The internet of everything will help address four fundamental corporate responsibility challenges.  This blog is a summary of the 2015 Davies Award winning entry on the Internet of Everything, sponsored by the Althea Foundation, Cisco and the University of Oxford Said School of Business. 

Applications of the internet of everything (IOE) range from the gimmicky to the game-changing, from smartphone-enabled crockpots to trackers which alert authorities when protected forests fall to illegal logging[i].  Today, I’ll focus on the game-changing applications; specifically, how the IOE, also known as the internet of things or the industrial internet, can jumpstart corporate responsibility (CR).

Big data and the internet of everything  

What exactly is the IOE?  The IOE is about more than individual products.  Rather, it is “the intelligent connection of people, processes, data, and things” that combine to something more than the sum of their parts. Smart energy grids, for example, combine inputs from users in homes and offices with inputs from power providers to determine when and where energy is used, changing cost to reflect demand and ultimately decreasing overall energy use.

By any measure, the IOE and big data are going to be revolutionary. Cisco estimates that IOE will produce US$14.2 trillion in saved costs and increased revenues between 2013 and 2022[iii]. If IOE tools were applied to corporate responsibility and economic development challenges, that effect could be multiplied exponentially.

Corporate Responsibility and the IOE  

Right now, CR initiatives are hampered by four key challenges: poor traceability, supply chain inefficiencies, environmental sustainability, and impact measurement.    The IOE can make substantial contributions to addressing all four.

  • Corporate Responsibility Challenge 1: Poor Traceability

Companies often have at best a vague idea of what social or environmental conditions predominate in their supply chains, in part because it is genuinely quite hard to trace the origins of multiple inputs across large, global value chains.  This results in low accountability and high reputational risk. The IOE could address by adding sensors to products or packing from the commodity level onwards, telling purchasers exactly where their products originated.  This would help companies manage risk and, given sufficient transparency, allow customers and regulators hold substandard companies to account.

  • Corporate Responsibility Challenge 2: Supply Chain Inefficiencies

Supply chain inefficiencies include low output, low quality, and waste.  The IOE already boasts a host of technologies to tackle each.  For instance, farmers can implant soil sensors which provide ongoing information on quality and nutrient content which, linked with big data analysis, could inform them of what and when best to plant. Combined with smart storage, which monitors temperature and moisture to reduce waste, farmers could produce more and sell more.

  • Corporate Responsibility Challenge 3: Environmental Sustainability

Resource scarcity and climate change are on course to be increasing CR challenges, but the IOE can address both. For instance, soil sensors like those above could reduce water use in the US by 20 percent, and smart tractors which run automatically on tracks exactly plotted to the size and shape of farm plots could reduce fuel use by 16 million gallons.[iv]

  • Corporate Responsibility Challenge 4: Impact Measurement

Finally, even companies working at the forefront of inclusive business are hard pressed to identify the exact social, environmental or financial returns of their efforts.  The IOE can help here as well.  For instance, most results now are tracked through one-time sampling, but with the IOE they could be gathered on an ongoing basis and in real time,  providing a much more accurate sense of what works, and why.

Could this really work?

Critics could be forgiven for reading what seems like an idealized future, comparing it with the decidedly imperfect status quo, and dismissing it as utopian.  This would be short-sighted.

The technology to enable large-scale change is closer than many appreciate.  Already, the majority of machine-to-machine connections exist outside of the developed world[v].  It seems increasingly likely that much of the developing world will leapfrog the incremental evolution of the internet experienced by early adopters and jump directly to IOE, “much like cell phones have allowed developing nations to leapfrog landlines”[vi].  Corporate responsibility initiatives powered by the IOE will both drive the adaption of new technologies and help address persistent CR challenges.

Did you enjoy this blog? Check out “Data poverty: How big data risks marginalizing the world’s poorest” and “Will millennials change the face of corporate responsibility? One millennial weighs in.”

 

[i] Castro, D., (2013), “Thirty (plus) ways the internet of things is changing the world”, The Futurist: http://www.wfs.org/blogs/daniel-castro/thirty-plus-ways-internet-things-changing world (Accessed 24 January 2015).

[ii] Cukier, K., Mayer-Schonberger, V., (2013) Big Data: A revolution that will change the way we live, work and think, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin  Harcourt

[iv] Cullen, M. (2013), “Machine to Machine Technologies: Unlocking the potential of a $1 trillion industry”, Carbon War Room and ATT: http://www.grahampeacedesignmail.com/cwr/cwr_m2m_down_singles.pdf (Accessed 26 January 2015).

[v] Reuters, (2014) “Africa fast off blocks in adopting the internet of things”: Reuters, 6 November 2014:http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/06/africa-tech-idUSL6N0SW5O920141106 (Accessed 20 January 2014)

[vi] Schwartz, A. (2012) “A real internet of things for the developing world” Fast Company, 1 August 2012: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1680223/a-real-internet-of-things-for-the-developing-world-and-burning-man (Accessed 20 January 2014)

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