Ahead of the Cloud

Powering the Internet of Things

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The ‘smart home’ is upon us. Our living spaces will soon (if they do not already) measure how we live, and specifically, how much energy our lifestyles consume. They will use that information (data) to adapt our homes to reduce energy consumption and improve our health. Presently, the smart home is most visible to us as a collection of domestic devices, like thermostats, lights and security systems, made ‘smart’ through their ability to connect to the internet and thus send and receive data, which, in communicating with other devices, form an Internet of Things (IoT).

In the next years, we will see the domestic devices of the smart home scale up to fit the increasingly larger realms of factories, offices, public spaces and entire cities. Likewise, the capabilities of IoT will transcend individual needs as it moves to serve the collective. In order to grasp the potential applications (and consequences) of IoT beyond the spaces of our homes, we must understand the infrastructure that underpins it: that of ‘the cloud’.

What is the cloud, exactly? It sounds like an ephemeral and frictionless data transfer point that exists everywhere and nowhere, instantaneously. In fact, the very tangible, costly and geographically specific infrastructure of the networked universe is constituted by millions of buildings, cables and of course, those eerie-looking server towers. The IoT in smart home devices, as well as our phones and other personal devices that wirelessly transmit data, depends on this infrastructure for receiving and processing data, and sending fresh data back to our devices in a timely fashion.

The Iron Mountain data centre in the Netherlands process energy of Internet of Things
The Iron Mountain data centre in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Image courtesy of the Iron Mountain

Operating the architecture of data, and by extension, IoT, is an expensive venture that consumes a massive amount of energy. By some estimates, a single data centre uses the same amount of electricity every year as a small town. In most places, the energy that powers data centres comes from burning fossil fuels.

We must therefore ask ourselves whether the collective energy savings of IoT-enabled smart homes balance out the energy used in data centres to operate them. There’s no way to calculate this, but recognising that the seemingly weightless ‘cloud’ uses a lot of energy is a good place to start.

Some initiatives recognise this by sourcing energy from renewable production methods, like the Iron Mountain data centre in Haarlem, the Netherlands, which is the first carbon-neutral data centre in the country. Others seek to capture and reuse waste energy from data centres, as in the AM4 data tower at the University of Amsterdam designed by Benthem Crouwel, which uses energy expended by enabling its servers to heat the University of Amsterdam campus buildings.

While IoT will grow increasingly apparent in our everyday lives, it does not necessarily follow that the data centres and other cloud infrastructure that underpin it will also.

There is the risk that this disconnect between the user-side benefits and operator-side costs will perpetuate the myth that the cloud has no costs to its users or consequences for the environment. If we want to fully harness the power of IoT technologies for our health and that of the planet, we need to take into account all of the components that make the cloud run, even the ones hidden from the public eye.

Cloud infrastructure. Internet of things
Cloud Infrastructure. Image by UNStudio

With this in mind, what if we brought together and made visible at a local scale the infrastructure of the cloud, the latest technology in renewable energy production and storage, and urban-scale IoT sensing and monitoring devices?

Producing and storing renewable energy is getting easier and cheaper. A growing number of relatively small, ‘collocated’ data centres in cities will support densifying neighbourhoods and their concentration of data-connected devices. Imagine one of these urban data centres was powered by, and in turn supplied waste power to, a local microgrid. Suppose the data centre and adjacent buildings were clad with solar-powered photovoltaic panels such as those produced by Solar Visuals and that the energy produced by the panels fed that local microgrid.

The last piece of the puzzle? Setting up an IoT to manage the whole system. Individually, each of these elements is already here or will be very soon. In our near future, locally programmed and communally managed IoT could keep in check the energy used to power all of a neighbourhood’s utilities, including its data. Making the cloud transparent – and local – could transform our smart homes into resilient communities.

Solar panel by Solar Visuals
Solar Visuals solar panel. Image courtesy of Solar Visuals.

Written by Ben van Berkel; is founder and principal architect of the architectural practice UNStudio and founder of UNSense. Ben van Berkel is currently teaching a studio at the Harvard Graduate School of Design entitled “On Health II: Amsterdam Health Kitchen.” The following members of UNSKnowledge, UNStudio’s research and innovation unit, supported Ben with this article: Filippo Lodi, Marisa Cortright and Mia Ming Guo. UNSKnowledge provides architectural innovation and product consultancy services across the fields of computation, building technologies, and health/sustainability.