The world is in a fascinating technological phase, where revolutionary ideas first proposed years ago have been refined, developed, and integrated into real-world solutions.

These are now making a major difference to the ways in which business is done, and more developments are on the way.

So we thought we’d take a look at the top trends to look out for in 2017 and beyond, with an eye towards how these can help small and medium-sized businesses adapt and thrive as the global and local economies shift and change.

1 The Internet of Things

By far the most exciting development in the tech world right now is the emergence of what’s known as the “Internet of Things”, abbreviated to IoT.

Wikipedia defines the IoT as “…the internetworking of physical devices, vehicles (also referred to as “connected devices” and “smart devices”), buildings, and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data.”

American sociology professor Neil Gross put it rather more eloquently back in 1999: “In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations.”

That prediction is becoming a reality, as there are currently thousands of projects rolling out across the globe that are enabling everyday objects to sense accurate environmental data and share it with apps and other IoT-enabled devices, and feed it back to powerful datacentres. It’s how companies are generating more accurate computer models of the world around us, and making sense of the “sensations” that is the data collected by the billions of IoT sensors that are being deployed.

Here’s an example that could benefit South Africa greatly: IoT can be used to improve farming and make it more efficient. By deploying sensors into fields and onto equipment that monitors various conditions in real time, and connecting to data sources that predict and record weather patterns and then collating and displaying all of that information on a single dashboard (say, a tablet screen), farmers are able to get an accurate and near real-time overview of the general conditions of their fields, which in turn lets them make the kind of decisions that increase crop yield and minimises losses due to unexpected weather phenomena. A US company called OnFarm is already offering this service to farmers over there.

The Brazilian government has even embedded IoT sensors in trees in areas of the Amazon rain forest where logging is prohibited. Those sensors are able to track movement data and alert the government when they detect they’ve been cut down and are on a truck by relaying location information.

Other applications include monitoring the status of safety equipment (fire extinguisher pressure and liquid levels etc.), observing the effectiveness of retail sales initiatives, keeping an eye on the physical condition of industrial equipment so that timeous maintenance can be performed before anything breaks, monitoring wildlife movements remotely, and much more.

The proliferation of IoT sensors, IoT networks and small but powerful computer systems like the Raspberry Pi are paving the way for businesses to create new services, new employment opportunities and new innovations that will carry them well into 2017 and beyond.

Next: Cloud

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Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.