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Q&A: When Cities Come to Life

How smarter infrastructure leads to better citizen experiences

In everyday life, many things go unnoticed – particularly when these things are problem free and work as expected. The lights come on when we flip a switch; the toilet flushes when we push the handle; the water flows from the faucet when we turn the knob. For decades, we have come to expect these everyday conveniences – so much so that we give them little thought at all. Their existence is mundane and predictable. 

City governments, which are responsible for – or often a large part of – providing many citizen services such as electricity and water, are also used to routine processes and systems, such as garbage collection, traffic lights and water treatment to name a few. But what if these ordinary services could become extraordinary, reaching optimal levels of efficiency, saving costs and increasing citizen service at the same time?

The Internet of Everything (IoE) – the networked connection of people, processes, data and things – is creating opportunities for cities to come to life. Sensors embedded in infrastructure that create smart roads and metering, real-time data that provides information on citizen behaviors and predictive modeling, and machine-to-machine connections that enable significant efficiencies are just a few examples of how the IoE can change everyday life for citizens and the governments that serve them.

In this Q&A, Hardik Bhatt, a former CIO for the City of Chicago who now serves as the senior director of the Internet of Everything for Cities at Cisco, discusses one government service the IoE is transforming: outdoor street lighting. 

Q: Why is street lighting an important candidate for IoE technology?

Hardik Bhatt: Cities across the globe are responsible for providing outdoor street lighting whether they generate the electricity themselves or purchase it from a utility. The street light pole is a fundamentally important asset in a city. Traditional street lighting has two settings – on or off, with no 24/7 monitoring. When photo cells inside the street light sense daylight or ambient light, the power to the street light is cut – meaning that at any given time, the electricity routed to the light is either 100 percent or 0 percent. There is no in-between, which wastes money but also doesn’t provide the best environment for citizens. Until today street lights only provided light, but that is changing for two reasons: Street lights are a natural point of convergence for urban services (light, video, navigation, electric vehicle charging, etc.), and they are also one of the rare assets on which cities can mount  equipment.

Q: How is IoE changing street lighting?

Hardik Bhatt: We are seeing a complete revolution in this area and have already deployed pilots in Chicago, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Hamburg. These cities are replacing halogen light bulbs with IP-enabled LED light bulbs, which gives whomever is managing those street lights full control of the light, allowing them to manage the lighting remotely and even through mobile devices.

Ambient light sensors within each pole can also detect the amount of light outside and draw only the power the street light needs to compensate for the reduced daylight. For example, at around 9 p.m. the street light might start drawing 80 or 90 percent power in a neighborhood or secluded street. However, if it’s Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Market Street in San Francisco, cars with headlights and surrounding buildings are going to provide more light. The ambient sensors in lights on those streets will sense that light from other sources and draw less power.

Cities are also using sensors to detect if pedestrians are in an area, dimming lights late at night when no one is around, but setting them to come back to full power if they sense activity.

Street lights, in essence, becomes the ‘killer-app’ for larger smart city IoE strategies. The investment involved is large, includes multiple solutions as well as services, and network choices can be done on the back of it. A great example is how Denmark Outdoor Living Lab (DOLL) is testing multiple lighting vendors with multiple services and technologies on one unified network.

Q: How do these changes positively impact citizens?

Hardik Bhatt: Governments can extend the ability to monitor street lights to citizens. For example, I could use my mobile device to check and see if the street lights in a particular location are working, how brightly lit that location is, and, based on that, determine how safe I would feel in that area. If I’m going to a specific area in my city for example, the service nodes that go under IoE-enabled street lights with video cameras in them would allow me to see what traffic is like in the area or if there were large gatherings of people that might make me feel unsafe. I can be much more aware as a citizen about my safety and security before going to a location because I have access to the city infrastructure on demand. 

Once you have 24/7 power and lighting infrastructure that is on a converged network, you can create opportunities for local businesses to tap into that connected infrastructure and build new apps using that data and network. Chicago, for example, is planning to retrofit its entire street light infrastructure. One of the reasons for this is the city wants to provide network access to every neighborhood and through every street light pole to spur innovation.

What’s exciting about this example is that it shows how you can take one seemingly mundane government service such as outdoor lighting and create multiple effects for government agencies, citizens and businesses. 

Q: What are some other IoE examples like street lighting that could transform government services?

Hardik Bhatt: Cities in general can be much more aware of how people are moving in their neighborhoods, what direction they are headed in to get from point A to point B, and how traffic is flowing on their streets. All of this information is possible through triangulation by way of a converged network. With this information, cities can not only plan their street lighting better as previously discussed, but they can manage their traffic lights more efficiently and even design the width of their sidewalks better based on where and how they are being used.

Sensors on the street can communicate the flow and the amount of traffic, and historical data can provide city leaders information on when it might be best to close a street for repairs or which routes might provide the best options for detours.

This can also be applied to parking. If cities can look at the historical usage of parking by hour, by day and by location, cities – if municipal ordinances or outsourcing contracts allow them to – can implement dynamic pricing for particular areas or parking zones. Once cities become more aware with data provided by IoE deployments they can gain a holistic view and provide services to citizens in a better way.