How streetlights will power the smart cities of the future
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How streetlights will power the smart cities of the future

Streetlights in San Diego do much more than just illuminate the city: More than 4,000 connected, intelligent sensors installed in streetlights across the city detect traffic congestion, track available parking spaces, and anticipate severe weather warnings. These sensors can also geolocate gunshots in real time and alert police and first responders to provide assistance in the case of an emergency.

The laid-back California city of San Diego is not alone. Cities across the globe — including New York, Copenhagen, and Singapore — are investing in connected devices to monitor every aspect of urban life, such as water quality, power use, traffic, parking spaces, and safety. This is turning cities into a major hub for technological evolution, as highlighted in the four-part video series produced by Samsung NEXT entitled “The End of the Beginning.”

More than illumination
As discussed in the series’ segment on Smart Cities, streetlights are blazing the way for smart city initiatives and emerging as the perfect way to collect data and city leaders can leverage to provide better services. IDC, which forecasts worldwide spending on smart city initiatives, predicts the market will reach $95.8 billion this year. Smart outdoor lighting systems are among the top five smart city initiatives, according to the research firm.

One of the most significant factors driving smart lighting investments is that more than 300 million streetlights are already installed around the world. It’s much easier and cost-effective to upgrade and connect them than to build new infrastructure from scratch.

“The most exciting thing about smart streetlights is that it is an existing physical asset that can be optimized and utilized for the benefits of a city, its citizens and private stakeholders,” says Deborah Conway, ventures associate at Samsung NEXT.

Deborah should know. She is part of the steering committee of The Grid, a member-based partnership network, launched to connect New York’s urban tech community. Consisting of more than 70 organizations from the tech industry, investment firms, and academic institutions, the project is on the leading edge when it comes to building an urban tech ecosystem.

Simon Sylvester-Chaudhuri, another leader of The Grid and the executive director of CIV:LAB, an urban innovation nonprofit, agrees that the ubiquity of streetlights makes them an ideal vehicle for smart cities.

“They must be implemented around areas and not in one specific spot, which gives them the additional ability to be mechanisms for data collection — of people, traffic and sound,” he says. He has a point. Streetlights find themselves in the right place at the right time to host Internet of Things (IoT) devices to monitor traffic flow, parking spaces, and pedestrian crossings to detect congestion.

Lamp posts as a technology platform
Streetlights are transforming into connected digital infrastructure. Their sensors use advanced AI algorithms and edge computing to analyze their surroundings in real time. They generate large data streams that drive many other urban projects, such as tracking air pollutants and monitoring public trash cans to determine when they are full and ready for pickup.

Public safety applications, such as Shot Spotter, are being developed to take advantage of new IoT technology. The gunfire detection system works by registering the sound of a gunshot with a precise location and sends alerts to dispatch centers, patrol cars, and officers’ smartphones within 60 seconds.

“We are seeing technologies like Shot Spotter using street lights to lay their technologies on top and be able to detect gunshots and allowing for emergency response [teams] to pinpoint locations to travel to,” says Chaudhuri.

More innovative solutions will emerge as cities open their application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable independent software developers to access data on their platform and use it to solve challenges in mobility, public safety, emergency response, and utilities. San Diego’s program to connect streetlights with sensors is a good example. Genetec provides video surveillance in San Diego, and Xact provides insights into real-time and historical mobility patterns related to traffic, parking, and pedestrian movement.

Open Data initiatives enable independent developers to build applications beyond what the city leaders originally contemplated and that is what makes them crucial for smart city programs to succeed. “It is important to offer transparency to cities and citizens and even offer platforms for entrepreneurs and innovators to build off of,” Chaudhuri says.

Privacy matters
The potential for converting streetlights into smart city platforms, where independent developers create applications to benefit cities and their residents, is enormous. But municipalities are grappling with privacy and security issues. They are worried about the possibilities of hackers infiltrating cities and connected technologies, Chaudhuri warns. “We will have a lot of issues around safety and the potential for mass chaos,” he says.

To mitigate security concerns, city leaders need to build sophisticated controls to guard citizens’ data and be transparent about who can access the data and how it can be used. “Privacy and citizen buy-in are very important,” says Chaudhuri.

Getting the security message out is equally crucial for the success of any smart city initiative. “City officials, leaders and representatives need to go out and explain why the installations are happening, what it means to citizens and how it will directly benefit the quality of residents’ life,” Conway says.

While security and privacy issues are complex and real challenges remain, they are not stopping hundreds of cities across the world from investing in connected streetlights and several other smart city initiatives.

Connected streetlights will form the backbone for large smart city programs, according to Northeast Group, which has analyzed the streetlights market in 125 countries. The smart infrastructure market intelligence company expects total investment in LED and smart streetlights, as well as additional smart city sensors attached to streetlights, to surpass $50 billion over the next decade.

In the meantime, Chaudhuri has some simple advice for city leaders: “Think about the long-term sustainability of the product. Not necessarily whether the product will be durable but understanding whether or not it’s an investment that can lead to problem-solving in their cities and understanding if there are better investments out there.”

For policymakers who embrace the long-term vision of smart cities, urban data streams will help monitor weather, pollution, seismic activity, criminal activity, traffic, parking, and more. And better decision making, driven by these rich data sets, will drive the next generation of urban evolution to make cities healthier, safer, sustainable, and more livable.

Learn more about trends in Smart Cities by watching the End of the Beginning video series.

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