How will the IoT support sustainability and a circular economy? Perhaps we might want to first ask ourselves are these all just buzzwords in a long list of words? Or are businesses, governments, and citizens truly stepping up and making significant commitments to use technology to change their wasteful behaviors? Before we can answer these questions, we might need to properly define these terms.

Sustainability is about finding ways to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. With that in mind, we should note that depending on who you ask, everyone has their own perspective about the world and how they perceive it differently from others. In the enterprise, sustainability programs and strategies direct businesses in these directions.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is considered an authority, so let’s work off its definition to explain it. The circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design, in contrast to the “take-make-waste” linear model.

In a circular economy, economic activity builds and rebuilds overall system health. A circular economy is sustainable, because resources are used and reused and reused again. There are three principles as part of a circular economy: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Consider the first principle (designing out waste and pollution), which removes negative impacts of economic activity, such as the release of greenhouse gases and other types of pollution.

In a circular economy, we’re keeping products and materials in use. It’s a circular track instead of a one-way road to a landfill, basically. Reuse requires design that prioritizes durability and remanufacturing or recycling. By avoiding non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, a circular economy also helps regenerate natural systems by using renewable energy sources or returning nutrients back to where they came from after use.

This is very different from the more linear economic model we typically follow today, which is: use, discard, repeat, repeat, repeat.

In fact, gadgets and connected devices have been a huge culprit in undermining a more circular economy. Cellphones, for instance, use precious metals in their construction, but, for the most part, these devices aren’t recovered for future use. We all know that better, faster smartphones are always on the horizon. As consumers there is no question most of us will take the bait and replace our phones within the next couple of years whether our “old” phones are truly at the end of their lives or not.

Consider this: if the manufacturer of new devices is using non-renewable resources, and we’re not reusing these devices, but rather using them and discarding them, then how long will it be until the resources we need to build these devices are exhausted?

The resources themselves will be trapped in the discarded devices sitting in some landfill somewhere. They are not helpful to consumers anymore at that point. They are no longer supporting the economy. Based on the point discussed so far, it’s not a sustainable model at all to think that as an industry or consumers we can continue to use resources in devices without designing in the ability for reuse and/or recycling.

So how can the IoT (Internet of Things) help support a more circular economy? One way is by making products easier to maintain and repair. By adding intelligence to a product or device, the Internet of Things technologies can create an asset that can signal problems, determine when it needs to be repaired, and schedule its own maintenance.

This helps ensure that the product or device is kept in working condition for longer and needs to be replaced less frequently. Another way the IoT can contribute to a circular economy is by enabling a shared-use model.

To date, companies like Uber and Airbnb have exploded in popularity in the past decade, because temporarily using other people’s cars and holiday homes for a fee makes so much more sense in some cases than the alternatives.

This begs the question why can’t consumers and businesses start to think about all the things that are owned that are rarely used and have a shared-use scenario? Consider things like camping equipment you only use once a year? How about tools?

Automobiles have proven to be the biggest offender of the circular economy. Most of the time, our personal vehicles are just sitting there, taking up space. In order to manufacture those cars, we had to use resources, and those resources won’t get recycled back into the economy as long as your car is “in use,” which actually means just waiting around in parking lots and garages waiting to be driven.

And while most suburbanites fully appreciate the convenience of owning a personal vehicle, (I personally live in the suburbs myself), many families own vehicles, one can’t help but realize that this is a pretty flawed system overall. Perhaps that’s why the current generation doesn’t want to get a driver’s license at the age of 16, much like previous generations couldn’t wait to do. So today, there are plenty of car-share apps and companies out there to help address this conundrum.

But in terms of smaller items, like tools or gear or appliances, IoT sensors can turn a product into a sharable asset.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides a great example of a drill. Do we consume a drill or use it? Most people use it, of course. It’s a distinction that raises the question of owning things that we use versus things we consume.

If you only use a drill once a year to hang something on the wall, do you need to own it? How many fewer drills would the world need if everyone approached it this way?

So this begs the question, should more companies be providing trade-in programs and recycling programs to decrease the impact on the environment and allow used devices to return value back into to the economy?

This only leaves the question, how does all this fit into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals? In fact, if you look around you will see hundreds of companies actively seeking to meet the UN’s sustainability goals.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include things like achieving clean energy, creating sustainable cities and communities, and pursuing responsible consumption and production as we have been talking about for months. This is all part of the same bigger sustainability picture.

A circular economy is one that uses clean energy and pursues responsible consumption and production to ultimately create a more sustainable earth. It’s all connected, in a world that’s highly connected, and very wasteful.

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