Wi-Fi hotspots, pollution meters, gunshot locators: How lampposts are making cities smarter

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Lampposts could provide a helping hand in assisting the re-opening and recovery of cities as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

Image: Smarter Together/Dominik Parzinger

For all the new tech gadgets that might spring to mind when thinking of smart cities, there is a centuries-old tool has the potential to make urban spaces much more efficient: the humble lamppost.

Urban planners, a new report argues, have everything to gain from exploiting the untapped potential of the poles that illuminate cities at night. Investing in lampposts could even reap near-term benefits: the innocuous masts could provide a welcome helping hand in assisting the re-opening and recovery of cities as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

The report, aptly named “Shining a Global Light“, was submitted to the European Commission’s Smart Cities Marketplace, which brings together cities, industries, small businesses and researchers invested in designing future urban spaces.

It found various examples of lampposts being re-purposed in the context of the global health crisis. In Barcelona, for example, the city council fitted 12 of the 200 lampposts lining the city’s beaches with a CCTV-based technology capable of identifying free space on the sand. As the beaches re-opened last summer, this helped the council manage the risk of over-crowding.

“We used scanning devices to get the images and a bit of artificial intelligence to analyze these kinds of images to find out what portion of the beach was free in terms of lack of people and free space,” said Marc Perez-Batlle, innovation manager at Barcelona City Council. “We analyzed the proportion of sand rather than identifying people’s faces. This enabled us to look at the capacity that was free.”

Other cities are thinking of following suit. The Westminster City Council in London is exploring a “nudge theory” that would see lampposts directing lights in busy areas to better indicate where people should stand, for example outside tube stations. The Bureau of Street Lighting in Los Angeles is also toying with the idea of mounting temperature sensors on lampposts to flag residents that might be showing symptoms of illness.

Instead of finding new spots to deploy sensors in cities that are already crammed, the benefits of re-using infrastructure that has been there for centuries seem evident. According to the report, there are 326 million streetlights globally; only ten million smart streetlights, however, have so far been connected.

Yet a lamppost could serve many purposes aside from providing light. Fitted with image sensors, it could monitor parking, identify proximity or count pedestrians; it could also sense air quality, noise, and other environmental features; at its base, it could assess water levels and flooding. A lamppost could be used to provide Wi-Fi, or as a 5G transmitter; and by definition, a street column has electricity running through it, and could be used for electric vehicle charging.

What’s more, street lights naturally follow where people and businesses are. They are ideally placed, therefore, to monitor the data that matters to run a smart city.

Beyond assisting the recovery from COVID-19, there are numerous applications that lampposts could serve in future smart cities. In Copenhagen, for example, connected lampposts are used for traffic safety: they dim in some areas, and brighten again when cyclists approach unsafe road junctions. The poles are also used to assess the temperature of streets during colder months, to help salt gritters identify areas to prioritize.

LA is piloting air quality sensors, fire spotters, gunshot locators and is investigating earthquake sensors – all integrated with lampposts. In Munich, a total of 60 smart lampposts measures the concentration of air pollutants and the weather, and officials are thinking of deploying more of the poles to facilitate public messaging thanks to speaker systems during the busy Oktoberfest festival.

It is easy to see, therefore, how smart lampposts could provide useful additional data to the many smart city initiatives that are popping up all over the world. But while the benefits of leveraging street lights for smarter urban spaces seem proven, the report highlights several obstacles that still need to be overcome.

The first one is cost: the price of connecting a traditional lamppost to the smart city network, in effect, is often deemed too high. This, however, is something that the report’s authors argue can be counter-balanced by LED conversion. Older luminaires are increasingly being swapped for more modern LED lamps which, in addition to enabling energy savings, also provide an opportunity to revamp the city’s streetlight infrastructure by adding smart sensors.

Los Angeles, for example, has been gradually swapping the city’s street lights for LED luminaires since 2009; in 2012, energy savings were around 50% and by 2021 reached 75%, according to the city council.

But even if the barrier of cost is overcome, it remains that citizens might voice concerns about expanding public institutions’ ability to track and monitor the city’s every move. The advent of the smart city is inevitably linked to the rise of potential surveillance; to avoid backlash, therefore, city planners will have to guarantee a degree of anonymity and transparency.

“In Copenhagen we are very alert to protecting the privacy of our citizens. We ensure that in the technical aspects of our solutions, we have strict procedures to document the security of each part and of the system as a whole,” Rasmus Reeh, smart city solutions specialist at Copenhagen Solutions Lab, tells ZDNet.

“We also put emphasis on transparency so citizens can follow our work. Citizens can look up specifications of every sensor type we have installed in the smart solutions, for example in our traffic systems, on the website of the city.”

This is not always the case. In France, for example, the government trialed facial-recognition software in a metro station in Paris, using six cameras to identify passengers that weren’t wearing a mask. Less than a week after the initiative launched, the French data protection agency CNIL pointed to the cameras’ potential to invade privacy, and the project was called off.

Although residents are more used to the sight of lampposts than they are to that of facial recognition cameras, connecting street lights will still have to happen hand-in-hand with a trust-building process. City councils must ensure that citizen data is anonymized, and appropriately stored and processed.

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