From political unrest to food shortages, water crises, climate change, human rights, healthcare, energy, and economic opportunity, the world is facing many great challenges. Furthering their difficulty is the fact that these challenges are not isolated problems. They’re deeply intertwined with one another.
Take that 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for irrigation, and that climate change and fresh water supply are complexly linked, and that energy and transportation impact climate change. Poor crop yields, hunger, malnutrition, and disease quickly follow from drought; such humanitarian crises often contribute to political instability; and the whole system feeds back.
Technology has always been the great problem solver, from the printing press to vaccinations to the green revolution and the recent democratization of media through social networking. Solving current global challenges will require leveraging the most expansive and powerful developments in technology to overcome the complexity of these challenges.
So how can the next great technological revolution, the Industrial Internet, solve some of the most daunting problems of the 21st century? Here are 3 ways smart devices, big data, and people are tackling today’s intractably complex issues:
1. GETTING RESOURCEFUL
With the global world population projected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050, the demand for limited resources such as water, land, energy, and healthcare keeps growing. While solving resource scarcity through increased production and alternative resources is necessary, equally essential is being able to use existing resources more efficiently.
The Industrial Internet is a driver of efficiency. Often, in any process there’s waste caused by over-utilizing a resource in order to avoid under-utilizing it. We water crops well beyond their need in order to assure against under-watering them. We overproduce one important crop at the expense of other important ones. We rely on safety margins when we don’t have enough information to act precisely, but those safety margins often end up being wasteful.
The Industrial Internet with its ubiquitous sensors, data, and analytics can give real-time glimpses into the state of any system, allowing us to produce and consume more closely to our needs. Picture field-sensors that detect soil moisture and automatically schedule watering based on necessity rather than clock cycle. Or lights that adjust based on ambient conditions. Tying the amount of production and consumption to dynamic need rather than a fixed overestimate will help to get the most out of limited resources.
2. CONNECTIVE, COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE
Mobile computing, ubiquitous social networks, and collaborative systems are contributing to a radical change in the way society solves problems. Collective intelligence and decision-making are enabled by both instant, easy communication and rapid access to information.
Leveraging the power of data and social networks can yield great success in solving hard problems. An example? AIDS researchers were able to use online gaming to determine the molecular structure of retrovirus enzymes, a problem that had been plaguing them for decades. From organizing political movements to law enforcement, cloud-based collaboration and social networking have created active communities dedicated to solving problems. Having established infrastructure incorporate, leverage, and enhance these collective intelligences through intelligent machinery and powerful analytics will be essential to solving unwieldy problems.
3. PREDICTIVE POWER
It’s difficult to predict a crisis, but it’s becoming easier to prepare for one. A combination of mobile data, cloud-computing, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is coming together to yield powerful, dynamic predictions on where disasters will likely strike and have the most devastating impacts.