New inventions that contribute to the Internet of Everything are manifesting themselves in different ways globally, blurring the distinction between the digital and physical worlds. These ideas have taken form in inventions like Google Glass — a head-mounted display that further diminishes the demarcation between physical and online worlds. In the U.K., smart trash cans — outfitted with sensors that let garbage workers prioritize their routes — have been around for a decade, but are now starting to really take off. China is spending billions to build smart cities with Internet of Everything technology — sensors and wireless connections that will transform technology’s role from that of a curiosity to something that’s woven into the fabric of daily life.

Over the past few years, a growing number of industry heavyweights have launched initiatives designed to capture a piece of this emerging market. Some of these projects hint at the sweeping changes that will be triggered as the Internet of Everything matures. Cisco, for instance, partnered with NASA in 2009 to build a sensor network to monitor the Earth’s climate. That project, known as Planetary Skin, was designed to collect and process global data that government and business leaders could use to understand pollution concerns and resource demands. Cisco also launched the Connected Urban Development program, intended to use networking technologies to improve traffic flow, pioneer new real estate models and create new supply distribution systems.

IBM aims its Smarter Cities initiative squarely at local government leaders, promoting the idea that the blending of ubiquitous connectivity, large-scale data collection and powerful analytics will produce sustainable economic growth and better quality of life. The company launched its Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010 to kick-start these activities. The three-year initiative is sending teams of IBM experts to 100 cities to develop recommendations for making them smarter and more effective.

One reason government leaders should take note of the Internet of Everything is that some of the challenges they face may be too big to solve without it. Issues like coping with growing populations, managing limited natural resources and regulating volatile financial markets are fantastically complex. So are improving educational outcomes, shoring up aging infrastructure and reducing crime rates. Mastering the Internet of Everything — the ultimate network of networks — will help nations and communities address these challenges more effectively.

On the other hand, failure to embrace the concept could multiply the difficulty of these issues as the world moves toward a hyper-connected new normal. “A core construct of [the Internet of Everything] in the context of a ‘connections economy’ is that value will accrue to those who best foster, embody, and exploit network effects,” says a recent Cisco whitepaper. The company argues that humans can’t respond to the exponential changes touched off by a massively networked world without help from technology. “Business and government leaders must move from being buffeted by chaotic network effects to generating and directing them to constructive ends,” the paper contends.

While the big boys pump billions of dollars into “connected everything” initiatives, dropping prices for sensor technology are triggering community-level experiments. At Wichita State University in Kansas, an engineering and computer science professor is launching a demonstration project to show what the Internet of Everything can do.

Ravi Pendse is attaching moisture sensors to trees and plants campuswide as part of a smart sprinkler project. Pendse says the university will reduce its water bill by automating sprinklers to run only when plants are thirsty. Savings produced by that project alone may not be too impressive, he said, but scaled to meet the needs of water-poor regions worldwide, the concept could become life-saving.


Photo: Professor Ravi Pendse of Wichita State University says it doesn't cost much to demonstrate the Internet of Everything's potential.


Pendse’s smart sprinkler system will employ the knowledge of the university’s botany professors and a team of engineers. And with sensors now available for less than a dollar each, the project has minimal start-up costs.

Pendse says growth and development of the technology is inevitable, and he urges U.S. leaders to move quickly to exploit it. “As the most advanced country in the world, we have an opportunity to develop some key ideas around it,” he said. “Bringing all this together is as important as the development of the Internet itself.”

By many accounts, there are big bucks at stake. Speaking to the technology press at an event in March, Cisco President of Development and Sales Rob Lloyd said the market for Internet of Everything technology and services could top $14 trillion. And a 2012 report from General Electric estimates that adding network connectivity and big data analytics to industrial machinery could pump $10 trillion to $15 trillion into the global gross domestic product.

The U.S., of course, isn’t the only nation eyeing the Internet of Everything’s potential. Over the next two years, China will spend more than $12 billion developing 90 pilot communities as part of a smart city initiative. The first phase of development, says Gartner Research Vice President Bettina Tratz-Ryan, will be to build out the cities’ initial infrastructure on top of which the rest of the technology can be built. The initiative outlines a five-year plan that will eventually connect everything together — cloud computing, high-speed Internet, smart cars, mobile phones, GPS, video cameras and all other components of the Internet of Things.

Tratz-Ryan said smart cities are a part of China’s grand urbanization strategy. Every five years, about 450 million rural Chinese migrate to urban areas, according to the United Nations. China and other Asian nations are driving development of smart cities technology, she said, because they have huge challenges with accommodating urban growth, mitigating pollution and stimulating economic development.

Given that infrastructure is fundamental to the development of a smart city, China’s centralized approach may prove to be an efficient path to creating an Internet of Everything. But China’s efforts tend to focus on technology, which may not yield the best results, Tratz-Ryan added.

“The inclusion of citizen behavior and citizen comfort into a smart city is actually the key of what a smart city is really about,” she said. China is a good testing ground for the technologies, but for better examples of a citizen-centric approach, European and U.S. cities provide the template.

While China is building new smart cities from scratch, mature cities in the U.S. and Europe have, by necessity, taken a piecemeal approach.

In the U.K., trash bins outfitted with sensors allow garbage trucks to skip empty or half-full cans, cutting down on overhead and reducing pollution. In recent years, smart trash cans have caught on in major cities around the world, with Philadelphia reportedly saving $1 million annually through the use of self-reporting trash compactors.

Chattanooga, Tenn., is installing thousands of smart streetlights, which can be operated automatically to save electricity and manipulated individually to assist with police searches. Someday, the lights could be upgraded to offer additional functionality by creating sensor networks or equipping the light poles with Wi-Fi gear.

Smart parking structures and smart parking apps also are becoming more popular. Mobile apps, like the one deployed by Orlando, Fla., use city parking data to show drivers where parking is available. But even this is just an early stage of the technology’s development. Just as the Internet was unwieldy before Google figured out how to deliver the information people wanted, today’s Internet of Everything is likewise relatively inhospitable. Someday, all these disparate elements — the cars, the objects, the roads, the lights, the buildings, the people — will be highly connected. The glue that will hold everything together just hasn’t been developed yet.

One place where you’ll increasingly see and feel the Internet of Everything’s presence is behind the wheel. Auto manufacturers already are building vehicles with Internet connectivity and loading them with apps. And that’s just the beginning.

In February, AT&T and General Motors struck a deal to bring 4G LTE connectivity to GM vehicles through the automaker’s OnStar service starting with the 2015 model year. The built-in 4G LTE technology is integrated into the vehicle’s electrical system and includes an external antenna to maximize connectivity. GM says the move is part of a global strategy to build a new generation of connected vehicles.

“In addition to allowing consumers to bring in and connect to personal mobile devices, the vehicle will also act as its own mobile device, enabling embedded vehicle capabilities,” said Mary Chan, president of GM’s Global Connected Consumer division. Besides enabling a plethora of new in-vehicle “infotainment” options, GM says the high-speed connections will support real-time traffic and navigation services.

Meanwhile, the federal government is investigating whether connected vehicle technology can reduce highway accidents and injuries. The U.S. Department of Transportation contracted with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute to launch the nation’s largest connected vehicle pilot project late last year. The yearlong experiment involves 3,000 vehicles that are equipped with transmitters and receivers, allowing them to communicate with one another and with roadside infrastructure. A smaller number of vehicles also are equipped with multiple cameras and other equipment that allows them to actively warn drivers of impending danger.

The city of Ann Arbor, Mich., is overseeing the deployment of wireless communications gear that will cover 73 lane miles to exchange data with the smart vehicles. Analysis of that information will help the city better manage its transportation infrastructure. “I see us being able to understand traffic flow, and understand conditions of roads earlier maybe than we could normally so we could more effectively use our funds to maintain this infrastructure,” Ann Arbor IT Director Dan Rainey told Government Technology in December.

Back in Wichita, Pendse says a focus on the citizen is a core component of successful technology projects — especially those as expansive as building smart cities. “This gives us another inexpensive way to perhaps look at our resources and leverage the infrastructure. The backbone for an Internet of Everything is already there, people just need to put in the work,” Pendse said, adding that city managers should be asking, “How can we use this new technology to bring value to our citizens?”

Also see the FutureStructure infographic. 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 24, 2013, and updated for the May issue of Government Technology magazine.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.