The Internet of Things: a rising tide


King Canute, the 11th century King of England, Denmark and Norway is today best known for the story of when he had his throne set by the seashore and commanded the rising tide to turn back, so as not to wet his clothes. Unsurprisingly, he didn't succeed.

The reason that King Canute did this is often misunderstood. He was not a power-mad ruler that expected to succeed in actually turning back the tide. Rather he wanted to demonstrate to his courtiers that he wasn't all powerful - that there are limits to what even a king can do and you can’t hold back a rising tide.

Today another tide is rising. The building blocks of technology - the internet, sensors, RFID tags, smartphones, and big data - have started to coalesce into the entity which has come to be known as the Internet of Things.

Everyday objects and devices can now be connected globally, to tell us about their location and status, or to allow them to be operated remotely. The Internet of Things is flowing unstoppably forward and will deliver significant and prolonged change to our culture, our environment and the global economy.

One quite understandable consequence of such a momentous change will be an apprehension around the privacy of personal data. Connected objects can tell the story of how and when they are used. Some have argued that because of these concerns the growth of the Internet of Things should be limited or heavily regulated.  

The truth is that we would ultimately be no more successful at stopping this flowing tide of innovation than King Canute was on his seashore. There is no holding it back, and the potential benefits for environment, the economy and society are enormous. But perhaps because of privacy concerns, one of the first areas where we will start dipping our toes into the Internet of Things will be in commercial and industrial buildings.

Over the last three years at the Carbon Trust, whilst working closely with manufacturers, we have noticed substantial innovations to industrial products and control systems which make them smarter and connects them to the internet.

Some of the innovations we expect to see in the future, that will enable the Internet of Things to make beneficial changes across the built environment, are:

  • Feedback Loops: Through the convergence of monitoring systems and Building Information Management Systems (BIMS), product manufacturers will be able to analyse data on the installed performance of their products. Based upon this analysis manufacturers could then advise customers on how best to re-commission or repair equipment to ensure optimum, efficient energy usage.
  • Smarter Buildings: Many building management systems (BMS) use external temperature sensors in the management of building heating and cooling.  Sharing real-time geographically referenced temperature information of all UK buildings connected to the Internet of Things could enable better tracking of real time weather conditions. In turn this would enable more efficient heating and cooling decisions to be made automatically in buildings in other locations.  For example, if temperature measurements from buildings in Bristol over time show several degrees warming, and then 30 minutes later buildings in Bath show similar warming, this could result in the BMS in offices in Reading to stop heating as much, or begin cooling a short while before the weather changes.
  • Better Endings: As products are decommissioned and recycled then attached RFID tags and data systems can be reviewed by recyclers. Data on the product’s age, use, performance and materials would then be available to product manufacturers and the recycler. Manufacturers could use this data on product use patterns to inform better product design. Recyclers would understand whether a product should be reconditioned because it has not fulfilled its design life, or recycled because it has.  More detailed information on components and materials for recycling would be digitally available to the through connection with the manufacturer’s database.

Of course connecting buildings to the Internet of Things will take time.  Optimistically, it might take five to seven years to establish sufficient connections to grow from a small lake into to a sea. Based on current procurement cycles, it could take 15 to 20 years to end up with a vast ocean.

Connecting buildings will provide a host of advantages and create value. It can help to deliver more transparent supply chains and improve data gathering. It can also will unlock new business models within the circular economy, particularly around repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing.

Technology is transforming how we will construct and operate the built environment. A sea change is coming thanks to the Internet of Things, and as King Canute would have said, there is no turning it back.