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10 areas to address to make IoT the best it can be

Key takeaways

  • The internet of things has played a key role in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Concerns have been highlighted over its security, privacy, interoperability and equity.
  • Establishing new governance norms to strengthen oversight and protect human rights will help reap the benefits of IoT safely.

Spurred by continued technological advancement, the world today is more connected than ever. This presents a tremendous opportunity to build a more sustainable and prosperous future for all, but it also introduces new risks and governance challenges.

A new report by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the Global Internet of Things Council and PwC gives insight into the state of the Internet of Things (IoT). In it, the State of the Connected World reflects on the way connected devices are transforming how we live and work. 

With the events of 2020 creating greater urgency around the need for collective action when it comes to themes related to privacy, security and equitable access, the report aims to address governance gaps — pre-pandemic and beyond — facing IoT development.

COVID-19 and IoT

The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the essential role the internet of things (IoT) has come to play in our lives. IoT applications such as connected thermal cameras, contact tracing devices and health-monitoring wearables are providing critical data needed to help fight the disease. Yet the use of IoT in fighting the pandemic has also shed light on concerns about its security, privacy, interoperability and equity.

It is clear that we are at a pivotal moment, when the development, use and governance of these technologies is rapidly changing and evolving. As societies emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, a unique window of opportunity has opened to reimagine our relationship with IoT, realise new opportunities for growth and unlock a safer and more inclusive use of the technology. 

With this backdrop in mind, the report highlighted ten major findings:

The state of IoT

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the face of IoT, introducing new use cases and applications, bolstering demand in select areas such as health technology (such as in contact tracing, cleaning robots and remote monitoring of patients) and the smart home while temporarily slowing adoption in areas such as traditional enterprise IoT.
  2. The ways in which IoT is being used to help manage and respond to COVID-19 hold the potential to spur and accelerate new opportunities to boost organisational and individual resilience and flexibility, and to respond more effectively to future challenges, instability and emergencies. However, it also brings with it risks for privacy and other human rights that need to be thoroughly assessed and addressed through proper governance structures.
  3. The IoT market and ecosystem is expected to grow even faster in a new post-COVID-19 business environment, thanks to the release of pent-up demand and the determination to minimise the impacts from future disruptions, especially in the enterprise and public spaces domains.
  4. The maturity of IoT governance – the laws, industry standards and self governance approaches required to mitigate potential harm – continues to lag behind the pace of technological change. The largest perceived gap in governance relates to ensuring IoT technologies become a force for shared societal benefit, as opposed to exacerbating the digital divide and existing inequalities.
  5. Over the next few years, the implementation of a variety of new technologies will likely increase the range, capabilities and analytical sophistication of IoT. These innovations have the potential to improve the governance of IoT technologies by incorporating key factors into the design of devices and systems – including privacy and security, but also human-centric considerations such as economic, civil, political and other human rights issues that could otherwise be overlooked.
  6. Despite double-digit annual growth rates in the consumer IoT market, the value chain for IoT data remains opaque, undermining public trust. Privacy concerns are growing rapidly and it is becoming increasingly difficult to safeguard privacy as devices become more pervasive and embedded in people’s lives, capturing personal data with greater  frequency and granularity
  7. Cybersecurity threats remain a vital area of concern in the IoT ecosystem. Governments at the regional, country and state levels are beginning to address the need for better IoT security governance, but efforts so far have been fragmented, making compliance often confusing and costly for companies.
  8. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the move towards automation, a trend that some believe could affect hundreds of millions of people in the coming decade. It is important to better understand the impact that increased automation and IoT usage will likely have on regional communities and society at large now and in the future
  9. The pandemic has also shed light on how bias, implicit or explicit, and unequal access to connected devices and inequitable sharing of the benefits of IoT can have a massive societal and economic impact. For example, using IoT to monitor water quality may be available in places where it is economically efficient, even though underdeveloped areas are far more likely to benefit from it.
  10. The interoperability of systems and advancement of global technology standards remain important priorities for the continued development and expansion of IoT. Efforts so far to encourage interoperability have been fragmented and regional, at best. Without it, IoT devices and systems are far less effective at performing tasks efficiently and cost-effectively, potentially slowing implementation and increasing security and privacy risks.

Time to connect for the greater good

As IoT becomes more tightly incorporated into every aspect of our lives, it will provide a far deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. The sheer number of connections between people and things will likely enable new kinds of economic and social interaction and creative endeavour. Ultimately, if IoT is developed and governed properly, it will expand human potential and elevate the lives of all people.

While governance is needed to address privacy issues and enhance security, too many regulations could hinder the growth of IoT. A balance must be struck between the two, and the approach will need to be tailored to use cases and sectors. IoT is already an indispensable part of our daily lives and fundamental infrastructure. As it grows in extent and capability, society must act to ensure a connected world that is trustworthy, safe, collaborative, efficient, human-centred and generates new opportunities and benefits for all of society.

Download the full State of the Connected World: 2020 Edition report for more insights.