Nevermind the IoT, where’s the recycling?

In between my peripatetic appointments at the #MWC Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, a fellow journalist travelling in my cohort made a very valid point about where she thinks all of this is going. Another Environmental Disaster.

Obsessed as we are with technology and all of the supposed “benefits” it brings us, a quick stroll around the massive sprawling complex of exhibitors is enough to pull the alarm bells of reason. But no-one seems prepared to talk about “environmental issues” and they are quickly swept under the temporary red carpet of Halls 1 to 8.

Some manufacturers point at the literature, highlighting that the little paper book that ships with their devices (and nobody reads) is awash with recycling symbols and advice on how to properly dispose of your toxic chemicals at the end of its lifecycle. Great.

They also assume that these instructions will be followed exactly by users (“it’s available in 33 different translations”!) and that your local dump is really going to separate out those poisonous components and chemicals to make sure we bury them in a safe place. Far from here is best, apparently.

And what of the “emerging new players”. The multitude of “new networks for the IoT” and their alternative ways of helping us to communicate with our plants, shoes, lightbulbs or connected rhinoceros…..

Try buddhism. Or telekinesis. It’s cheaper and has less cables.

Fields of dreams — a real ecological nightmare

So with the billions of connected objects that analysts tell us to expect, it is interesting to find very little to back-up a study that assesses their environmental impact. Much less explain what mitigating action will be taken in 10 or 20 years time by these “new players”, when millions upon millions of objects are deployed on their networks and embedded in our environment …. And yes, they will actually need their batteries changed or will simply be abandoned.

Like a Lionel Richie album on compact disc…

The cassette version still sounds more authentic

Indeed, when you look past the gloss and the shiny bright lights, and have read the (often poorly worded) power statements and promises of IoT startups and big league players alike, one cannot help but conclude that the whole place smacks of hypocrisy.

And yet, year on year, the empty promises of exhibitors continue to multiply:

“One day we won’t even need batteries ……”

Super. But until then? [Blank stare]

“Just think of just how much better our lives are now”. How so? Unless this means actually measuring the reduction of our average life-span due to IoT pollution and the miracle of big data. Which is like data. But bigger. Whoopee. [voice tails off]

Dark clouds on the IoT horizon, or just a storm in a connected teacup?

Sales Pipelines and Hollow Tubes.

And then there are the booths themselves, blasting out trillions of lumens, decibels and a whole load of hot air. Mammoth-sized Towers of Babel built to withstand the onslaught of up to 100,000 consumers and taking longer to build than the time they will actually be up.

But wait! Could that be another environmental argument coming our way?

During the build-up days, just before official opening of the #MWC, we actually spoke to several stand-builders who have adopted “cardboard structures” for their designs.

New designs use cardboard but don’t necessarily re-use or re-cycle.

The concept is not exactly new — cardboard structures have previously been used by contemporary artists and architects for several years and even masqueraded as a temporary Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, following the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of the city centre. But if these type of designs have only just begun to surface on a larger scale it is because builders have had to first overcome the hurdle of seeking approval to use this type of material in publicly accessible constructions.

Even today, there are limits imposed by building safety standards and exhibition legislation which means that particularly elaborate or load-bearing structures are still forbidden. Still, cardboard was proudly on display at #MWC this year. After all, it is nice and environmentally friendly and aligned with exhibitors’ promises of energy efficiency, isn’t it?

Not quite.

All of the stand-builders we spoke to were quick to point out that disposal after the event is often more problematic than when using simple chipboard or wooden and metal constructions. A large amount of material used in traditional stand-building is easily recycled or reused at other events. Unfortunately, reinforced cardboard which has passed through an autoclave and sprayed with a resin does not lend itself readily to the usual paper mulching process and cannot be reused following dismantling.

So it seems that the new “in-thing” is therefore also quite a lie. Which leaves us to retire to the bar in search of something else to latch onto….

…..Cocktails and conspiracy

The W Bar-celona in blue and purple regalia

Over cocktails and sangria at “the W”, hosted by a leading network provider, we were invited to bask in the glory of these relatively new and self-proclaimed “IoT industry leaders”. As conspiracy theorists, they at least seemed to agree about one thing: IoT is the secret brainchild of data scientists who simply need information to plug into their algorithms and are therefore creating an international network of sensors and use-cases in the name of progress and their bid for mathematical superiority.

Okay, i’m mostly kidding. Apart from the bit about cocktails and sangria, of course. But it does actually raise the question “Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t actually need many of these superfluous “connections” and “devices”?

Many of the so-called “increased efficiencies” we are regaled with are quickly outweighed by the deployment of all that extra plastic and electronics, not to mention their corresponding energy and pollution footprint. No matter how little they can make them, these sensors wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t senselessly created a need for them in the first place.

Echo chamber

As we retired at the end of a rather busy schedule during the first public day of the #MWC, a few earlier conversations played over and over in my head and I couldn’t help thinking of the folly of some of what we had experienced today.

Taken separately, the numerous sales-pitches and commercial arguments are interesting, even if a tad limpid. You quickly see right through them. But if we were to assemble all of these IoT actors and players in one room it quickly becomes very difficult for them to make a convincing case that will satisfy those outside of their industry or vested interests.

And this is where the fundamental IoT argument is failing to gain any traction.

To be fair, there are a handful of cases where, thanks to IoT, our increased awareness of a situation will help us to make better, informed decisions and take appropriate action, whereas conventional means would either fail or require a dedicated, closed and more costly system.

Better leak detection so that we can spend it on other things…

But in the big scheme of “Things”, where useful and useless are bundled together, it is not so clear that the argument of relaying information efficiently, economically and ecologically actually holds any water.

Talking of which, I assume that the improved detection of leaks in underground water pipes means that we will have more water available to evaporate in our new outdoor swimming pools over the hot summer months.

What a pity IoT is not really modelling our worst behaviours and habits.

Low this, and low that. A smidgen less, but more bang for your buck.

When all is said and done, it may be time to tell our connected toasters to “shut their slots”, unplug and let us try making our own breakfast instead. Otherwise it will only be a matter of years before we find ourselves brewing unconnected coffee on an open camp-fire in the bleak wilderness of a destroyed planet. Mind you…. there are probably sensors for that too.

Come Friday afternoon, the exhibitors will perform the self-congratulating ritual of raising a promotional mug of champagne to another successful year at the “Errm, Double, You-See?”.

Meanwhile, in the aisles, teams of worker ants will take the proverbial sledgehammer (or scissors) to the Babylonian structures now occupying the eerily quiet halls.

Our ears still ringing with the empty promises of yet another event in the name of Mobile Communications and its new spectre, the Internet of Things.