Do you have a smart phone? If so, list the functions you use on it: phone, camera, video camera, alarm clock, calculator, notepad, address book, maps, music player, and so on. This list scratches the surface, and your list probably differs from mine. One small device that fulfills many roles, substituting for several devices.
As Marian Tupy points out today in a Cato@Liberty post, the smart phone is a versatile, powerful device that is also good for the environment because its substitutability for so many things contributes to dematerialization. Dematerialization is the process of using fewer physical resources (materials and energy) per unit of output or unit of economic activity. As she notes,
Dematerialization, in other words, should be welcome news for those who worry about the ostensible conflict between the growing world population on the one hand and availability of natural resources on the other hand. While opinions regarding scarcity of resources in the future differ, dematerialization will better enable our species to go on enjoying material comforts and be good stewards of our planet at the same time. That is particularly important with regard to the people in developing countries, who ought to have a chance to experience material plenty in an age of rising environmental concerns.
The post also has a way-cool graphic to reflect this idea; go check it out!
On a similar vein, a post from power systems engineer Doug Houseman yesterday asked whether or not smart phones will make in-home energy displays obsolete. Doug makes two related points that are important and insightful. The first dovetails with Marian’s post — some smart grid technology vendors are getting out of the home display/hardware business because they anticipate that people will be able to use apps on smart phones (as well as controlling in-home devices through Internet-ready televisions) to program in-home devices, set trigger prices and set-point temperatures, and change those settings remotely if necessary. Home energy apps will be sufficiently powerful and flexible, and Internet connectivity will be sufficiently ubiquitous, that they are likely to be attractive to homeowners for home energy management and automation. So this is another area where we can see dematerialization happen, with smart phones and Internet-ready televisions performing multiple valuable functions.
Doug’s second point relates specifically to standards and actually accessing the home’s data. He cites an example of a home with a digital meter using the Zigbee standard for data. Unless the smart phone app “speaks” Zigbee, it won’t be able to access and comprehend the data. Using a smart phone, or an Internet-ready television for that matter, instead of an energy-dedicated in-home display to analyze data and change settings will require a software WiFi-Zigbee bridge between the meter and the phone.
As computing power and connectivity get smaller and more powerful, we can expect more multi-functionality, flexibility, and dematerialization; we’ll be able to do much more using less.