Technology is disrupting industry value chains and business models the world over. The worlds largest taxi company Uber, owns no vehicles, Facebook, the worlds largest media company creates no content & Air B&B, the worlds largest accommodation provider owns no real estate. The environmental industry, however, with its complex value chains & regulatory controls is likely to experience technology disruption in different ways. To what degree and over what time scale this disruption occurs, is a billion-dollar question.
To help answer this question, we are launching our Enviro Influencers series of interviews, where we talk to key people on the front line of this disruption. Our interviewees will be a diverse bunch from across the globe including consultants, regulators, academics, scientists and of course the odd ‘techie’ here and there for good measure. We hope you will find them both interesting and useful.
To kick off the series, we went back to our roots to interview Professor Dermot Diamond of Dublin City University. Dermot is Principal Investigator in the INSIGHT Centre, part of the National Centre for Sensor Research.
“We are in a very disruptive decade”
Ambisense: Where will technology have the greatest impact on the environmental industry and why?
Dermot Diamond: One of the big things that is going to happen is the integration of environmental information with a multitude of other big data sources, enabling deep learning and analytics from a variety of platforms. This, in turn, provides opportunities to design and deploy low cost, high-quality sensors that can be deployed remotely, at huge scale which will change our understanding of the environment. This concept of remote deployment at scale is already very much part of the IoT landscape.
The other big change is the increasing prevalence of the ‘citizen scientist’. People are now much more aware of environmental issues such as climate change & air quality. There is a growing realisation that these things are connected to the very quality of life. More than just passive consumers of information, citizen are now becoming active content creators, playing an active role in maintaining quality of life and environmental status. Environmental social media platforms accessible to the citizen will integrate information from low-cost mobile phone compatible sensors and web-based sources (e.g. EPA, ESA) enabling citizens to be much more aware of the environment and contribute to making informed decisions on a local and national basis.
Ambisense: Over what timeframe do you think this disruption will occur?
DD: I think the process of changes has already started and it will accelerate over the coming decade. This is happening across all businesses, not just the environmental industry. If you look at the car & energy industries, these will also dramatically change society in the next decade.
Part of the drive to move completely to electric cars will be the awareness of the quality of air that we breathe. But it won’t be just the cars, how will you provide electricity to charge the cars? How will you create local energy from ‘clean’ renewable sources? To enable this change process, there will be a huge movement towards localised microgrids & this also creates opportunities for deployment of sensors to assist with a more sophisticated management of energy creation and distribution networks.
Ambisense: How do you see regulatory regimes changing as new technologies become more prevalent?
DD: It’s an interesting question. I think there are a couple of aspects. Traditionally, regulators have been very slow to react to the introduction of new technologies, this is particularly the case in the environmental market.
If you look at incumbent environmental technologies & services, they haven’t had a big influence on protecting or improving the environment. Technology-driven solutions have the potential to be far more effective. This will have to be reflected in a much more efficient and dynamic regulatory environment to enable these new technologies to be more rapidly adopted.
The second thing is that regulation can also be used to drive the market. The biggest issue with environmental infrastructure is who pays for it and why? The answer is that you can stimulate technology adoption, to some extent, using regulations that require this technology to be used. So rather than a reaction to a technology, the regulatory environment can become a driver for the adoption of innovative technologies.
You can already see that happening in the car industry for example, with recent announcements from the industry and from the UK government. Through these announcements, the national bodies and the manufacturers are signalling to the market and citizens that change will happen relatively quickly, and this, in turn, will drive significant change in infrastructure related to electricity creation and consumption. There is no point in having electronic cars if you use coal or gas for heating houses or to generate the electricity used to power the cars. As such, I think the regulatory environment can and will force agencies and industry to adopt these new technologies.
The key is to create less expensive and scalable ways of providing sensed environmental data from more locations at a higher frequency, and regulation has a huge role to play in driving innovation in the environmental sector.
Ambisense: Do you think technology will reshape incumbent business models or simply change the way existing services are delivered?
DD: I think it’s much deeper than just changing the same model, it’s going to be very disruptive. We are in a very disruptive decade, driven by the whole digital agenda. Everything is digital and remotely accessible, people are becoming used to that across all walks of life.
This is a completely different model in terms of who gets access to the data and when. And this leads us to consumers, citizens & customers. To interpret the data, they will have to be much more knowledgeable about what the data actually means. This drives a big educational agenda as well, not just in the environment sector but across society as a whole. Society will have to become much more critical but also more informed.
There is the danger that with the digital agenda the information and opinions can be manipulated. Therefore citizens must become more critical of the information and the sources, not just agency and government sources, but particularly social media, where there is no standardised quality checking. What may happen is that these unregulated sources will get a rating, with reviews of the confirmation of source (like reviews on travel sites or Amazon). As is happening across society, data security, trust, privacy will also become increasingly important. Issues like these will become increasingly important with understanding and validating next-generation environmental information.
Ambisense: What is the coolest piece of tech. you’ve come across recently?
I think in terms of concept, the The Copenhagen Wheel project is really interesting. In this initiative, city bikes use energy generated from riding them to produce air quality data. Pedalling the bike provides enough power to enable air quality to be monitored through a sensor and communication pack integrated into the wheel. The data is time/date and location stamped and shared on a publicly accessible website.
While the quality of these sensors and the data might not be as good as that generated from conventional instrumentation, the concept that citizens carry on with their normal activities and at the same time generate and share data with other citizens it is very exciting. And the quality of the sensors will improve, and costs decrease so this concept can be extended to other ‘vehicles of opportunity’. That brings to the role of the regulatory framework. Should the implementation of these creative innovations be driven by regulation, or will society do the right thing of its own volition…?
Ambisense: Thank you very much for your time!
Dermot Diamond received his Ph.D. and D.Sc. from Queen’s University Belfast and joined DCU in 1987. He was Vice-President for Research at Dublin City University (2002-2004) and was director (2007-2015) and founding member of the National Centre for Sensor Research at DCU. In 2002, he was awarded the inaugural silver medal for Sensor Research by the Royal Society of Chemistry, London. He was awarded the DCU President’s Award for Research Excellence (2006) and the DCU President’s Award for Innovation (2015). In May 2014, in recognition of his academic contributions and achievements, he was admitted to Membership of the Royal Irish Academy. In April 2015 he was awarded the Boyle Higgins Gold Medal by the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland in recognition of his research achievements.
He is currently a principal investigator in the SFI INSIGHT Centre and a member of the EU Future and Emerging Technologies programme advisory group (FETAG). His research is focused on the fundamental science of stimuli responsive polymers, the development of futuristic autonomous chemical sensing platforms, and the use of analytical devices and sensors as information providers for wireless networked systems i.e. building a continuum between the digital and molecular worlds. Further details of his research can be found at www.dcu.ie/chemistry/asg.