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More than a tweeting fridge: Can the internet of things save the world?

There’s a lot more to the internet of things (IoT) than a tweeting fridge, according to the speakers at Digital Shoreditch’s ‘Next’ day.

So far, most conversations about connected devices and the IoT have centred on obvious markets like wearables for fitness fanatics and smart kitchenware for the lifestyle-porn crowd. But we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what this technology is capable of.

Connected homes go beyond white goods

Forget the fridge that tells you you’re out of milk; Nominet leveraged IoT to solve a very specific, real world problem. Over 850,000 people in the UK are currently living with dementia, and a simple sensor network can help them to organise their daily routine, and by extension, retain their independence. One of the first obstacles to overcome, senior researcher David Simpson recalls, is that “geeky tech people tend to build things for geeky tech people.” However, the way that somebody with dementia interacts with a system will change over time, so it needs to be as simple, flexible, and unobtrusive as possible.

The outcome was a series of configurable buttons called ‘pips’, similar in principle to Amazon Dash; they can be fixed to any surface and are set to beep, flash or vibrate in order to remind the user to take a shower, eat breakfast, feed a pet, or complete any other kind of daily task. The value of pips and general purpose buttons soon became apparent in other contexts, such as with patients who had suffered brain injuries or strokes, or people with impaired vision.

As far as IoT is concerned, innovation begets innovation. For example, as homes become more connected and entire households can be accessed and controlled by a single password, it will be incumbent for companies to develop an entirely new class of security devices to secure their home.

Engaging consumers with what they care about

A connected world can even enhance the experience people have of those two most sensitive of subjects: politics and religion. Seemingly insignificant modifications to everyday objects, such as a prayer mat which is connected to Mecca and emits real-time calls to prayer, have the potential to become an integral part of our lives.

And as Provenance chief executive Jessi Baker points out, last week’s election was the only interaction a great many people have ever had with politics. What’s to stop individuals voting on specific algorithms relating to organisations which affect their daily lives, like the NHS or Transport for London? So much technology is about democratising previously walled gardens; according to SapientNitro’s Daniel Harvey, the IoT has the power to “replace the House of Commons with a house of the common.”

IoT to the rescue!

Adam Leach, director of R&D at Nominet, is convinced that IoT technologies will play a key role in helping the 54 million people who stand to be affected by global flooding risk by the year 2030. Leach partnered with the Oxford Flood Network to “facilitate and accelerate” a possible solution, which took the form of a low-cost ultrasonic sensor with a wireless radio which measures height and can be deployed anywhere.

The ultimate function of IoT may well reach far wider than disrupting industries. It could actually have the power to save our planet. Or at least, that’s what Mark Hill believes. He’s the co-founder of OpenTRV, an open-source hardware company which produces low-cost, smart hardware designed to reduce heating bills, and perhaps more importantly, cut carbon emissions. But that’s just the beginning. Hill envisions a near-future where radio-equipped ‘help’ buttons can be parachuted into disaster sites to aid in pinpointing survivors’ location, and where drinking water in developing countries can be quickly and easily tested for cholera.

The IoT is “green and beige”, says Hill; green in that it is incredibly clean tech, and beige because it will soon become so common, so ubiquitous, that people will cease to notice it.

Philip Ellis is a journalist for OgilvyDo.com, Ogilvy’s global thought leadership channel. The Drum and Ogilvy UK are working in partnership to share the latest thinking from Digital Shoreditch 2015. Read more at The Drum’s Digital Shoreditch hub.

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