Lamppost shines a light on smart cities.
As Christchurch in New Zealand is rebuilt after the 2011 earthquake, it is seizing an opportunity: to install sensors that will collect real-time data on everything from water quality to traffic flows. While Christchurch may be using reconstruction as a chance to create a new kind of city, it is not alone in recognising the potential of the internet of things to increase urban efficiency.
For cities, equipping infrastructure with sensors that can receive and transmit data creates opportunities to cut costs and increase environmental sustainability. Water pipes equipped with sensors can detect leaks, for instance.
In the Port of Hamburg, Germany, sensors on roads, bridges and other infrastructure are being used to monitor ships and vehicles and to cut the environmental impact of operations.
Søren Hansen, senior chief consultant at Ramboll, the Danish engineering, design and consultancy company, cites embedding sensors in the tarmac of car parks so that empty spaces can alert nearby drivers.
“It’s an efficiency tool, and because you save time for drivers and passengers, that’s converted into productive time and you reduce air pollution and energy consumption,” says Mr Hansen.
And if the internet of things can promote greater efficiency and productivity, it is also relatively cheap to install, especially when done at the same time as big rebuilding projects.
“The cost of this is marginal compared to the cost of the actual infrastructure, so it is a great opportunity to try new things,” says Léan Doody, smart cities lead consultant at Arup, which is working with the city of Christchurch.
One piece of city infrastructure that is seen as having great potential to harness the internet of things is the lamppost. Lampposts, equipped with motion detectors, can light up only when a person or vehicle approaches, saving energy. However, street lights also have the advantage of height, allowing the installation of sensitive equipment high above cars and pedestrians, and are widely installed across most cities. They are also connected to the power supply.
This means they can be used to monitor everything from electric meters and vehicle charging stations to traffic lights and parking spaces. Sensors can detect changes in noise levels that might indicate incidences of crime or civil unrest.
“The lighting installation in the urban space is the most important piece of infrastructure in realising the smart city,” says Flemming Madsen, head of secretariat at the Danish Outdoor Lighting Lab, a Danish consortium that is developing and testing smart lighting systems in Copenhagen.
“We’ve developed a smart city lighting pole, so you have more space at the bottom for the intelligent applications, electronics and software controls.
“And all the luminairs [light fittings] have an IP address so they can talk to us and we can talk to them,” he adds.
Mark Skilton, a digital expert at PA Consulting Group, sees broad applications for smart technologies in cities. He sees the internet of things linking the physical world with “the cyber world of connected digital services, smart buildings, mobile citizen data and connected services”.
But despite the tremendous opportunities the internet of things presents to cities, municipal administrations face several hurdles in implementing these kinds of technology initiatives.
Municipal procurement processes — favouring large, established companies — can be at odds with the need to work with nimble, start-up IT businesses. “They [city governments] might arrive at better solutions if they were able to work more collaboratively with the supply chain than procurement sometimes allows,” says Ms Doody.
The siloed nature of many city governments also acts as a barrier to implementing projects, with technology investments made by individual departments rather than in support of overall city objectives.
“There may be smart parking pilots and journey planning information being made available but they’re not joined up to policy objectives, such as getting more people on to public transport,” says Ms Doody.
Some cities have recognised the need for more joined-up technology thinking. In the US, for example, cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and New York have chief information officers or commissioners to oversee city-wide technology developments.
Mr Hansen believes governance and leadership is as critical as the technology itself. “City governments have to develop a strategy. They need to know exactly what they want the smart city to do. Otherwise development can go in any direction.”