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Using technology to save nature: IoT edition

For centuries, humankind regarded the wild as something to be tamed and conquered. Not so much these days. In recent decades, society has changed course and turned its attention to protecting the environment rather than trying to beat it into submission and bend it to better suit our narrow purposes.

This shift in thinking is nothing short of a revolution. With the biosphere in a precarious state thanks to generations of careless disregard, we’re now enlisting the same mighty force that devastated nature to come to its defense. Of course, that force is human technology.

Historically, technological advancements have been driven by industry and fed by the increased dominion over and exploitation of nature. For thousands of years, “progress” for the human enterprise meant more culling of wildlife, more land to clear, more domestication of the “wild,” and more poorly disposed waste. Indeed, for most of human history, nature was regarded as something crude — as something to be battled, overcome and refined in the service of man.

This view can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks (circa 400 BCE) who saw nature, to a large extent, as an obstacle on the path to human greatness. This perspective dominated Western thinking until Jean-Jacques Rousseau (circa 1750 CE) popularized his view of civilization as a corrupting factor and nature as the symbol of raw innocence and good. (This theory gave rise to his conception of the “noble savage” as an idealized, though derivative, version of man who is one with nature and not ruined by human society.) Since then, momentum has slowly built in favor of a more Rousseauian view. This has been a long but steady journey that has only in the last decade culminated with the wide-scale adoption of a kinder and more stewardly approach to nature.

In this article, I will look at some of the ways in which technology today — specifically, the internet of things — is working to preserve and revitalize our planet.

A relationship redefined: Prophecies of human evolution

At the current rates of global consumption, even without allowing for any growth to the population, we would need 1.6 Earths to achieve a sustainable carrying capacity. Holding aside the issues of climate change, this fact alone is enough to place sustainability among the foremost concerns for human society. Given the extent of the damage done, and how close we currently stand to the red line, it’s not enough for civilization to simply reform — we must find some way to turn back the clock and undo at least some of the damage we’ve done. And that’s where advanced technology comes in.

As sustainability takes center stage, new and emerging technologies are being put to work to save nature, becoming an integral part of the battle to reduce dependence on non-renewable energy sources, stop pollution and clean up the mess left behind from generations of exploitation.

It’s a fascinating development and in some ways it’s the realization of biblical prophecy — or perhaps more accurately, biblical paradox. In the first chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve are placed on Earth and told to both “conquer” the land and “assert dominion” over the animals. (It is worth noting that Adam in the original Hebrew is “???,” which literally means “man” and is derived of the word “earth.”) In the second chapter of Genesis, a slightly different version the story is recounted. In this version, Adam was commanded to “tend to and protect” the Garden of Eden. The Bible seems to capture an internal conflict in the archetypical human’s relationship with nature. And it’s a conflict that we’ve seen play out over the course of human history.

I mention this because this dichotomous relationship with nature seems somehow inherent to the human condition and it’s that same dichotomy that makes the idea of engineered inventions as the best hope for environmental salvation simultaneously absurd, wonderful and romantic.

Putting IoT to work saving nature

As we enter chapter two of the human story, we’ll require more than a change in attitude to fulfill our mandate. We’ll require breakthroughs. The internet of things is one of the most promising technologies we have at our disposal. A self-communicating and largely self-managing system of interconnected devices, IoT is in many ways the technological embodiment of sustainability.

This smart network can collect an incredible amount of information from the real world, information that can be used to make existing processes profoundly more efficient or do the legwork and lay the foundations for entirely new operational models. But it’s not just about the data collected by these IP addressable devices, it’s about how that data is instantly communicated up and down a chain of purpose-specific terminals, ensuring that relevant information is always in the right place to be intelligently acted on.

In many ways, IoT represents a blank slate for companies, scientists and inventors seeking solutions to open up new frontiers or begin tackling hard-to-isolate problems entrenched deeply within normal processes.

From conservation efforts and cleantech to tracking environmental conditions and reducing electricity usage, every imaginable angle in the quest to save nature is being explored anew through the lens of IoT. While I cannot cover each and every instance of IoT being used to better the environment, I’d like to turn your attention to three such examples that I believe demonstrate the potential of such applications.

1. IoT ushers in a more circular manufacturing economy

In the circular economy, waste is reduced, repurposed and eliminated entirely from the manufacturing cycle. IoT technologies are central to evolving the economy from the “make, take, throw away” model that’s created environmental headaches and heartaches around the world. The idea here is to keep as much as possible out of landfills by extending the life of both the items being manufactured and the equipment used to make those items. (There is also a lot of great work being done, it should be noted, to transition from a material discard model to a component retrieval model once products outlive their usefulness.)

IoT’s role in the circular economy manifests through improved operational insight. This insight comes through IoT sensors that empower manufacturers to better manage people, processes and assets. The tighter the feedback loop, the more “leaks” are caught and the more quickly they can be “patched.” This applies to supply chain management, human resources, digital systems and really anything that contributes to production.

Consider, for example, the effect that IoT sensors are having on the realm of asset performance management. These sensors are empowering managers to more intelligently maintain equipment, leading to substantially extended asset lifecycles (preventing unnecessary and wasteful asset requisitions) and improving the efficiency of performance over the course of that lifecycle (preventing wasted input).

2. Managing traffic in real time, IoT technologies reduce carbon emissions

While the popularity of electric cars is increasing, non-electric (and even electric cars powered by non-renewable energy forms) still impose massive environmental costs.

Close to 30% of carbon dioxide emissions are caused by cars, with up to 45% of those emissions occurring around intersections managed by traffic lights. City planners have set their sights to tackling the problem right at the intersections where they occur by installing IoT-enabled traffic controls that respond to real-time conditions instead of preprogrammed timers.

With IoT technology, traffic lights can detect asymmetric strains on the transportation infrastructure and intelligently adapt to optimally manage traffic flow. Instead of cars idling at lights for one, two or even three minutes when there’s no traffic coming in the opposite direction, traffic lights can safely change from red to green according to the number of cars at an intersection and the traffic flow occurring at that exact moment.

Estimates claim that this technology can cut the equivalent of 35 million vehicles’ worth of carbon emissions over the next five years.

3. IoT-enabled sensors monitor water and air quality from afar

Normally, water and air quality are monitored by collecting and analyzing specimens, a laborious task made more difficult in far-flung places. Imagine if scientists and environmental officials could monitor polluted rivers, contaminated soil and brownfields in remediation without having to waste time and resources visiting the site.

Thanks to IoT technologies, that entire monitoring process could be done remotely. IoT-enabled devices collect data about the environment around them and push that information to a server where officials can review and parse the information as needed.

Air quality monitoring devices use a laser light in conjunction with sensors to detect particles in the air, while water quality sensors could be attached to a buoy and deployed into whichever body of water needs monitoring. However it’s set up and collected, the central goal is the same: to quickly assess changes in the environment so officials can act faster when a pollutant or other unwanted chemical is on the rise.

Technology and nature working towards a symbiotic tomorrow

Nature is a powerful force. And so it seems is humankind. Earlier generations might have believed these two forces at odds, but the fact is that we’re destined to coexist or to co-perish.

The original humans sought to conquer nature and took of it without a second thought. For this, they were driven from their Earthly paradise. We must not repeat the same mistake. We know better. We’ve come to realize that it is our duty to tend to and protect nature with everything we have. And what we have is human creativity, human innovation and human technology. The internet of things is just one aspect of that technology, but it’ll be an important one as we move towards a more sustainable, more symbiotic tomorrow.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.