Smarter cities could start with a simple light bulb swap

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Simply swapping out the old-school incandescent, sodium or metal halide lamps with newer LED bulbs that can also contain an array of sensors can push a city on the path to becoming smarter, said Wim Elfrink the Executive Vice President for Industry Solutions and Chief Globalisation Officer with Cisco. According to Elfrink, while cities are installing the LED lamps they often elect to put in video surveillance and even Wi-Fi access points too.

“We see this as an enormous inflection point,” Elfrink told me during an interview on Thursday. “This could blanket a city in Wi-Fi and enable the city to offer citizen services and we are always looking for what will be that inflection point. The simple light bulb could be it.”

He pointed out that having the video surveillance means that computers could count the number of people in the area and reduce or increase the light based on the amount of foot traffic. More people require less light, cutting down on energy. Of course, not every city will be comfortable with video surveillance in all public areas, and Elfrink says most will start with small pilot projects such as one that is being deployed in Chicago.

The Chicago street lamps don’t use cameras to track people, instead they count the number of people by tracking the number of cell phones as they ping asking for Wi-Fi hot spots. They also track temperature and various weather and pollution data via sensors. In Copenhagen, Elfrink estimates that by placing Wi-Fi access points in about 92 percent of the street lamps you could blanket the entire city with Wi-Fi.

The video wall at the DOLL Visitor Center in Copenhagen showing  the live feeds of the streets and data visualizations.

The video wall at the DOLL Visitor Center in Copenhagen showing the live feeds of the streets and data visualizations.

And while the Wi-Fi wouldn’t be part of the actual LED bulb, many of the sensors and maybe the camera could be. In fact, many of the smart bulbs coming out in the consumer and commercial markets double as speakers or sensors of some kind or another. Beacons or ambient light sensors seem to be the most popular in the commercial space.

Such plans also require the city to own or have access to dark fiber so it can offer its own services, but the data it can gather and the potential savings it can realize are substantial. For example, there is the obvious savings from more efficient lighting being turned to the most appropriate level, but adding more sensors means the city can better predict weather patterns and position snowplows in areas where the snow is likely to hit hardest, before it happens.

Elfrink says that every city should have an information and telecommunications technology plan, much like they have an urban and economic development plan, so they can understand where the data from these endeavors should go and who owns it. These plans should also detail how the data should be shared across these city instead of being locked up in a single department. For example, if the lighting and power department claimed this data and didn’t share, it would be much less valuable.

Even as cities start with one-off deployments in smart parking or perhaps a connected street lamp pilot, it’s worth thinking about how to bring these disparate forays in the digital realm into a holistic platform that citizens, governments and developers can access and make use of in ways that protect privacy and ensure security of city assets. That can be an overwhelming project, but as Elfrink says, just start with a single light bulb.

Updated: This post was updated January 26, 2015 to correct the spelling of Wim Elfrink’s name.

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Peter Fretty

Love it. What a great example of how sensor technologies and data analysis can make a significant difference. Chattanooga, TN has also started the complete transformation to a smart city with the use of a fiber mesh helping to guide emergency response as well as utility maintenance. It’s these examples that should be utilized to demonstrate the power of properly leveraging data.

Peter Fretty, IDG blogger working on behalf of SAS

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