How the Internet of Things Improves Sustainable Development Goals

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things (IoT) denotes the billions of physical devices embedded with sensors to collect and exchange information over the internet. We see these devices daily as smart home technology increases in popularity and automated cars drive our streets. Companies use IoT technologies to monitor supply chain management, collect data, and innovate their products. Products of the growth of the IoT include smart cars, decision analytics, and smart routing — innovative devices and tools that generate digital solutions and offer new fiscal and intellectual value for domestic companies as well as emerging markets.

The IoT is made up of the data that is produced and transmitted between machines internally (M2M) in addition to interactions between machines and people (M2P). As a result, a key element is the data that emerges from sensors between machines and how that data is communicated. Easy access to this data is critical to why the IoT can revolutionize global development and spur accomplishments in the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequalities, promote economic growth and mitigate climate change risks.

How the IoT Can Strengthen Global Development Efforts

The IoT can analyze large amounts of data which leads to more efficient planning, systems, and optimization in global health supply chains. For example, an IoT can control refrigeration monitoring systems that provide alerts when temperatures drop below acceptable levels — a key factor in maintaining COVID-19 vaccine efficacy. In these monitoring systems, data is recorded and managers can track from afar how the system is performing from a mobile device. If temperatures drop, the IoT ensures that malfunctioning equipment is sensed and tracked immediately, which can then determine the issue that can be fixed immediately. This example is a formula that can be extrapolated to solve larger global issues, such as vaccine storage and delivery in under-resourced areas.

IoT can also be applied toward agricultural development projects around the world. The data obtained through sensor technology can improve agriculture production in rural areas by

    • Monitoring water contamination and soil moisture levels
    • Predicting the weather forecast
    • Monitoring the health and location of livestock
    • Packing and transporting agricultural produce

These examples and dozens more like them provide a cost benefit to farmers and food suppliers, while helping to achieve the seventeen SDGs.

The rise of digital economies centered around mobile banking applications and e-commerce transactions, which have spiked during the global pandemic, shows how successful technology can be in growing enterprises and increasing economic capacity at the local level. Building on the success of smartphone applications and commercial internet platforms, the IoT can strengthen international development goals through implementing sensor technology to improve health, education, industrial sectors, and beyond.

For instance, a 2015 report produced by the International Telecommunication Union described a hypothetical example on implementing technology to process data from regions with high rates of fire outbreaks, which could then be used to determine better urban planning structures and policy. This type of sensor technology in high-risk zones generates data for the IoT to offer sustainable, scalable solutions that unite sensors, data, and people’s daily interactions with technology. If applied further to government services, the data could lead to improvements in healthcare systems and education delivery.

Challenges in Deploying IoT in Global Development

While the potential of the IoT provides a glimpse into the future, there are challenges ahead. At the forefront is the need to close the cyber poverty gap in countries that lack the telecommunication infrastructure required for IoT, but where the benefit would be the greatest.

Both the public and private sectors can partner to close this deficit through investing in emerging technology and digital infrastructure, while also developing a skilled labor force in cyber management and solutions. Specifically, donor organizations can implement projects that promote smart technology through capacity building, landscape assessments, and feasibility studies to equip organizations with the best skills to implement IoT solutions. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Digital Strategy 2020-2024 describes “USAID’s deliberate and holistic commitment to improve development and humanitarian assistance outcomes through the use of digital technology and strengthen open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystems.” Digital strategic plans that value privacy and promote transparency are necessary for donor organizations, governments, and private enterprises to consider when connecting people with technology.

What is Next?

In a series of articles, WBD will examine how the IoT can improve specific aspects of global development such as monitoring, evaluation and earning, health outcomes, and infrastructure development. As the IoT continues to evolve, there is more to be learned, implemented, and innovated especially when it comes to solving the world’s largest development problems and helping governments and their partners make better decisions.

Author: Mia Caglieris, Associate at WBD, is a strategy and an international development professional engaged with the firm’s Private Sector Engagement Support award with the United States Agency for International Development.