Streetlights emerging role in the future of smart cities

Our ancestors realized the importance of street lighting as early as 500 BC. The people of Beijing piped in volcanic gas emissions to light up their streetlamps, and about 600 years ago, London’s mayor Sir Henry Barton ordained that all houses hang lanterns outside when night falls during the winter months.

Streetlights give us a sense of safety and help bring neighbourhoods and cities alive at night. It discourages crime and reduces the risks of traffic accidents. There’s also an economic impact as the hours where commerce transactions are extended beyond sunset, and it is beautiful. It improves the quality of life for the citizens.

City planners around the world are warming up to the benefits of smart streetlights and they are for good reasons. According to the International Energy Agency, the overall demand for lighting will be 80% higher by 2030 than in 2005. Street lighting energy consumption is an increasingly significant part of cities’ energy use and a growing burden on municipal budgets1.
The existing streetlights today fall short in many ways for a modern city. They’re not adaptive, they work based on a pre-set timer and fail to serve us in inclement weather when we need it the most. Failed lights are undetected for weeks or even months as cities and operators rely on citizens’ complaints and the irregular, inefficient manual drive checks. The streetlights are also on at 100% brightness throughout the night, regardless of the amount of ambient light or vehicle traffic patterns, generating light pollutions and consuming unnecessary amounts of energy.
The new smart streetlight controller in the market today are addressing the problems mentioned above but what has accelerated the adoption is new connectivity technologies optimized for low power, low connectivity cost and small data packets, i.e. LPWAN. City planners are approaching streetlights with the goals to reduce costs and reduce carbon footprint. The modernizations are driven primarily by city branding, cost savings, and contribution to its sustainable development goals. All of these are noble pursuits, but the current approach misses a big opportunity to address cities’ other imminent problems.

street lights as an IoT hub in smart cities
Street lights as IoT hub in smart cities

Cities need to overhaul how it manages its solid waste. Rapid population growth due to urbanizing trend will make our already strained landfill unsustainable soon. Due to unseparated waste, more than 30% of potentially recyclable materials such as paper, plastic, aluminium, and glass are still directly disposed of in landfills.2 To extend the service lives of the landfills, officials are mandating citizens to separate recyclables at the source. This requirement adds complexity to the collections and optimizing the route as there are three or four as many bins to manage. With a streetlight equipped with a micro gateway, the city can transmit the data at no cost and track the trash bin within 2 meters accuracy with a Bluetooth beacon. AI models can be developed by the cities to accurately predict waste generation and automate route planning, ultimately increasing collection efficiency.
Cities need to optimize resources to ensure we use our resources efficiently. To achieve this, cities need a method to track objects and resources reliably and, in a cost-effective manner. We need an alternative method of asset location other than GPS as its signals degrade in cities. GPS modules are pricey and require frequent service as it needs to be recharged regularly. On the other hand, Bluetooth tags cost a fraction of a GPS tracker with battery that lasts for 3-5 years. The infrastructure costs for outdoor tracking is now negligible as it is built into the streetlights.
Cities are generating a new economy with services like Gojek™, Grab™ and Food Panda™. They create important job flexibility for the young and citizens in career transitions while addressing an important need and reduces traffic congestion. These services need to accurately locate their customer efficiently, but GPS signals n dense cities reflect on the buildings and give off false locations. We can help these new economies with a more accurate and alternative location service to GPS through the smart streetlights.
The ubiquity of the streetlights lends itself to be a hub for other smart city devices. Cities needs a low-cost connectivity for their sensors and they also need to track its location accurately. The rapid urbanisation of cities brings a lot of opportunities and challenges. We have an opportunity to build a healthy, inclusive and sustainable cities, and we want to be part of the solution by developing and designing smart city solutions. We are looking forward to connecting with other organizations and people with the same aspirations. Let’s work together for a smarter, sustainable and better city, for all of us.

  1. LED street lighting unburdening our cities https://blogs.worldbank.org/energy/led-street-lighting-unburdening-our-cities
  2. Integrated solid waste management: Issues and challenges. http://nehapmalaysia.moh.gov.my/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Paper-2-Solid-Waste.pdf

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