John Fox 27 June 2016

The lamppost in the smart city

What do we mean by smart cities? Today everything seems smart; we not only have smart cities, but also smart grids, smart meters, smartphones, smart paint, smart parking, smart transport, smart lighting, smart highways, smart drainage and even smart toothbrushes.

But smart is in many ways a matter of perspective. For example, Deepak Bhatia from the World Bank identified that many view a smart city as one with 24-hour water and 24-hour electricity.

In 1807 when gas streetlighting was first demonstrated in Pall Mall it was viewed as ‘smart’. The Victorians saw the introduction of electricity to streetlighting as smart, the automation of control with solar-dial timeclocks was a smart step forward. In the 1960s Fisher Controls (whose modern day descendant is Lucy Zodion) introduced photocell controls for streetlighting - another smart-step forward.

My definition of a smart city is one: “that uses communications to enhance scope and performance of urban services, to reduce resource use (including financial, energy, minerals etc) and to engage more wholly and beneficially with its citizens.”

Today’s Central Management Systems for streetlighting, CMS1.0, provide smart lighting. The luminaires are both controllable and can be remotely monitored. It is certainly a smart solution providing both greater control and a remote assessment of the performance of the asset, but is it sufficient for smart cities?

Like many current services, streetlighting can be guilty of working in silos. Smart cities will require systems that communicate freely with each other, sharing information and data to create intelligent solutions. With limited budgets, councils will also need technology that will integrate with legacy systems, especially when considering the costs in whole new infrastructure projects.

In the UK in 1950 79% of population was urbanised. By 2030 92% will be urbanised. Put simply, increased urbanisation needs smart solutions to successfully cope with society pressures. People will be at the heart of smart cities. While today’s councils provide services they think citizens need and want, smart cities will include greater involvement from the public driven by social media. A major consideration is whether councils engage or consult with their residents. An avant-garde view is to see the citizen as the source and designer rather than the uninvolved consumer.

‘Future cities’ have been talked about for hundreds of years, as urban areas around the world have been imagined, planned, built, adapted and analysed. Some future city visions have flourished and some have failed. Along with the citizen, there are several key items that will in reality shape Future Cities.

Firstly leadership; in addition to today’s city administrators, leaders can also be community leaders or entrepreneurs seeking to improve their communities. Technology is obviously vital and the term here covers all elements of infrastructure and innovation.

Thirdly governance will be important to safeguard the security and integrity of any deployment – for example ensuring data is protected and not misused. Last but not least, finance is a key consideration. Whilst a smart system may deliver favourable cash flow in the long-term, it is likely to need short-term financial support.

Much as ‘smart’ is a relative term about today’s technology, ‘Future Cities’ is setting an image of the nature of cities in the future. Smart technology is required by future cities, and as such is essentially an enabler for them. In fact IoT and Big Data are also enabling technologies rather than consequences of ‘smart’.

Technology must be developed that improves services and achieves greater efficiency while also delivering benefits beyond its operational costs in both the short and long-term. Streetlighting and lampposts will undoubtedly remain core to city infrastructure rather than being overtaken by other competing technology because they support the battle to achieve cost efficiency – adapting existing infrastructure is cheaper than installing and implementing new options.

Streetlights offer multiple benefits that make them ideally placed to bring the smart city concept to life. Apart from being connected to electricity they are publically owned, their height is suited to radio communications and they are already in position, generally every 30 metres or so, in urban areas.

With 75% of Government spending falling within ‘protected’ departments, such as health, education and social care, there is an already significant and increasing squeeze on unprotected ones – including highways. The 2016 spending review exacerbated this issue, applying a further squeeze to unprotected departments. Financial solutions more creative than ‘salami-slicing; are required – this need fuels the interest in ‘smart cities ideas’.

This is not a blank cheque, smart technology will only be adopted if it achieves at least one of the following goals; increased scope of services, improved performance of these services, a more engaged society and better efficiency in terms of costs, use of materials and resources, fuel / energy usage and use of spaces.

Therefore although smart cities are starting to become part of the here and now, the search is very much on for the favourably monetised use cases that will eventually pave the way to them becoming the norm rather than the exception.

When considering what the Smart City will actually be like there are many variables. For example what will public services look like? In an era of autonomous vehicles will we still need public lighting? Data communication will be vital and while fixed line infrastructure will be needed many IoT devices will operate using radio and particularly LPWANs. The heated battle between short-range MESH and long-range STAR will intensify but it remains to be seen which will take the lead. One thing that I am sure of though, is that the humble lamppost will be at the heart of the smart city; the pole in the pavement is definitely here to stay.

John Fox is managing director of Lucy Zodion

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Register here for your free copy.

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