Technology

The role of IoT in 2021: mapping out the road ahead

Connectivity continues to play an increasingly important role in building smarter, more robust and equitable environments. This article by Signify explores the pathway to a healthier, more sustainable future which harnesses the benefits of the Internet of Things

The global pandemic accelerated the pace of reinvention and innovation beyond anyone’s expectation in 2020, and this trend has continued well into 2021. Business processes have been tested, shattered, and rebuilt. Supply chains have been overloaded, stripped to their essentials, and forged anew. Technologies that keep us in contact while keeping us safe have become everyday tools for huge numbers of people, all over the planet.

Even after the last pandemic-related restrictions finally lift (a milestone we won’t reach at least until the end of 2021), we will continue to experience a distinctly new normal, one in which connectivity plays a much larger role than it did a year ago. The Internet of Things (IoT) will power this new normal forward, improving coordination and efficiency even as it makes connected systems smarter and cities and businesses who use them better prepared to respond to similar risks.

Here’s a look at the road ahead for IoT and related technologies in several sectors.

Health, wellbeing, and safety

By necessity, 2020 saw telehealth grow by leaps and bounds. This naturally spurred greater awareness of and interest in biometrics and personal medical devices. The oximeter, for example, became a household product. 

The stage is set for a boom in IoT-driven personal devices that promote wellbeing. They won’t be just for fitness buffs and early adopters anymore. The market will be much kinder for advanced small wearable devices that can provide outsized health insights. These devices will support telehealth visits with data, generating better-quality treatment options. 

Opportunities will also likely increase for apps and wearables that leverage sensor networks and indoor positioning systems embedded in connected lighting systems. These will include new smart building capabilities that help ensure social distancing and support contact tracing, use geofencing and sensors to limit occupancy to safe or mandated levels, assist cleaning and disinfection of shared spaces, alert occupants of unfavourable air quality, and much more.

Facilitating social equity


IoT solutions can play a key role in creating a more just society – an imperative that has become only more urgent as Covid-19 and political pressures have uncovered systemic inequities in communities around the world.

Take IoT-powered smart city technology. In the smart city, sensors can monitor pollution levels, traffic patterns, public transport efficiency, infrastructure functioning, water quality and other variables. Crucially, they can also indicate how these variables affect different neighbourhoods – lower-income ones versus wealthier ones, for example. With such insights in hand, municipal governments can ensure the more equitable distribution of public resources. 

Next-generation connectivity


Better integration of the virtual and the real, enabled by ultra-high speed 5G networks and improving edge computing, promises to accelerate the next stage of IoT growth. 

Travel restrictions, distancing, and contamination concerns kept experts from making once-routine in-person visits and inspections. This led to increased enthusiasm for digital twin simulations and illustrates the need for even stronger telemetry and remote maintenance capabilities, even for large capital assets such as heavy machinery.

As telco and tech consultants STL Partners argue in a July 2020 executive briefing, the dramatically improved connectivity that 5G offers – low latency, high bandwidth, superior reliability – could accelerate the business case for digital twins. At the same time, digital twins could accelerate the business case for 5G. In other words, the high speed and mobility offered by 5G can make certain digital twin use cases viable, while on the other hand smart cities and business interested in proving out the value of IoT applications can use digital twins to test the viability of 5G using simulations. 

As people watched the Covid-19 response from home, they had access, via the Internet and the media, to data describing the disease’s spread and effects, as well as to data on mitigation strategies. The public’s demand for clear, transparent information on matters of both global and local interest isn’t going away. The IoT will play a larger role in supplying raw material to data analytics tools that develop fast in terms of both complexity and prominence.

In addition, expect more clarity about which IoT infrastructure players take cybersecurity the most seriously. Signify, for example, is the first company to receive global security certification from DEKRA for connected lighting systems.

Circular economy

In 2020, single-use items exacted their revenge on sustainability champions, as people disposed of everything, from restaurant flatware to protective masks, in vast numbers. Such profligacy is understandable given the circumstances, but it’s a reminder that we need to do more than ever to cultivate circular economies, prioritising needs and thinking about what happens to products when they reach the ends of their usable lives.

Instead of the traditional, and non-sustainable, linear economy of take – make – dump, resulting in waste, the circular economy eliminates waste at every moment of a product’s lifecycle using a rethink – reduce – repair – recycle model.

Circular lighting, using Light-as-a-Service and parts harvesting among other approaches, illustrates how a circular approach can work in practice. Businesses realise cost savings and reduce or eliminate capital expenditures up front, while the lighting provider uses the lighting system’s connectivity to remotely manage performance during the system’s useful life. At end of life, reverse logistics ensure that materials are handled according to circular economy principles and are recycled or reused instead of ending up in a landfill.

Major government initiatives

The European Green Deal, the plan for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, depends on the IoT to reinvent and optimise travel networks and to help homes, businesses, and cities radically reduce their carbon footprints and energy consumption. The European Innovation Council has already invested hundreds of millions of euros in start-ups and small businesses that are promoting Green Deal innovations, including IoT tech.

With the Biden administration now in place, the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement, with a renewed commitment to address climate change at all levels of government. The America Is All In declaration calls on communities, businesses, and institutions to work ‘at maximum effort to put the U.S. on a path to net-zero emissions by mid-century.’ Here, too, the IoT and connected systems promise to play an important role. 

Energy-efficient lighting conversions are an often overlooked and easy way to get a jump on reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption. Lighting can account for up to half of a city’s energy use, and retrofitting buildings and streetlights with highly energy-efficient LED luminaires and IoT management systems can reduce lighting-related energy needs by up to 80 per cent. Aggressive lighting conversion programs in the EU alone can save an estimated 100 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Coordinated global efforts could push this total much higher.

Is there a silver lining?


The pandemic demonstrated that we need global action to improve wellbeing and achieve sustainability. In 2021 and beyond, we’ll see more connected technologies put to work toward achieving precisely these ends. 

We’ll see this in entertainment and hospitality, where contactless authentication will improve security. We’ll see it on manufacturing floors, where enhanced indoor positioning services will make work smoother and cut down on accidents. We’ll see it in agriculture, where soil and atmospheric sensors will render the use of pesticides and fertiliser more targeted, efficient, and resource-friendly. 

It will be a different future than we dreamed about on the eve of 2020. It will be one in which we are wiser about the potential of IoT tech to help us meet dire challenges and change things for the better.

Signify is a Global Partner of WORKTECH Academy. Jonathan Weinert is an award-wining thought leadership writer for Signify and has been researching and reporting on LED lighting, connected lighting, and the IoT since joining Signify in 2008.
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