Smart Cities: Space for Recovery

If lighting wants to be at the forefront of the ‘connected place’ (as we might be better off calling ‘smart cities’), it needs to get serious about adding intelligent controls as standard to LED upgrades as well as more savvy about recognising the opportunities that may come from post-pandemic recovery strategies

By Mark Cooper

This article first appeared in Lighting Journal, June 2021, vol 86, no 6

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As most lighting professionals will well know, the concept of ‘smart cities’ has been with us for some time now. Yet there is still some hesitancy in deploying the technology, either because of lack of funding, unclear strategy, failed leadership and unclear vision, or just down to not knowing when and where to start.

In this article, therefore, I will try to help you to overcome some of those barriers, including how and where to start, what technology choices should be made and how to recognise that you are on the path to a smart city, as we are not going to complete this journey in a single article or a single project!

So, let’s make a start. First of all, can we agree that there is a lot of hype around smart cities and most people can’t even agree on what constitutes a smart city?!

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UNDERSTANDING ‘THE CONNECTED PLACE’

This is maybe because it means so many different things to so many people. In fact, do we want it forever linked to ‘a city’? Personally, I am tending to move away from the term smart city; it is too big a concept to describe what most of us are trying to achieve. I prefer the term ‘connected place’.

I define a ‘connected place’ as an area that is commonly used in terms of human and social interactions and indicates somewhere with an ambiguous boundary. Connecting people, things and places can do several things:

  • Improve services (for people)
  • Reduce impacts (on the environment, on society, on people)
  • Reduce the cost of delivery (for taxpayers, for customers, for society)

In short, connecting people improves the outcome; it improves the quality of life; and it pays back in spades!
By creating a series of connected places, be these a village square, a park, a road or highway, buildings or campus, we will eventually have a large enough volume to have created, yes, a smart city.

Critically, it is important from the outset to have a clear vision of what we want our outcomes to be for each connected placeand what, in turn, the big picture vision might therefore be for the authority as a whole. Once we have joined these projects together, then we can identify the goals, departmental interactions and how to judge the success of each project and how they connect as a whole. This, in turn, enables a business case to be developed for each project, whilst at the same time maintaining the overall vision for the authority, where it is going and what it is trying to achieve.

Up to now, most projects we have seen developed for smart city applications can be grouped into one strategic area of ‘smart highways’. These projects are usually easier to quantify in terms of return on investment (ROI) and have a shorter-term payback period. These applications include (but are not limited to) smart:

  • Street lighting
  • Bins
  • Gullies
  • Parking
  • Air quality/environmental monitoring
  • Traffic/people counting
An illustration of a ‘Parklet for People and Cars’ as envisioned by Susan Claris of Arup.

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BARRIERS TO GROWTH AND EFFICIENCY

So, it makes sense that, if we can keep all of the data displayed in one system and connect all the sensors to one network, then that’s what we need to do – right? Wrong! Why? Because it is almost impossible, and certainly not efficient, to have all sensors on one network.

There is no one single network for a smart city or connected place; whatever you’re putting in place, you’re going to dealing with and navigating a blend of different networks for the right applications.

Therefore, trying to make a sensor fit on to a network that’s not optimised for the application it is monitoring is setting the project up to fail before it has even started. Each of the above applications, for example, has very distinct needs based upon the amount of data, speed of response and network transmission capabilities required.

It is the same for the data that is generated by these sensors; having smart parking data and air quality information displayed in your street lighting CMS system is, in my humble opinion, pointless!

In 2006, the mathematician and entrepreneur Clive Humby coined the phrase: ‘Data is the new oil.’ Many people took this to mean that, to generate wealth, all you need to do is control and collect data. However, to my mind, that’s only half the picture. Data has no value unless you do something with it. You need to be able to visualise it, analyse it and, crucially, generate actions from it.

For example, every street lighting CMS system I have seen is little more than an asset management system. Don’t get me wrong, it can display your asset data in nice graphs but it is far from the machine learning and artificial intelligence systems needed to collect data from multiple sensors on various networks and combine this with historic records held by the authority and then add in other open-source data sets from national agencies. Yet it is this combination that provide a complete picture and actual valuable data-driven insights for the authority.

The good news is that, not only do these systems already exist, they can output the data in many various forms and to many different places. These could be a series of live dashboards for the highways office, a website for public consumption, or a complex set of tables or charts for the management team. It could even be generated as tailored and individualised sets of data and dashboards for each user, be they lighting engineers, energy managers, traffic engineers or planners.

So, having looked at some of the pitfalls that stop connected places from becoming a smart city and driving the maximum value from your investments, let’s now look at how we might maximise those investments. I’d suggest two key solutions.

  • Don’t get hung up on the technology or the network that’s going to be used. As already highlighted, different technologies and networks will all have to come together at some point. I would, however, recommend that, when it does come to networks, you specify the use of standardised and open-protocol systems and avoid proprietary technology; both these will minimise vendor lock-in.

Don’t get hung up on the technology or the network that’s going to be used. As already highlighted, different technologies and networks will all have to come together at some point. I would, however, recommend that, when it does come to networks, you specify the use of standardised and open-protocol systems and avoid proprietary technology; both these will minimise vendor lock-in.

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CREATING THE CONNECTED PLACE

Let’s now look at some simple solutions that can be implemented quickly to help you develop your connected place project: adding intelligent controls to LED upgrades as standard, and maximising the opportunities that may come for regrowth, renewal and regeneration post pandemic.

We are all familiar with the benefits that moving to LED street lighting can do for an authority, with 50% energy savings and the ability to introduce part-night dimming lighting levels through programmable drivers. If you add intelligent lighting controls to this set-up there is a possibility not only to be able to refine those lighting levels to provide a potential of an extra 15% savings but also to reduce maintenance operations and the carbon footprint through reduced patrolling, and maintenance operations.

To me, it seems a no-brainer to do this; the business case is proven and the payback period when these controls are implemented at the same time as replacing the lantern is greatly reduced.

Did you know, according to the latest UK Roads Liaison Group ‘State of the nation’ report, in the UK we have replaced nearly half of our lighting stock with LED lanterns, but only 50% of those new LED units have had intelligent street lighting controls added to them? [1]

What this illustrates is that, despite the progress that has been made, we are missing out on the potential of extra energy savings, the increased efficiency of the operational service and, if chosen correctly, the ability to create a network that could support the deployment of other smart applications using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors.

With the development of more sophisticated integrated connection and control systems in street lighting, devices such as the ZHAGA book 18 socket and D4i drivers, we can add even more intelligent control options. Innovations such as radar-based dynamic lighting sensors can provide an additional 25% energy saving above and beyond those of just swapping to LED lighting by providing full lighting output as and when it is needed.

Or take dimming to 20% output when there is no pedestrian or vehicular activity detected. These units don’t even need connected lighting controls to work; they can be complete standalone systems and will still provide that additional 25% energy saving, reduced light pollution and increased safety of full lighting output when needed.

Here I want to add a note of caution, however. Although I applaud the development of the Zhaga book 18 socket and the dedicated control units for outdoor lighting, it does not make the connection of IoT sensors any easier or simpler to deploy.

The voltage restriction on the D4i driver (24v dc) means there are a limited number of outdoor sensors for this system. Ultimately, this system will make connected street lighting system cheaper to deploy, but it does nothing to aid a smart city deployment. Indeed, you can even argue it could actually hinder the ease of deployment by rendering one of the most valuable assets an authority owns (a street lighting column) more expensive because of the extra cost required to utilise and maintain it if that authority wishes to pursue a smart city plan.

An illustration of a ‘Recharge Parklet’ as envisioned by Susan Claris of Arup.

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BUILDING BACK BETTER?

Let us move on to our second simple connected place project solution: piggy-backing on, but also driving forward, the government’s post-pandemic recovery agenda.

In March this year, the government published an infrastructure policy paper entitled Build Back Better: our plan for growth [2]. This aimed to establish growth funds and frameworks to help the UK bounce back after the Covid-19 pandemic. Several areas directly relate back to our struggling high streets and communities and how investment in these areas can have a very real impact on people and places.

For example, the paper states that: ‘High quality infrastructure is crucial for economic growth, boosting productivity and competitiveness. More than this, it is at the centre of our communities.’

Critically, it adds: ‘Infrastructure helps connect people to each other, people to businesses, and businesses to markets, forming a foundation for economic activity and community prosperity.’

Digital connectivity – as we have all discovered over the past year – is unlocking new and previously unimaginable ways of working and is now essential to facilitate public services, including healthcare and education.

Alongside this, the rise in publicly provided Wi Fi for access to these services and opportunities is something that every authority, from a town council to a county authority, should have included in their vision for a connected place.

Indeed, the government in the same Build Back Better report has recognised this and plans to stimulate short-term economic activity and drive long-term productivity improvements via record investment in broadband, roads, rail and cities, all as part of capital spending plans worth £100bn next year.

There are funding options within this to aid authorities to meet this challenge, to boost infrastructure investment in all parts of the country, help people connect to opportunity across the UK and assist areas in levelling up. The aim/hope is that people will see tangible improvements in their local area; feel pride once more in their communities. Indeed, four funds – Levelling Up, Shared Prosperity, Towns, and Future High Streets – have been created precisely to invest in local areas and local infrastructure [3].

One way to meet these challenges has grown from the necessity of meeting the social distancing challenges of the Covid 19 pandemic: ‘parklets’. These are parking space-sized gardens or seating areas in cities and town centres that could have furniture, such as seating, plants (including a herb garden), bike parking or anything else you can fit into a car parking space or two.

One way to take this innovation further, and bring in an opportunity for lighting professionals, has been mooted by Susan Claris, associate director in Arup’s Transport Consulting Group. This is the idea of ‘ReCharge Parklet’, where USB charging for things like e-bikes and e-scooters is incorporated into these spaces [4]. Susan’s original idea was born of frustration at electric vehicle charging posts going in, in the middle of, the footway.

There are now systems available that can utilise free solar energy from panels integrated into benches and street furniture. These provide USB and wireless charging points for phones and tablets whilst you sit and relax drinking your coffee and taking advantage of the free public Wi Fi provided by this connected place.

If you add an e-bike or e-scooter charging system, you suddenly have a sustainable urban mobility hub that can provides a combination of connectivity and a place to rest whilst enjoying the beverage purchased from the adjacent high street outlet. In other words, you very much have a hybrid connected place.

Importantly, these connected places meet all the objectives of the Build Back Better policy and ambition. They provide many of the features that are most likely to help the high street recover from the pandemic. Crucially, they can provide a crucial stepping stone, and enabler, for a local authority to meet its vision for a smart and connected future.

Mark Cooper IEng MILP is director and founder of consultancy Smart City Products

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References

[1] ‘State of the nation: 2020 street lighting report’, UK Roads Liaison Group, Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation, UK Lighting & Technology Board, Streetlighting Advisory Services, January 2021. Available online at: https://ukrlg.ciht.org.uk/media/12713/sotn-report.pdf

[2] ‘Build Back Better: our plan for growth’, The Treasury, March 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/build-back-better-our-plan-for-growth

[3] ‘Levelling Up’ fund, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/levelling-up-fund-prospectus; ‘Shared Prosperity’ fund, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8527/; ‘Towns’ fund, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cdp-2020-0176/; ‘Future High Streets’ fund, https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/future-high-streets-fund

[4] ‘Five fantastic parklet designs and why we need more of them’, High Streets Taskforce, January 2021, https://www.highstreetstaskforce.org.uk/resources/details/?id=438cc9f4-4698-4d31-bdd5-13cb27c2fb98

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