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Streetlights Still Easiest Route to a Smart City, Experts Say

Smart city project deployments are anticipated to pull back 25 percent from earlier estimates as COVID-19's stretches the limits of city budgets. Choosing the right projects will be essential for the best return, experts say.

by / July 17, 2020
One of thousands of smart streetlights in San Diego, Calif. City of San Diego

Smart streetlights and utility meters will likely remain as the foundational infrastructure for smart city systems in the age of COVID-19 recovery.

Those leading the charge into modernizing traditional city infrastructure for better data collection and other efficiencies argue that intelligent streetlight projects are, and will remain, the low-hanging fruit of these efforts.

“Overall, I think what we are going to see over time… [smart streetlight and metering projects] will continue to grow significantly, in the U.S. market, even with the current pandemic,” said Ben Gardner, president and co-founder of Northeast Group, a smart infrastructure market intelligence firm based in Washington, D.C.

These projects have appeal, namely because of the energy savings they bring cities, averaging 66 percent for connected streetlights and/or LEDs, Gardner said during a webinar Wednesday hosted by Meeting of the Minds.

“With cities now in a budget constraining environment, these projects are a good way to find significant savings,” said Gardner.

Smart streetlights and metering emerged several years ago as the entrée into the smart city technology space, offering up efficiencies, cost savings and a baseline to build data gathering and analytics for other use cases.

And as cities slog through a sluggish economic recession brought upon by the novel coronavirus pandemic, these could be the sorts of projects that make the most sense, for the same reasons they made sense pre-recession: return on investment.

Smart streetlighting “is just a very clean and proven business case. You’re going to get a very attractive payback on it,” said Gardner.

Bob Bennett, principal and founder of B2 Civic Solutions, a smart cities consulting firm in Missouri, and the former chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo., advised leaders to focus efforts based on the needs of the community.

“Use that human-centric focus,” Bennett advised during the webinar. “But then your secondary interest point would be where the existing budget is.”

Emerging technologies in areas like video capture and facial recognition – often co-located on smart streetlights – may take a backseat, as leaders have pumped the brakes on these, said Gardner.

“I think there are very real concerns about that technology, and it needs to be handled in a very delicate way,” he said.

Video capture technologies around facial recognition are getting a second look in the wake of nationwide protests calling attention to unjust policing, racial inequity and a tech landscape that seems boundless in its abilities.  

“I think it’s such a rapidly evolving field, and things are so fluid at the moment that we really kind of need to see how things play out,” said Gardner, responding to a question from Government Technology related to the capture of video data and discussions around how government should use this data. “But I think that cities themselves, are really kind of holding off now. I don’t think that you would see many cities sort of charging head first into this space these days.”

The economic recovery for cities will likely take two possible paths, said Gardner, pointing out the U-shaped recovery, where city finances don’t get back to normal until maybe 2021 or 2022.

“We’ve already seen some existing deployments paused, and some new deployments postponed. So we do see this as a very likely scenario,” said Gardner, anticipating a 25 percent reduction in the deployment of smart city projects this year, compared against the company’s pre-pandemic forecast.

The hockey-stick recovery is also described as a likely path, where the sharp decline in economic activity is met by a gradual, but steady improvement.

Two unlikely scenarios are the V-shaped and L-shaped recoveries where recovery bounces quickly back, as in the V or never really returns, as depicted by the “doom and gloom” L with its sharp drop-off and flatline.

“Regardless of what happens in the equity markets, specifically looking at the smart infrastructure sector, this scenario is unlikely,” said Gardner. “Supply chains have been disrupted too severely, and municipal budgets are under too much pressure to see a rapid bounce back.”

And the L-shaped flatline is not likely, if only because, “both the fiscal and monetary support has been simply too aggressive to allow this to happen,” he said. 

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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