doctors could identify and classify abnormal patterns indicative of early stage breast cancer. Cyrcadia is beginning to test the product in Asia, where breast cancer rates are exceptionally high, but the technology holds promise for women across the globe.

These are just a few of the ways that the IoT is being used to help cities, farmers, and healthcare providers improve the welfare of citizens around the world. In the end, the IoT is not just about connecting things but rather about empowering users to make more informed, data-based decisions about the resources we share across communities. Whether that community is a crowded street in Germany or a dusty road in Liberia, IoT technology is being put to good use.

The original article first appeared in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting


Maciej Kranz

Vice President and General Manager

Corporate Strategic Innovation Group