'IoT improves the quality of our lives'

Using real-time data will dramatically transform our work, our industries, and our everyday lives. IoT can make cities more efficient and generate revenue for companies, says WEF expert Jeff Merritt.

The World Economic Forum’s foremost expert on the Internet of Things (IoT), Jeff Merritt, is convinced that the emerging technology will transform our lives for the better. In an exclusive interview, he explains how IoT can generate efficiencies as well as significant revenue for companies.


Interview: Marc Engelhardt

You’re on the record as saying that the Internet of Things (IoT) is best described as a design language. What do you mean by that exactly?


Jeff Merritt: When you’re able to operate based on real-time data, it changes the entire approach of solving a problem. In the past, we’ve gotten used to the fact that we first have to analyze the world around us and then plan actions accordingly. When you have real-time data, you don’t actually have to take guesses. You can just react in real time.


How does that change the way we work?


We no longer have to think through the complexity of our days and make plans, because a lot can just be automated. Lights at the workplace will simply turn off when there are no people in the rooms, and devices will go into sleep mode. I don’t need to have an individual desk at my office if I know in real time who’s using which desk, which room, and which device. We’re already experiencing some of these developments without realizing how dramatic the shift is.


About Jeff Merritt

Jeff Merritt is a renowned expert in the areas of smart cities, the IoT, emerging technologies, and government innovation. He has been Head of IoT, Robotics and Smart Cities for the World Economic Forum, Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution since November 2017. From 2014 to 2017, he was the first Director of Innovation for the City of New York, helping to establish the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation. Both in 2016 and 2017, his work was recognized by the Smart City Expo World Congress with the awards Best Smart City and Most Innovative Idea. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters.

When you’re able to operate based on real-time data, it changes the entire approach of solving a problem.
Jeff Merritt, IoT expert at the World Economic Forum

So will these dramatic developments eventually destroy our jobs?


No. Connected devices will make our life easier, in a way like mobile phones have. Imagine you’re a farmer: You won’t have to actually walk out into your fields and see how your crops are doing. You’ll have sensors or aerial views from drones to tell you if new diseases are threatening your plants or if your soil is dry or lacks nutrients. Thanks to real-time data, you’ll increase your crop yield and decrease the amount of resources that you’re using – fertilizers, water, everything.


Then the IoT will improve our working life?


Absolutely! We did a study last year which looked at the impact of more than 300 IoT use cases, and one of the most promising applications of this technology is improving the health and well-being of workers. If you’re a truck driver, you can be protected by a simple wearable device that captures if you’re getting tired. The same goes for a factory environment. If there’s a water spill, if there’s a sudden rise in carbon monoxide, or if you’re just about to fall or slip: We can detect these dangers immediately, alert, and prevent.


How about efficiency gains?


Manufacturing was one of the first industries to embrace IoT, and one of the biggest efficiency gains is through predictive maintenance, where we monitor when a particular part or component of heavy machinery has to be replaced before it breaks. That can change your entire production line. Also, with IoT and the 5G connectivity standard, we’re talking more and more about wireless devices. A factory can be rearranged in real time if production patterns change, because devices can easily be moved around.

What kinds of business models will that enable?


In almost every industry, we’ll have to rethink the way we do business. Because if you wanted, you could use real-time data and change your operations to be reactive and predictive. Then there is collaboration on a huge scale, based on what we call digital twins, basically a digital version of a physical environment. If a piece of heavy machinery fails in a mine in sub-Saharan Africa, someone from anywhere in the world could diagnose and even operate it remotely using IoT.


So the opportunities seem endless.


Exactly, and that’s in some ways our biggest challenge. Because there are so many opportunities, we find ourselves spread wide and thin trying out things. At the World Economic Forum, we try to help drive investment, by both companies and governments, to focus on use cases that have been tried and tested and generate clear societal benefits. If we just get excited about what’s new, we’ll end up with pilot after pilot and not take implementations through to their full scale and potential.


Where will we probably see the biggest impact?


Cities will be most impacted by IoT, in part because we’re seeing massive urbanization. Every single week, roughly 3 million people move into cities. That puts enormous pressure on services and city operations. We see this in places like India, where traffic can paralyze cities and local economies. IoT can make cities more efficient. When I was in the New York City government, we started to remotely operate all our traffic signals and put geo-location sensors in all the buses. We then combined those two connected devices so that NYC buses can now signal their location to a traffic light, and that traffic light stays green longer to prioritize that bus. It led to a 20 percent reduction in commuting times and incentivized people to use mass transit over single-occupancy vehicles.

In almost every industry, we’ll have to rethink the way we do business due to IoT.
Jeff Merritt, IoT expert at the World Economic Forum

What is the major challenge?


The enormous complexity. Changing your operations to be driven by real-time data means a massive disruption. We also have to be very strategic about how to connect disparate systems and problems. If you’re installing a camera on a city street, for example, that camera could be used to count the number of people or cars, or to detect anomalies that could be signals of terrorist activity. You can get a lot of use out of one device if you take a more holistic view. The greatest benefits emerge when we connect use cases to create a smart city, a smart factory, a smart farm.


What is it that most excites you about a future shaped by IoT?


The potential impact on quality of life. Our research on hundreds of IoT implementations showed that 84 percent of them directly addressed, or had the potential to address, UN Sustainable Development Goals. These deployments were most commonly developed to save companies money, and they did that, too. But they had secondary effects of decreasing the amount of energy used, reducing pollution, increasing productivity. We’ve talked so long about doing things that are good for Earth and the economy, and IoT makes that really easy.


Is it going to take long?


No. We’re currently seeing very dramatic goals being set to address climate change, and if we’re focused, we could see some of those gains in a matter of years. When you put in place a smart energy system for a building and monitor your energy usage, for example, you see an immediate reduction in energy consumption of about 20 percent. Automated processes based on real-time data immediately create such efficiencies.



Marc Engelhardt reports from Geneva on the UN, international organizations, and global developments in economics, science, politics and energy. He has worked as a correspondent for a number of media outlets, including the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, ARD, and Die Zeit.


Picture credits: Siemens AG, World Economic Forum


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