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How the Internet of Things Impacts ICT and Green ICT Efforts

One of the most exciting developments we’ll see in coming years is the impact that Internet of Things (IoT) applications will have on our lives, from healthcare and manufacturing to smart cities, smart agriculture and other areas.  I see a number of challenges as well, particularly in how IoT’s rise will further challenge our efforts to “green” – or make more sustainable – information and communication technology (ICT).

The sheer scale of IoT, in terms of the number of connected devices, will create a large draw on electrical power. Projections vary, but guestimates range between 50 billion to 100 billion active devices. If we include passive sensors including Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, some suggest numbers as high as perhaps a trillion devices.

Clearly, we’ll need to look at reducing every device’s need for power. Beyond mere efficiencies, energy harvesting has the potential to make these devices and sensors self-sufficient. There’s an obvious need for greening in this area.

At the same time, these sensors can generate a large volume of data that will create pressure on the capacity of networks that collect and transmit this data and on the processing that produces value.

The specific requirements for how data is collected, transmitted and processed will vary from domain to domain. If we consider basic healthcare-related data – for instance, heart rate monitoring – the data packets are small, but those packets and the networks they travel on must be secure and reliable. This domain will consume energy accordingly and that will dictate how greening efforts are focused.

In contrast, a much larger energy impact challenge arises in the processing required by “data collectives,” meaning a smart building, smart manufacturing or smart city. In those cases, data must be collected, analyzed and automated commands returned to actuators to take various actions. This loop implies an increase in processing capacity in the cloud.

The implication here is that IoT can drive unsustainable growth in energy needs and network and processing capacity unless we address these issues. The twist that lends optimism to our efforts is that Green ICT, spread via the IoT, is likely to also drive improvements in reducing related energy needs and network and processing capacity. Let’s examine this angle.

According to the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), by 2030, ICT will provide benefits across the triple bottom line, from reducing related CO2 emissions and resource use, to generating additional revenue, cost savings and wider societal benefits.

The concept is simple and its effect will be exponential.

Although ICT currently has an unsustainable carbon footprint, it has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of other domains by a factor approximately equal to ten times its own carbon footprint as predicted by GeSI. So, for instance, ICT can help smart cities or smart manufacturing to reduce their carbon footprint by 10x ICT’s own carbon footprint. And one of the key technologies needed to achieve this favorable impact is IoT, because it is the mechanism for making cities and other domains smarter.

So, in a sense, ICT is both a problem and a solution.

Now, ICT and IoT may enable us to green myriad domains, but greening ICT itself remains an urgent challenge with its own set of sub-domains to be addressed. One recently recognized advance in greening communication networks is worth mentioning here to cap this brief blog.

The GreenTouch mission seeks to create the architecture, specifications and roadmap that will increase network energy efficiency by a factor of 1,000 compared to 2010 levels. This goal was actually achieved in late 2015 and the IEEE Green ICT initiative was involved. This led to GreenTouch garnering an Edison Award earlier this year. (Look under the category, “Collective Disruption.”)

One of the reasons behind the factor of 1,000 is that telecom traffic now is growing at about 30 to 40 percent per year, which means it doubles every two years, increases by a factor of 30 in 10 years and by a factor of 1,000 in 20 years – if the same trend continues.

Thus, if we improve the energy efficiency of telecom networks and systems by a factor of 1,000 today, in 20 years those networks and systems will consume the same amount of energy as today while accommodating two decades’ growth in traffic. That is a very important achievement in greening ICT and solid grounds for optimism in our collective efforts. 

I look forward to further sharing my thoughts on Green ICT in future blogs.

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