Smart everything

Advances in digital and networking technology, sensors and new materials are making many aspects of our physical contexts responsive to environmental stimuli and creating new interactions between people and objects – known as the Internet of Things. Smart ways of connecting our behaviours to the physical realms we interact with could improve the efficiency of systems such as energy, healthcare and transportation and our quality of life.


Within the home, sensors detecting light, moisture, energy use or air quality are already being used to control everything from heating and lighting to home security, helping to optimise living environments. Materials are also becoming smart and finding a wide range of applications – from self-cleaning textiles to food packaging that changes colour when the contents are going bad.

At a larger scale, the smart cities agenda is integrating digital technology into critical systems including transport, energy, food, health and water – cutting costs and resource usage. Local and national smart grids can use load balancing and demand forecasting to improve the efficiency, reliability and sustainability of energy delivery and distribution. This can help to overcome the obstacle of intermittency in renewable energy sources.


While these solutions show great potential, governments, companies and community actors need to address the security and privacy concerns: who is responsible for the overwhelming amount of data sourced and stored? The implications for individual lives and communities also need consideration: how will rising dependence on smart devices and systems affect how we relate to one another? Will ‘smart’ living be just about sharing data or also about sharing more profound things? Are we likely to be more productive or better at resting? And how can smart technologies help to meet the Sustainable Development Goals – for instance, improving access to energy and nutrition?


Last updated: 27 October 2015

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Current trajectory

• In 2008, there were already more "things" connected to the Internet than people. According to Cisco, the amount of Internet-connected things will reach 50 billion by 2020, with $19 trillion in profits and cost savings coming from IoT over the next decade. 1

• McKinsey claims that the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) could have an annual economic impact of US$2.7 trillion to US$6.2 trillion by 2025. 2

Smart Cities

• The SmartGrid GB report, which looked at the expected cost of smart grid development in the UK in comparison with a conventional technological approach, found that savings of £19 billion could be made between 2012 and 2050. 1

• According to IHS, there will be at least 88 smart cities around the world by 2025, up from 21 in 2013. 2 Current smart cities include Vienna, Toronto, New York and London. Navigant Research forecasts that global smart city technology revenue will grow from USD$8.8 billion annually in 2014 to USD$27.5 billion in 2023. 3

• In Amsterdam’s Smart Citizen lab, citizens, scientists, hackers and designers meet up regularly to build sensors to collect data on when is the best time to take a swim in the canals, which route is the healthiest to take to work, and what is the real level of noise pollution in a neighbourhood. 4

• China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, also have ambitions to build smart cities across their countries. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to build 100 such urban centres fitted with high-tech communication capabilities grabbed headlines when it was announced in July 2014. However, according to the Asian Development Bank’s Urban Sector Group, the rise of the smart city may actually exacerbate existing problems in developing cities that lack institutions and structures of good governance. 5

Smart Homes

• Xiaomi has built the Mi Water Purifier, a connected, compact purifier that filters tap water forsafe drinking water and other home needs. The device is part of Xiaomi’s Mi Home network, meaning that customers can check on its settings and recent activity, as well as get alerts when replacement filters are required. 1

• Big brands such as Bosch are helping homeowners take complete control of their heating, cooling and water temperatures through apps for smartphones and tablets. 2

• Heat Seek NYC uses a network of connected thermometers to ensure thousands of tenants in New York City do not go without heat in the winter.  3

Smart Materials

• Smart materials are responsive materials whose properties can be changed by exposure to stimuli, such as electric and magnetic fields, stress, moisture and temperature. Examples include The ReST bed, which features a proprietary smart fabric and sensors that track your sleep habits. This data ensures the bed stays comfortable as you toss and turn at night. 1

• At the industrial level, Delft University researchers have developed self-healing concrete, which embeds self-activating limestone-producing bacteria into building material. It is designed to decrease the amount of new concrete produced and lower maintenance and repair costs for city officials, building owners and homeowners. 2

• NikeLab is collaborating with designer Johanna Schneider on modular workout clothes. The items are designed for versatility, and adjust based on the wearer’s activity level – i.e. by changing their volume or position on the body during different workout stages. 3


  • The momentum behind this trend, indicated by strong investor interest, new commercial opportunities, innovations in applications, and high levels of adoption of smart products, buildings and city systems, points to rapid transformation. However, investors have indicated that concerns over security and privacy remain a big barrier to more widespread business adoption of the Internet of Things. 1
  • There are potential benefits for sustainability such as reducing water and energy use, though the scale and impact of these technologies will depend on how well they are designed, and what they are designed to do: will it be to drive further consumption, or to help people have more time out? Top-down technology projects that don’t consider how people and societies already function could underperform or have negative effects.
  • The Internet of Things and increasing use of social media are blurring the distinction between users/producers, and consumers/citizens, with potential to disrupt incumbent business models.
  • Based on current expectations, smart environments look set to affect almost every aspect of human life. As Michael Wolf says, “The Internet of things space, which is getting lots of buzz and investment, will reshape many industries over the next decade. Eldercare is likely one industry that will experience some of the biggest changes, as costs are high, demand is increasing, and emerging technology is directly applicable at nearly every layer of the market." 2 However, this raises questions around the access and equity of these technologies, especially in developing and fragile countries.


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