IoT Part 2: So why the interest in the Internet of Things?

This is a fairly simple post as there are three main drivers for the sudden interest in the IoT – in no particular order:

  1. Sensor module costs
  2. Wireless networks
  3. Technology trends
A microsensor with coin for scale  this is a titan compared to the sensors that can be injected into your body for medical monitoring (credit: beob8er, Flickr)

A microsensor with coin for scale – this is a titan compared to the sensors that can be injected into your body for medical monitoring (credit: beob8er, Flickr)

Sensor modules are the electrical circuitry that incorporates the transducers that sense the information and the communications chips that send it.  Other solid-state components that perform various processing, decision-making and response functions can also be added in as required, but it’s the cost reductions of the sensors and comm’s chips that are having the most effect on the IoT market.  McKinsey recently stated that sensor/actuator module costs had dropped 80 – 90% in the last 5 years, while the Financial Times recently said that sensor/comm’s modules had dropped from 50 to 15 Euro over the last 4 years.

Wireless networks have become ubiquitous and low cost.  The coverage of fast 3 and 4G networks has supported the phenomenal uptake of smartphones, and is a key enabler for the IoT.  The volume of data generated by all these connected devices may ultimately mean that bandwidth becomes a key IoT constraint – speaking from personal experience as someone who has instrumented a fleet of 40 cars to capture around 20 data fields at 5 second intervals over months at a time, the costs associated with this can still be prohibitive even if the situation is improving.

Technology trends towards cloud computing and big data analytics (amongst others) are also key IoT enablers.  The ability host data and process it away from connected devices significantly reduces costs and lifts system performance to useful or highly profitable levels.  And the ability to handle all this data and make sense of it is also becoming more widespread.  The importance of big data analytics is clear when it is considered that a Boeing 787 aircraft generates around half a terabyte of data for every long-haul flight (Financial Times 2013).

Next post – the key challenges.

IoT Part 1: What is the Internet of Things?

This post is the first in a series exploring a technology buzz phrase – the Internet of Things.

Through this series I’ll present answers to the obvious questions about the Internet of Things marketplace, following which I’m hoping to figure out how to upload a document that pulls all the separate posts together for people to download as required.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, has been getting a bit of press lately – from the hacker level who are tinkering with sensor boards and networking devices in their home, to the biggest corporations who are spruiking mind-boggling figures regarding the IoT market potential.

The most basic definition of the IoT is the networking of physical objects through the use of sensor/comm’s modules.  This definition can be expanded to include much greater levels of integration between networked devices, so that the various turns of phrase shown below describe the varying degrees to which objects can capture, communicate and respond to information.

The various terms being used to describe the 'Internet of Things'

The various terms being used to describe the ‘Internet of Things’

The variation between definitions often reflects how far this networking of objects has progressed along the stepwise path towards the final step that is the ultimate IoT vision:

  1. Connecting devices to the network (‘Smart’ devices)
  2. Making those devices talk to each other (if/then linkages)
  3. System-level interaction between devices (control strategies using analytics that draw on multiple data sources – historical, real-time and projected)
I’ve developed this understanding based upon a review of definitions I’ve collated from various information sources below:
  • ‘Smart’ devices defined by the presence of microprocessors (1)
  • Billions of connections that will encompass every aspect of our lives (1)
  • The interaction and exchange of data between machines and objects (1)
  • Smart machines interacting and communicating with other machines, objects, environments and infrastructures resulting in volumes of data generated and processing of that data into useful actions that can “command and control” things and make life easier for human beings (1)
  • Objects/things that are connected to the Internet, anything, anytime, anywhere (2)
  • Sensors and devices embedded into everyday objects/things that are connected to Internet through wired and wireless networks (2)
  • Networks of low cost sensors and actuators for data collection, monitoring, decision making, and process optimisation (3)
  • The use of sensors, actuators, and data communications technology built into physical objects – from roadways to pacemakers – that enable those objects to be tracked, coordinated or controlled across a data network or the Internet (3)
  1. What the Internet of Things (IoT) needs to become a reality, Karimi, K. and Atkinson, G., Freescale and ARM, Sept 2012 (pdf)
  2. Global Internet of Things (IoT) & Machine-To-Machine (M2M) Communications Market worth $290.0 Billion by 2017, Markets and Markets, 4 Sept 2012
  3. Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business and the global economy, McKinsey Global Report, May 2013 (pdf)
My next IoT post will examine the IoT enablers and/or challenges.

Mobile miracle

This post is a tribute to Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and mobile phones in particular, as the key enabler for a better world.

In support of those 10-year-olds out there in their pitch for a mobile phone, there’s plenty of evidence in support of this theory.

International roaming

International roaming

The World Bank 2012 report Maximizing Mobile notes how:

innovation in the manufacture of mobile handsets … married with higher performance and more affordable broadband networks and services produces transformation throughout economies and societies

Similarly, The Climate Group in their equally excellent SMART 2020 report highlight how “ICT solutions can unlock emissions reductions on a dramatic scale“.

In a public policy argument, ICT addresses market failures relating to imperfect information.

ICT promotes gains from trade, by linking trading agents and reducing the barriers to trade.

Or in summary for my 10-year-old audience – everything works better with a mobile phone.

City beats country, but we gotta do better

This week two reports were released which tell us quite a bit about the opportunities and issues within urbanisation.

First there was the Global Monitoring Report 2013 from the World Bank, which reports on progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals.  The findings are clear – urbanisation is good news, with clear advantages for the quality of life for city-dwellers as compared to those in rural areas.

Infographic of the advantages and challenges of urbanisation, ref Global Monitoring Report 2013 (World Bank)

However, the report clearly states that urbanisation needs to be managed to ensure good outcomes:

  • Planning – charting a course for cities by setting the terms of urbanisation, especially policies for using urban land and expanding basic infrastructure and public services
  • Connecting – making a city’s markets (labour, goods, services) accessible to other neighbourhoods in the city, to other cities, and to outside export markets
  • Financing – finding sources for large capital outlays needed to provide infrastructure and services as cities grow and urbanisation picks up speed

This provides a neat segue to the second report for the week – Productive Cities: Opportunities in a Changing Economy by the Grattan Institute.  Although this report examines the specific challenges facing Melbourne as the inner versus outer divide increases, the issues it documents are entirely consistent with what is set out in the World Bank report above, proving that the challenges of “managed urbanisation” are not simply for developing nations.

The issues described in the Grattan Institute report reflect the land-use planning tension that is the economics of suburban sprawl versus urban densification.  The authors identify some of the obvious solutions without addressing the root causes – the politics of market-driven sprawl, local land-use planning and infrastructure financing defeating good land-use/transport planning policy.

Unfortunately there are no easy solutions, as was evidenced by yesterday’s announcement that the much needed east-west transport link across the north of Melbourne would be a road tunnel rather than rail or both.  As a transport planning decision, this reflects the realities of financing major transport infrastructure – private sector investors are far more attracted to roads than public transport, and the politics of government prevent borrowing to the extent of influencing credit-ratings or instituting road-user charging to cross-subsidise public transport.  Having done my time in the public sector making no ground on this challenge, I’ve taken what could be described as the coward’s approach by admitting defeat and embracing technology as an alternative strategy (even if it doesn’t address the root cause).

Buried away in the middle of the World Bank report is a section that looks at the influence of mobile technology:

…the extraordinary rise in mobile phone penetration has led to the emergence of a variety of innovations that allow citizens, governments, and international organizations to be more engaged and better informed, and that enable aid providers to identify and communicate more directly with beneficiaries

Numerous studies have found a positive relationship between ICT adoption and economic development in general

An evaluation of initial experiences suggests that the benefits accrue to those countries that put in place policies and programs that not only enable technological transformation but also support institutional reforms and process redesign through which services are delivered

A job for a future post is to delve more deeply into these observations and examine the crossover between the issues and opportunities of developed versus developing nations. The outcome will hopefully inform some thinking around ‘Creating Shared Value’.

Grassroots action in the technology age – RHoK

For this post I’m finally moving away from “the big picture” to look at the world closer to home.  This is a tale of my horizons being broadened with attendance this evening at a RHoK Showcase event.

Random Hacks of Kindness, or RHoK, is loose, global collective of talented, well-meaning geeks putting their skills toward developing low-cost technology solutions for society’s problems (my words, and apologies if this offends any of the “geeks” involved – they’re good people doing good things).

Small teams of mostly software developers, but also designers and most importantly problem-owners, convene to walk through a problem that could be addressed with a web or smartphone app.  At tonight’s gathering the strong theme was to help address some of the problems posed by bushfires – a natural disaster endemic to our part of the world.  The specific problems/solutions presented were:

  • Firefighter location mapping using BYOD smartphones and truck-mounted wireless LAN
  • Local area fire alert/information web portal
  • Automated household fire-plan builder
  • Reslience, a “market place” that brings together the large amount of voluntary community help that become available in the aftermath of a natural disaster with the location and details for non-life-threatening problems, such as fallen trees or damaged infrastructure

In each case a team of between 5 and 10 people had put in a couple of weekends minimum to develop a working prototype software solution – a fantastic achievement for the volunteers involved.

A bad photo of a good deed - the title slide from one of the RHoK projects presented at this evening's showcase

A bad photo of a good deed – the title slide from one of the RHoK projects presented at this evening’s showcase

There was also a keynote presenter in the form of Sean Herron, a technology strategist from NASA (!) – an organisation who are great supporters of the worldwide RHoK movement.

The RHoK initiative is a fantastic example of “Creating Shared Value“.  It also illustrates where ICT is bringing efficiencies to help with existing efforts, and requires negligible infrastructure investment.  Sorta makes you wonder what could be done if there was more money from government to support this sort of work….

The future looks ‘appy’ for broadband connected homes

Startling take-up rates says that for smart devices the future is now

News @ CSIRO


The app journey so far Source: CSIRO

You’ve heard of the Ice Age but have you heard of the ‘App Age’? Today we’ve released research from our ‘Broadband Connected Homes’ report which suggests the next generation of broadband-enabled applications will be more about connecting households to new sensors and cloud services than checking emails and social media invites.

The report describes the changing environment of Australian homes, the technologies that are affecting it, and its capacity to support new applications and services. We spoke with Colin Griffith, Director of CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation to get his perspective on what kinds of trends we may see as a result.

Next generation broadband apps to drive a new era of services 

You may have noticed that there has been a lot of discussion about the bandwidth and types of cables required to connect Australian homes for broadband services. While this is…

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How are cities growing?

This post looks more closely at the story behind the global urbanisation trend.

Global urban population by size class of settlement - note that over 50% of people reside in cities of less than 500k

Global urban population by size class of settlement – note that over 50% of people reside in cities of less than 500k

A key observation relates to the facts behind the figures (ref UNFP reports 2007 and 2011) – in my previous post I noted the headline figure that is the number of people in cities now outweighing those in rural areas, but this is not the whole story:

  • the world’s urban population will grow to 4.9 billion by 2030, whereas the rural population will decrease by some 28 million between 2005 and 2030
  • most of the urban growth will take place in developing nations – the urban population of Africa and Asia is expected to double between 2000 and 2030, whereas for the developed world it will grow from 870 million to 1.01 billion
  • the ‘second wave’ of urbanisation taking place in developing nations is occurring at a far greater size and scale than the first wave that unfolded in developed nations in the 20th century – meaning that developing nations will need to build new urban infrastructure (houses, power, water, sanitation, transport, commercial and productive facilities) more quickly than did developed nations
  • the urban growth of the 21st century will be composed largely of poor people, through both natural increase (urban births) and migration (from rural to urban areas), the balance of which varies from region to region (India more the former, China the latter)
  • over half of the world’s urban population resides in settlements with a population of less than 500,000 (refer to the chart above)
  • many of the world’s poor are migrating from the centres of the biggest cities to smaller settlements on the periphery or in satellite locations as a result of the high cost of living and scarcity of jobs

This last point has much resonance for my home town of Melbourne, where a demographic divide is forming between the affluent inner areas and the poorer but rapidly-growing urban sprawl.  The 2009 MacroMelbourne report argues that the most significant trends and challenges effecting disadvantage and inequality in metropolitan Melbourne are:

  • Rapid population growth, particularly in outer urban areas
  • The employment and economic impact of the global financial crisis
  • Rapid increases in the number of people with multiple and complex needs
  • Ongoing challenges facing migrant, refugee and Indigenous communities
  • Lack of access to affordable housing

These themes are clearly echoed in the UNFP reports, and I suspect that they are true for cities everywhere.

In reflecting upon what all this means I draw upon Porter and Kramer’s concept of Creating Shared Value to make the following observations:

  • The lessons from the older, more populous cities should inform the answers for the smaller, faster-growing settlements – however there needs to be more attention given to the specific challenges/solutions applicable to small/medium cities
  • Technology solutions, in particular relating to Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), are a key enabler to addressing many of the challenges faced
  • Low-cost, highly transferable/scaleable technology solutions represent the greatest opportunity

In future posts I will explore each of these issues/opportunities in more detail.

The urban millenium

This post addresses the other part of my blog’s cleantech / cities focus – the increasing importance of cities.

A city recently

In 2001 then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced that this would be the urban millennium:

Cities have always been crossroads of culture, and today urban areas are the driving forces of development and globalization.

– Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, 25th Special Session of the General Assembly, 6 June 2001

In 2007 the UN Population Fund made the oft-cited observation that as of 2008, more people would be living in cities around the world than in rural areas:

In principle, cities offer a more favourable setting for the resolution of social and environmental problems than rural areas. Cities generate jobs and income. With good governance, they can deliver education, health care and other services more efficiently than less densely settled areas simply because of their advantages of scale and proximity.

Cities also present opportunities for social mobilization and women’s empowerment. And the density of urban life can relieve pressure on natural habitats and areas of biodiversity. The challenge for the next few decades is learning how to exploit the possibilities urbanization offers. The future of humanity depends on it.

UN Population Fund, May 2007 to coincide with the release of the ‘State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth

This quote from the UNFP sums up the issues and opportunities perfectly, and provides the foundation for my own focus on cities.

So there you have it – a blog about technology solutions for the issues and opportunities of urbanisation, originating out of a demographic milestone and a simple equation.

Where it all begins – the IPAT equation


A way-out visual depiction of ‘our environmental responsibility’

So why am I such an advocate for technology solutions?… this post provides a ‘first principles’ type explanation.

The Jeffrey Sachs book from which I’ve taken the quote in my first post makes reference to a simple equation first published in the 1970s that sets out mankind’s impact upon the global ecosystem as a product of the number of people, their individual consumption, and the resource intensiveness of the technology they use:

I = P x A x T   (a.k.a. the ‘IPAT’ equation)


  • I = Impact upon the environment
  • P = Population
  • A = Affluence (which can be thought of as per capita GDP)
  • T = Technology (measured in terms of resource intensiveness)

Sachs suggests a modification to this equation that recognises the role of ‘clean technology’ in reducing mankind’s impact upon the environment:

I = (P x A) / S

where S = Sustainable (clean) technology (or technology with lower resource intensiveness than the incumbent)

Put simply, by increasing the use of clean technology, our impact on the environment can be maintained/reduced even as population and our standard of living increase – this idea underpins not only this blog but my entire working life.

Notably, the theory is not without its detractors.  One of the original authors of the IPAT equation contests the ability of clean technology to combat concurrent increases in population and standard of living.

While Sachs sets out a compelling vision for stabilisation of the world’s population, many examples exist of where economic development (or improved standard of living) is driving potentially catastrophic impacts upon the environment.

A recent example from China related to Beijing’s abominable air quality.  While there is an interesting back-story relating to air quality reports from the U.S. embassy contravening the official line being presented by the Chinese government, I can say from having visited Beijing in 2005 that the air quality was appalling by Australian standards – black lines of soot formed underneath my nostrils from simply breathing the air, even during summer when it was supposed to be better (they burn coal for residential heating during winter).

At the heart of Beijing’s air quality problems is the economic development that is resulting in pollution from industrial and transport activity along with dust-storms arising from deforestation of the surrounding countryside.  The government have basically said that economic development is the overriding priority, even if the improved living standards this delivers are being offset by the reduced living standards that accompany poor air quality.  In other words, they’ll get rich or die tryin’…. (cheers Fiddy).

If Sachs (and my adopted) theory is correct, the Chinese will be able to address their air quality issues without sacrificing economic development through increased use of clean technologies such as:

  • Cleaner vehicles (primarily through emissions standards but also through electric vehicle uptake)
  • Cleaner factories
  • Improved agricultural practices (such as GM crops)

Given the proven ability of the Chinese to implement change quickly as an outcome from their central decision-making, this is a case study worth watching (so long as their clean technology includes coming clean about the actual air quality…).

A smart guy once said…

English: Jeffrey Sachs speaks at an Open Forum...

Jeffrey Sachs speaks at an Open Forum at Occupy Wall Street on October 6, 2011, Day 21 of the movement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rather than focusing … on reducing the income and consumption of the rich world, we should focus much more on raising … the sustainability of the world’s technologies

Jeffrey D.Sachs, “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet“, 2008