Should We Dream of Electric Cities?
This morning I awoke to a note on my flat’s electronic notice board from the toaster reminding me I needed to buy more bread. Hoping to avoid breakfast disappointment, my muesli suggested I try a bowl full instead, but only half-heartedly as it knew statistically I am unlikely to eat muesli on a Tuesday. Fortunately I was saved by the doorbell and the arrival of a new loaf which had been ordered the night before by the fridge.
Welcome to the internet of things!
It must be important because the Government last week made £45 million available to support UK companies who are developing these so-called “internet of things” technologies.
But what is the internet of things? Basically it’s the world we are creating as more and more of our everyday devices are becoming wi-fi enabled so they can communicate over the internet. From heart monitors to yes, kitchen appliances. And it is predicted that some 26 billion of these devices will be connected to the internet of things by 2020.
It’s important because people believe this internet of things can be used to transform our daily lives. For example, it could help boost productivity, help keep us healthier, make transport more efficient, help reduce energy consumption, and help us tackle climate change.
Most reporters focus on how it might affect our homes of course. Usually how kitchen appliances might communicate through wireless internet connections. But it is also at the city scale, in places like Bristol, where there are big advantages to be exploited from the mass of data gathered by all these connected things.
Transport is one area already showing the way. From those live information boards at bus stops in Bristol telling you how many minutes away your bus actually is, to the smart phone app in San Francisco that will direct you to the nearest available car parking space.
Bristol City Council is sensibly getting in on the act early too. They want to encourage local businesses, social enterprises, community groups and academics to develop the commercial opportunities and create those new jobs here in our City. The Council is currently running an ‘open energy data challenge’ and the winners get £40,000 to use open data to develop services that support communities to buy cheaper energy, use it more efficiently, or potentially to make their own.
At the end of the day, like all new technologies, there will be advantages to grab and dangers to avoid. I like knowing my bus will arrive in two minutes, but I think I can live without my toaster offering me a choice of hot bread related products in the morning. Perhaps ultimately the most important feature of the internet of things will be the off switch.
Paul Rainger is director of Bristol’s BIG Green Week Festival in June.