Back in early December, The Guardian ran an article asking whether the Internet of Things will save or sacrifice the environment. As you’d expect, the answer is far from clear-cut. Some environmentalists worry about the effects of producing, installing and powering those billions of extra devices, others urge the use of IoT sensor networks to help us monitor and curb resource consumption and emissions.

On the surface, the thought of creating huge wireless sensor networks for the benefit of the environment seems paradoxical, however there is of course a much bigger picture lurking underneath. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative’s (GeSI) recent #SMARTer2030 report suggested that IoT-related technologies could save “almost 10 times the carbon dioxide emissions that it generates by 2030 through reduced travel, smart buildings and greater efficiencies in manufacturing and agriculture.”

Even if we achieve a situation in which physical IoT devices are having a net positive effect on humanity’s carbon footprint, there is still the massive data transmission and storage growth to consider. Speaking as an executive of a company providing the cloud-based data platform for IoT networks, I can say that it’s in our best interests to keep energy consumption as low as possible, because it costs less. That’s why data centers are built with energy efficiency top of mind.

Ultimately, whether or not the IoT turns out to be an environmentalist’s dream will depend on how we apply its concepts. If it’s primarily used to stream endless high quality video feeds 24 hours a day or for power-hungry gimmicks and trivialities, the footprint will be far worse than if it’s used directly to get resource and energy management under control. It seems unlikely that the private sector and consumers alone will summon the collective motivation to veer in the direction of the latter, so policy will have to keep up and be sound and assertive.

The attitude of disposability in Western society today is another issue altogether. Perfectly functional year-old smartphones and computers are piling up in landfills across the globe as consumers struggle to resist the lure of the latest model. Can the IoT buck this trend by being founded on sensor networks built to last? With the world trending away from centralized hardware and towards cloud-based software, it could be that upgrades to the virtual aspects of IoT will be enough to satisfy our lust for innovation, while the sensors hum away out of sight and out of mind. Time will tell.

Register here to listen back to an SAP Live webcast on which IBM’s IoT guru Michael Martin talks about the possibilities and challenges of our connected future.

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  1. Jelena Perfiljeva

    Good blog and excellent points! Especially in the US with “not my president” in charge now – will anyone listen to the environmental concerns?

    Example frequently brought up as an ecological disaster is those Keurig coffee machines that use disposable plastic cups. This is super-convenient but generates tons of waste. Not to mention the machines themselves breaking down and going into the landfill. Several companies are already offering reusable cups or compostable cups. Will we eventually see compostable technology?

    Thank you for sharing! Great to hear this is something on the SAP’s radar.

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