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It is the Cornerstone of Smart Cities — But What is the “Internet of Things”?

One of the biggest goals for governments and public interest groups in the modern day is to evolve the liveability of our urban areas in interesting, useful, and positive ways. These goals all work towards the ideal of the “Smart City” — a city that IBM defines as one which “makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimise the use of limited resources.” Smart cities use sensors, broad access to technology, and extensive data to greatly improve the lives of their residents, making them easier, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly.

The modern innovation known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) is one of the greatest advances towards the smart city goal we’ve seen so far. But “Internet of Things” is a strange, vague term. What does it actually mean? Let’s take a look.

What Is An Internet of Things?

All over the world, billions of regular devices, ranging from traffic cameras to watches to commercial aircraft, are all becoming connected to the internet. Through this interconnectivity, the internet has moved outside the confines of the desktop computer and into our physical lives. This, therefore, is the “Internet of Things”: a broad network of devices that wouldn’t formerly have had internet access, which now use that access to perform their functions even better and inform our future decision making.

Here’s an example. In 2018, Google subsidiary Nest released a “smart doorbell” called, predictably, the Nest Doorbell. A doorbell is not something you’d expect to need internet connectivity — it just needs to make a sound when someone presses on it, right? Well this doorbell, through having additional sensors (two cameras and a microphone), machine learning capabilities, and an internet connection, is able to offer many more features than is expected. It will detect when a person or animal approaches the door, is able to send notifications to its owner’s phone, and allow the owner to speak with the person at the door through the doorbell like an intercom, even if they’re not at home. It can also save the data produced through its sensors and your responses and adjust its notifications to match.

Similar developments can be seen in hundreds of thousands of different places. Jet engines now include sensors that report malfunctions before they become an issue. Pharmaceutical companies can make smart pill bottles that track whether their contents have been taken within the desired times. Sports watches can track your heart rate and movement and compare it to online data to ensure you’re getting the ideal workout.

How Does My City Use the Internet of Things?

Smart cities are still in their early stages across the globe, with many governmental projects only beginning within the last decade as the IoT devices and digital architectures become more readily available, reliable, and affordable. Governments are using connected sensors to gather remote data on many things: road usage, to determine whether bike lanes or pedestrian crossings are needed; noise monitors can help determine where residents are being most affected by transport noises and how to reduce them; sensors in bins can relay when they need to be emptied to boost waste management efficiency.

At the ground level, many smaller organisations are using IoT connectivity to boost their productivity and usefulness to the broader public.

With an effective, connected sensor array, a manufacturing plant can completely change their routine maintenance strategy. Now, they’re able to monitor their machines remotely and only perform maintenance when actually necessary. At the same time, they’ll be gathering data that helps them identify actionable strategies that can drive innovations in their manufacturing processes.

Even smaller businesses like independent retail can use IoT to improve their in-store experience, with smart air conditioning, music players, wireless payments, and security systems all building data that inform business owners’ decisions. Currently, many organisations (around one in three) still struggle with technophobia around adopting new technologies, but with enough incentives — both governmental and practical — this will hopefully see rapid change.

Where To Next?

Internet of Things-enabled smart cities are on the rise, but they rely on governmental support of public projects to get off the ground. Talking to your local council about adopting IoT technologies to improve your urban area is a great place to start. Or, if you’re in the position to, you could even launch your own start-up, as we did here at NoiseNet: we build IoT-enabled noise monitoring devices that can help make the lives of everyday residents quieter and calmer. The Internet of Things enables our cities to become more accessible, integrated, and liveable than ever before — and we’re very excited to see it develop.

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