The Internet of Things for developing economies

The Internet of Things is for more than just hard operational metrics, it can dramatically improve human welfare.

Fire Detector in Kenya

Connected Fire Detector in an Informal Settlement in Nairobi, Kenya

Credit: Juozas Cernius/American Red Cross

The United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and Cisco recently released a joint report (PDF) titled “Harnessing the Internet of Things [IoT] for Global Development.”  It reviews a broad range of solutions and global deployments of IoT technologies for developing economies, spanning energy, healthcare, agriculture and natural disaster relief, to name a few.  It demonstrates how simple IoT solutions can make a dramatic impact on human welfare, but also offers broader lessons for CIOs' business initiatives, such as cost-effective process management and improvement.

The 58-page report, which has been submitted as a contribution to the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, was launched in Honolulu by ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao and Cisco VP of Global Technology Policy Robert Pepper at the 38th annual Pacific Telecommunications Council conference, which brings together a variety of academics, policymakers, and executives from network and IT service providers and vendors (Disclosure: I am on the program planning committee for the event and moderated the discussion).

Many people view IoT as a means for manufacturers and service providers to improve operational efficiencies, for example, through better asset utilization.  In my latest book, Digital Disciplines, I focused on these and other ways in which IoT—together with complementary technologies such as cloud and big data—can enable new business strategies that drive differentiated customer value.  For example, GE can help airlines improve their service quality by maximizing the availability of its jet engines through better predictive maintenance, by, for example, extracting inferences based on sensors that detect, say, variations in engine rotation speed or oil pressure.  IoT applications are not restricted to businesses, of course; consumers can benefit from a wide range of connected things ranging from activity trackers to intelligent thermostats to connected vehicles.

But in the developing world, as the Cisco/ITU report makes clear, IoT can dramatically impact human welfare, because the things we often take for granted in the developed world—food, clean water, electricity, access to healthcare, and timely and adequate responses to human disasters—may be sorely lacking. Simple solutions such as networked temperature sensors on refrigerators containing vaccines or medicines literally can make a life or death difference.  Moreover, as the recent Flint, Michigan water crisis shows, even developed economies can benefit from such IoT solutions.  In addition, in today’s borderless world, improvements in one region can benefit others, say, through sustainable fishing, management of pandemics, or renewable energy use.

I found the insights and solutions described in the report to be eye-opening, not only from the perspective of basic human compassion but also because they show the breadth of applicability of IoT in solving basic problems, thus helping CIOs to better understand the immense potential of IoT, ways to leverage IoT for internal and external challenges, and in many cases, how to create and benefit from new IT and IoT-enabled business opportunities.  Moreover, rather than over-engineered solutions, CIOs can learn from the ingenious, simple, affordable solutions being deployed globally in a variety of sectors.

For example, in healthcare, the benefits of remotely monitoring refrigerator temperatures to maximize the safety and efficacy of medicines are clear, but one could argue that an even simpler solution could also work, say, a label that changes color if exposed to too high a temperature.  However, through remote monitoring, not only can the cycle time for problem resolution for a given refrigerator be accelerated, but wide-scale patterns of issues in the so-called “cold-chain” of delivery logistics—such as power loss or equipment failures—can be analyzed and the entire supply chain permanently improved.

Connected solutions offer additional benefits.  In the case of Ebola, “smart” bandages can monitor patients, and speed medical response.  Patterns in migration and interaction based on analyzing cell phone data can also aid in the control of emerging pandemics.

For agriculture, devices that contain not only sensors to monitor irrigation levels, but also actuators to control water flow can enable family farms to become much more productive, maximizing yield while conserving scarce water resources.

Sometimes, such connectedness can enable new business models.  For example, in the developing world, utility-provided electricity is either unavailable or unreliable. While solar panels are becoming more cost-effective, the capital outlay required to deploy them can be prohibitive in low-income areas.  But, remotely monitored solar panels can be offered to customers with little or no front-end capital expenditure, with subsequent payments then based on actual usage.

The Cisco/ITU report delves into numerous other applications, such as smart hand-pumps to improve access to water in villages where children might walk for an hour or more to get water from a well, sensors to monitor water purity, tagged livestock to reduce hoof-and-mouth disease, tsunami warning systems, sewage monitoring, wildfire risk management, and natural disaster management.  The developing world offers a perfect storm of these compelling human needs with a unique constellation of enablers.  And, the labor intensity of these regions can benefit greatly from the use of information to optimize processes for efficiency and quality.

To accomplish this, however, requires low cost, ubiquitous connectivity.  Fortuitously, the last decade has seen emerging economies leapfrog a technological generation of wireline networks by deploying the latest wireless technologies. In fact, 95% of the world’s population now has access to wireless networks, making such networks much more widespread than electricity or water.

More subtly, the fact that spectrum has not been so fully allocated to, say, legacy television broadcasting, means there is more white-space spectrum available for IoT applications.  And, a variety of networks can enable collection and aggregation of data from sensors and remote control of actuators.  At the low end, simple text messaging might be utilized, at the other extreme, 4G and emerging 5G networks, and increasingly, next-generation infrastructure will play a role, based on emerging technologies—such as those being explored by Google’s Project SkyBender or the Facebook-led—utilizing solar-powered planes that will remain aloft for months at a time to provide affordable, global internet access.

In the developed world, we will at first marvel, and then take for granted, connected things such as refrigerators that will automatically order more milk, eggs, or steak when needed, delivered in near-real time by drones and no doubt improving convenience and quality of life.  But in the developing world, IoT solutions such as connected refrigerators that maintain the safety and efficacy of medicines are doing something more important: helping to ensure not just the quality of life, but life itself.

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