The Internet of Things

How smart devices are revolutionizing our factories, towns and lives.

By Alec Scott

Not clear on the difference between wearables, nearables and hearables? You’ll be hearing more of these terms bandied about in 2016 as the Internet of Things (IoT) expands to become an even more integral part of the way we live, work and travel.

The “things” at the core of this new sector are, of course, devices with sensors in them that communicate their findings via the Net – and, often, to each other. They include such gadgets as fitness trackers (a leading wearable), smart street lights (a so-called nearable) and headphones that gather and whisper information of interest to the wearer (a hearable). One of this burgeoning field’s experts anticipates that we’ll be surrounded by as many as 50 billion of these smart things by the end of 2020 – and that they’ll soon alter how we navigate through our homes, workplaces and cities.

The Smart Summit Frankfurt

A consultant working on a collaboration between private industry and the City of Amsterdam, Bram Sieben is one of the world’s leading experts on the smart city. He will be speaking at the Smart Summit, a three-part conference on the IoT ecosystem taking place in Frankfurt from April 6 to 7. “One of the things we’re looking at is these smart street lights, which have Wi-Fi and can guide you, by going green in succession, to the main train station in Amsterdam.”

Sieben says such meetings are not just places to find out about the latest gee-whiz gadgets – like the bike pedal, out of Amsterdam, with GPS and an ability to report where a thief has taken it. “No, it’s not just about the next nifty thing, but about discussing the process by which you integrate this technology into our lives. People have to be convinced it will help them. It shouldn’t be imposed on cities, but integrated from the bottom up, by neighbourhoods with problems to solve.”

Not far from one of Europe’s busiest airports, the Smart Summit Frankfurt will bring together speakers from Barcelona, where parking spots can communicate their availability to drivers’ smartphones, and Hamburg, where throughput in the port has been increased, with incoming ships, containers and waiting trucks all communicating their exact locations with each other.

Industry of Things World 2016

Factory efficiency is a particular German forte, given the country’s longstanding leadership in the industrial sphere, and this fall, Berlin will host another gathering addressing IoT in manufacturing (September 19 to 20). One of the conference board members, Detlef Zühlke, the scientific director of the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, describes the state of play in this sphere. “You have these industrial robots with sensors that can give you information, lots of it. Some of it is easy to figure out and use – for instance, where the bottlenecks in production are. Yet with some information, we know it’s likely to be useful, but we’re trying to figure out how best to process it.”

While consumer-facing IoT applications tend to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area and Asia first, it is Europe that tends to lead in using these cutting-edge technologies to improve their cities and factories. And there’s some significant buzz gathering around these two conferences in Germany.

“The idea is not just what we’re discussing, but where,” Zühlke says. “Germany has much to teach – and to learn – in this new area.”