A More Sustainable Future Built With Real Time Insight From Connected Devices

The Internet age has so revolutionized the way we live, that it can be hard to remember how young the Internet is. The first search engine, Archie, was invented in 1990. Napster, the first peer-to-peer file sharing system, originated in 1999. Facebook is currently the age of a preteen. The developments come rapidly and dramatically. They alter our society with seismic force, and we forget that the world existed before them.

But it did, and in five years, we will wonder how the world ever functioned without the next invention. The question then, for Green River, is how to anticipate what comes next and prepare to put it to good use. New technology is a powerful force, and maybe no technology is more powerful today than the Web. Without a concerted effort by people and businesses like ours to use it conscientiously and ethically, any technology risks becoming a tool of the entrenched, powerful, and indifferent.

This is particularly true of “big data,” the amalgamation of information so abundant traditional databases can’t process it. According to Eron Kelly of Microsoft, “In the next five years, we’ll generate more data as humankind than we generated in the previous 5,000.” This is the field in which we believe the next development will come. We are on the horizon of another leap forward in what has been dubbed the “internet of things,” or IOT. It encompasses the concept that devices and machinery of all kinds will be joining humans on the Internet. Things are being given IP numbers and Internet connections. This allows them to automatically exchange data with online applications and other machinery, all over the world. This may not be a new idea, (humorist Dave Barry warned us about it well over a decade ago with his article on Smart Appliances ) and early examples of this have recently been emerging in devices such as smart utility meters and wearable fitness gadgets. The difference is that the number of connected devices will grow very dramatically in the coming years. Eventually, almost everything in our built environment will be Internet-accessible. This will lead to the explosion of big data Kelly predicted, and our focus will be to take the machine readable data flooding our servers, analyze it, and present it in human-readable dashboards.

Continuous, cybernetic feedback made possible by connected devices has unlimited possibility. As Alex Pentland of MIT’s media lab explains, it can be the engine of a Societal Nervous System - a growing global network of purposeful awareness and intelligence. Steady performance data from devices will offer us the ability to analyze data sets supplied by great swaths of humanity, and recommend corrective adjustments to improve sustainability.

In the course of our work, we see a growing need for this technology. We foresee increased demand for innovative links between automated processes and human oversight, in new kinds of user interfaces, mobile applications, and data security software. A large portion of the applications Green River develops support continuous improvement (in schools, agricultural process, and buildings, for example). These applications start each improvement cycle with human data entry, which can be time-consuming and slow. Currently, the improvement cycle depends on an episodic tranche of data entered by participants using online forms. In the coming years, data will flow into the improvement systems automatically and continuously. Interventions should be reflected in an immediate change in the data flowing into the system. Instead of managers implementing a change and then waiting a year or two to see the results of their action and make course corrections, they will receive automated, real-time feedback on a continuous basis.

It remains to be seen how the insights from connected devices will come to be used. It’s not a stretch to imagine Big Data in the hands of those who wish to repress change. It definitely doesn’t have to be. The benefit a societal nervous system can provide, and the implications it has for creating a more sustainable future, are profound. As critical resource and population thresholds are encountered, it’s incumbent upon us to use information technology to create a more ethical and sustainable society.