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World Economic Forum recognizes IoT as a sustainability game changer


Photo caption:
Self-driving shuttle bus transporting passengers in Kista (Stockholm, Sweden)
– just one example of an IoT solution that contributes to sustainable development.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently published a white paper based on an analysis of more than 640 Internet of Things (IoT) deployments worldwide that suggests it is possible to maximize the development benefits of the IoT without compromising its commercial viability. To encourage the prioritization of sustainability goals within commercial strategies the white paper provides 11 “Guidelines for Sustainability” that focus on cooperation, investment models, business models, and impact measurement.

Together with representatives from several other global companies, I had the honor of serving in the WEF working group that carried out the analysis. One of the most interesting findings from my perspective was the fact that 84 percent of the IoT deployments included in the analysis are currently addressing, or have the potential to address, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs relating to climate action, smart sustainable cities, water, hunger (which includes agriculture), responsible production and consumption patterns (which includes circular economy and waste reduction) are the ones where the IoT currently has the most promise.

At Ericsson we have several examples of offerings and use cases where IoT and sustainability go hand in hand. Connected Urban Transport with its self-driving buses is one example; City Environment, which includes smart buildings and the monitoring of water, air quality and noise, is another. We are also active in the area of smart manufacturing – check out the videos on our smart factory webpage to find out more about that.

While it’s clear that the IoT has enormous potential to contribute to sustainable development, we need to remember that it is not a single homogeneous ecosystem, but rather an ecosystem of ecosystems in which a multitude of standards and initiatives will play a role in future developments. In other words, the potential societal and environmental benefits of the IoT will depend to a large extent on how it is implemented, case by case. Of course, the same is true for several other technologies of the fourth industrial revolution such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, drones, self-driving vehicles and robotics. All of these technologies have tremendous potential to deliver social value if they are implemented in the right way.

In an ecosystem of ecosystems, interoperability is crucial. An important aspect of creating interoperable, scalable, reliable and secure solutions is to use open interfaces at both network and application level as well as open, standardized device and application design. Obviously future developments are also highly dependent on the IoT industry living up to its promises by, for example, developing good quality sensors at a reasonable cost.

To fully capitalize on the economic opportunities the IoT represents it is imperative that the business models are agreed upon from the beginning and that they provide relevant value across the complete value chain. In a fully digital world with data at its heart, it is also essential to gain and retain public trust by ensuring privacy, integrity and respect for each individual’s data. Transparency is vital – we must be clear about how both raw data and algorithm output are used and ensure that we have the consent of the data “owners” to use the data in the ways we intend to use it.

Most importantly, I believe that we need to have a human-centred and outcome-based approach to the design of IoT solutions, where we consider the potential for sustainability benefits from the start of the projects. The SDGs are there to act as a guiding framework for all of us. As we work to find new business models, we must also think about how we can measure the impact of IoT deployments in ways that extend beyond financial metrics to include values needed for sustainable development and take different local, regional and global contexts into account.

Written by Matilda Gennvi-Gustafsson

Matilda's early career was in the area of environmental and production management in the food industry. Since joining Ericsson in 1997 she has focused on sustainability, business and change management. From 2009-17 she served as a sustainability director at group level focusing on strategy, climate action and how ICT can accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). As of 2018 she works within the Internet of Things (IoT) unit, integrating business and doing good.

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