Future Impact Lab

18 December 2015

Dr Ernest Lo (Croucher Fellowship 2008) has combined an entrepreneurial flare with his science background to create Future Impact Lab. 

Future Impact Lab, founded in Hong Kong in January 2015, fosters collaboration between designers and engineers from different disciplines to address modern day problems such as urbanisation, agriculture, and ageing populations. Lo uses his academic background in wireless technologies to create smart solutions to these issues.

Future Impact Lab has four core values: to design, create, connect, and share. It does this through offering a number of key technological services including technology consulting, engineering consulting, Internet of Things solutions, interactive customer engagement and loyalty solutions, and connecting domain experts and designers to collaboratively work on projects and develop solutions.

For now, Lo and his company are focused on using technology to solve three major social issues: agriculture, the environment, and the elderly. Their goal in relation to agriculture is to make technology that will help enable people to farm anywhere. This aims to help resolve food scarcity and may also help the healthcare industry because if herbs can be grown efficiently everywhere, it should result in more affordable herb-derived medicines.

The environment is a huge topic with great scope; Lo’s key focus is in understanding how different parameters interact with each other. In terms of the elderly, the disproportionate growth of ageing populations is a problem throughout the world. Future Impact Lab endeavours to create products which will enable families to more easily and effectively be reliable carers of their older relatives.

Over the past ten to fifteen years, wireless technologies have revolutionised communications. There have been the obvious changes that we all benefit from on a daily basis, such as the enhancement of pagers to 2G cellular phones, and more recently, 3G and 4G networks. However, in recent years, the ‘Internet of Things’ has become increasingly familiar term. Currently in its infancy, it refers to a network of smart devices with their own IP addresses that connect to the Internet. For example, smart refrigerators, which can be programmed to sense what kind of products are being stored and keep track of stock through barcode of radio-frequency identification scanning.

However, the full potential of the Internet of Things is not yet imaginable - the implications it may have in the future - just as the huge implications of search engines such as Google and Yahoo were not imagined when they were created in the mid-1990s. Although individual devices such as Fitbits, Nest home systems and smart refrigerators do exist, the Internet of Things infrastructure to connect all smart devices does not. In Lo’s words:

“When it comes to big data and the related solutions required to raise the level of city management, total or standard solutions are lacking. As a result, the industry cannot meet the demand for large-scale applications brought about by urbanisation.”

Smart cities are a major aspect of the Internet of Things that has appealed to countries facing rapid urbanisation. The point of a smart city is to create a sustainable urban environment through the use of information and communication technology. While Amsterdam and Vienna have led the way in experimenting with the Internet of Things infrastructure in their smart cities projects, most countries have not yet begun. The Chinese government laid out plans to use the Internet of Things in their 12th Five Year Plan in 2010, with a strong interest in smart cities. Now, the Hong Kong government plans to follow suit with a smart city pilot programme in Kowloon East, a historically industrial area. The idea is to transform the heavily polluted area into a low carbon, green, urban area housing a mix of industry sectors. In order to achieve a low carbon environment, sensors will be deployed to monitor environmental factors such as air and water quality. The results of monitoring will enable experts to recommend optimal energy solutions. To be green, rooftop gardening and urban farming will be aided by smart farm sensors measuring different parameters which will enable farmers to grow plants efficiently.

Lo points out a challenge to the growth of the Internet of Things: power consumption. In previous decades, services have required people to sort data. This was time consuming, but because people can comprehend unstructured data, it was effective. On the other hand, to make a machine powerful enough to sort unstructured data and transmit/receive it anytime and anywhere, a lot of power is needed, which is not viable on a large scale. Lo proposes two solutions to the issue of power consumption, both of which are currently being worked on: firstly, to improve power performance through energy harvesting and secondly, to reduce the information transmitted to very small data packets.

How soon a balance will be struck between the useful collection and use of data, and privacy - or when truly necessary, large scale Internet of Things applications will be part of life, we do not know. In the meantime, Lo encourages everyone to learn basic computer programming because “computer language is also a language” and we ought to understand the apps that we are using. Another piece of sage advice: “In general, if you make something of big impact it can help two objectives, money and the greater good. It is possible to both do good and be profitable.”

Lo is the CEO and founder of the Future Impact Lab Limited, a Tech X Social venture. Previously he was the founding director and chief representative of the Centre Tecnològic de Telecomunicacions de Catalunya – Hong Kong (CTTC-HK). He was a Croucher Postdoctorate Fellow at Stanford University, and received his PhD, MPhil, and BEng (First Class Honours) from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has received 3 IEEE Best Paper Awards, and his research interests, include channel coding, resource allocation, and wireless system design. He contributed to the standardisation of the IEEE 802.22 cognitive radio WRAN system and holds several US and China patents.

To view Ernest Lo’s personal Croucher profile, please click here