'Internet of Things' Presents Green ICT Challenges

We've counted over 17 billion pieces of e-gear attached to the global ICT infrastructure. The 'Internet of Things' (IoT) will dramatically increase this number by the end of the decade. Can technology keep up with the energy and resource demands?

IEEE Spectrum reports in July 2013, "Clothes, cars, trains, tractors, body sensors, and tracking tags. By the end of this decade, analysts say, 50 billion things such as these will connect to mobile networks. They’ll consume 1000 times as much data as today’s mobile gadgets, at rates 10 to 100 times as fast as existing networks can support."

We're skeptical of that "50 billion" number and prefer an estimate of 26 billion new IoT devices by 2020. Either way, the resource, energy, and e-waste issues will be significant. Beyond the IoT edge devices themselves, all that data needing to be moved and processed will drive ICT's environmental footprint at network and core, as well.

E-waste is another issue. If just 10% of IoT devices are trashed per year beginning in 2021, this could mean 2+ billion new e-waste items annually. Granted, most of these will be much smaller than today's e-waste items and many will be embedded in larger waste items, but the impact could still be significant.

Wired identified in June 2014 one way to possibly mitigate the e-waste deluge. "...open source software will be extremely important for keeping connected devices going and out of landfill, says Michael Richardson, the co-chair of an Internet Engineering Task Force work group standardizing wireless networking for the IoT. If devices use open source code, the broader community of developers can help keep them going. 'If an IoT device is not running open source, it means that as soon as someone comes up with a security problem, it’s going in the trash because major companies aren’t going to want to upgrade lightbulbs,' he says. 'It’s going to end up creating more waste, more garbage.'" In Green ICT terms, the argument here is that open source software will help users 'sweat assets'.

Batteries could be a huge part of IoT's e-waste stream. Energy harvesting, the ability of devices to source power from their environments, represents a more sustainable alternative.