Then Came the Internet of Things

Some of these changes are visible before they hit us, in the same way that clouds mass at the edge of the sky before the thunder arrives. The latest is the Internet of Things or IoT.

It has been creeping up steadily over the last few years, encroaching in many areas of our day-to-day lives almost unnoticed, from Fitbit to connected refrigerators, smart street lighting to intelligent utility meters. Everywhere we look, sensors are being added to objects, devices and even creatures, including cows in the field. Those sensors talk, not to us, but to software, which analyzes the flood of information to produce useful knowledge and, in some cases, take automatic action as a result.

The principle is as old as the steam engine, which used a device called a governor to automatically keep its speed under control. Operating on a much vaster scale and at dizzying speed, however, IoT will have impacts on the economy we are just beginning to grasp. Growth is projected to be astronomical: anything from 25 billion to 70 billion connected devices by 2020, depending on which survey you read, which will far exceed the number of broadband connections between human beings.

IoT evangelists see it as the next great leap in productivity. This is good for most of us, because productivity growth is the foundation of rising standards of living. They celebrate the greater efficiency it will promote, and offer mind-altering estimates of the billions or trillions of value it will unlock in the economy.

Left unsaid is precisely who gets to enjoy those billions and trillions. If the ICT revolution has already limited your opportunities and darkened your future, the Internet of Things looms as the next step in your economic dismemberment.

Whatever the outcomes, they will be felt first in the place called home, where we live our lives, experience our victories and defeats, and hope for a better future. We may or may not like the world as it is being remade by ICT. But it is the world we have been given – and local governments have unique opportunities to make it benefit their citizens, businesses and institutions. Not just to keep pace with change but to make it pay off in economic growth, social progress and cultural richness. The burning question of our time is how.

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