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Digital Is A Disrupter, But It Can Also Breathe New Life Into ‘obsolete’ Technologies

When it comes to digital, we intuitively think ‘disruption’. Especially in our post-pandemic age, new digital solutions, businesses and innovations are emerging all the time. However, the potential of digital doesn’t just wait in the future, it also rests in the past. Digital standards and technologies can help us re-evaluate and improve on many past breakthroughs, rendering them viable again or perhaps even for the first time. This makes digital a powerful ally in the fight for sustainability.

Consider the return of the direct current (DC) standard. Having lost the ‘war of the currents’ to its better-known alternating current (AC) cousin nearly a century ago, DC power is making a powerful comeback. So many of the devices and applications we depend on – anything working off battery power from our computers to smartphones to certain types of EVs – running on DC. With sources of renewable energy generating DC power as well, it only made sense to try and connect the dots.

Today’s digital know-how and software makes it possible to use DC current, managing the needs of individual devices while avoiding the AC/DC current conversion losses – which yields cost savings and sustainability benefits alike. Nikola Tesla might have won the war but Mr. Edison may still have the last laugh thanks to digital.

Another powerful example is electric vehicles (EVs). Cars running on electricity were popular a century ago, and viable well before the internal combustion engine car. EVs fell into obscurity shortly after, as they were nearly three times more expensive. Yet today’s EVs are software on wheels, price competitive and more environmentally friendly thanks to advances in digital technologies. What’s more, with hardware decoupled from software, today’s Teslas prove they can be upgraded in near real time – certainly a model for industrial technology to follow.

Once we are able to leverage most of existing and future technology that unlocks sustainability benefits, we must ensure we develop compatible digital systems, open and interoperable at heart, across business and consumer applications. The recently revealed new ‘Matter’ connectivity standard does just that in the realm of smart buildings – ensuring compatibility drives sustainability and energy management benefits for as many people and businesses as possible.

A bridge between the past and future

The Matter standard will be the first truly open-source, interoperable and vendor-agnostic Internet of Things (IoT) solution for all buildings, developed as part of the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA). The standard aims to tackle the problem of smart building device incompatibility, ensuring all smart connected devices – whether they’re in the home, office or factory – can speak the same ‘language’ and work together. That’s without the need for recurrent, expensive refreshes of connected building technology.

The Matter standard will usher in a new era of solidarity for smart buildings and device manufacturers. Yet, while it’s a win for progress and cooperation it’s an even bigger boon for the environment and sustainability. Obsolete hardware made redundant by new software and updates is the too often hidden cost of progress. It is the fastest growing stream of waste in the world, with 50m tonnes of e-waste generated every year which is expected to double by 2050. This technology redundancy delivers a one-two punch to the environment; not just from toxic substances like lead and mercury leaching into soil and water from landfill, but from emissions generated by the constant production of new devices to replace what has been made obsolete.

By introducing a single common standard for IoT connectivity, Matter will greatly extend the utility and longevity of IoT devices within buildings. So long as a device is designed to be compatible with the standard, it will be able to continue communicating and collaborating with the other devices in a smart building system. In this way, the new digital standard acts as a bridge between the past and future, enabling old technologies to make use of the latest software and services. The need to replace them regularly over issues of compatibility, therefore, is much diminished, limiting the amount of e-waste produced.

A larger and more competitive smart device ecosystem will also lead to more sustainable, healthier and people-centric buildings that favour biodiversity and help us fight climate change. The impact of making our buildings and homes natively smarter will be two-fold. A smarter approach reduces the pressure of building emissions on the planet through greater efficiency and less consumption.

However, such initiatives as Matter also need to be accompanied by a new way of circular economy thinking. Across many industries, planned obsolescence has been hardcoded into the DNA of production. Electronics are built to fail and to be thrown away after an approximate period of time, leading to enormous environmental cost. A device that is not connected, or an IoT device which can’t make use of current services or protocols is little use to anyone. Individual components can sometimes be reused, but the rest will inevitably end up in landfill. Of the $206 billion spent on consumer electronics in the US in 2012, only 29% of the resulting waste was ever recycled.

Enhanced digitisation combined with interoperability between IoT devices will go a long to reducing e-waste, but industry also has to end its love affair with planned obsolescence through a more software-centric and vendor-agnostic style of development. Enhanced interconnectivity and increased longevity shouldn’t be viewed as an inhibitor of sales, but as a longer landing strip in which to generate value for all market participants. In this way, businesses and consumers have as much to gain from sustainability as the environment.

Reinventing the wheel

Sometimes it pays to reinvent the ‘wheel’ with the help of digital technologies and cutting-edge software. This is especially true when sustainability benefits are at stake. We must make good use of all existing solutions, enabled and reinforced by digital technologies and software to build a better future for the next generation.

What do you think?

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