Will Street Lights One Day Drive Our Smart Cities?

An interview with lighting designer Konkana Khaunaud, of the firm Frost & Sullivan, who offers fascinating insight into the roles lighting will play in smart cities.

The annual Lightfair Convention and Tradeshow settles into Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Convention Center on tomorrow through May 11. Packed with educational programs, the show will also feature the Smart Lighting Forum, a full day of sessions on May 10, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We were especially intrigued with the discourse on “Connected Lighting: The Future of our Cities,” and so decided to pick the brains of lighting designer Konkana Khaunaud, of the firm Frost & Sullivan.

Metropolis: Digital lighting and connecting technologies promise a very different approach to lighting up cities and buildings. Would you talk about a project that comes close, in your perspective, to realizing the future city with what’s possible today?

Konkona Khanund (KK): In terms of actual projects, many vendors are doing this work on a private basis, with the exception of a few projects that are fully sanctioned and have fully taken off. To give you examples, GE uses the Predix platform. I believe that in San Diego deployment through the platform is helping the city revamp their existing infrastructure to implement solutions. LEDs that are connected to the GE system automate control of the city’s lighting infrastructure.

Then there’s the information management of the city, where information is utilized to manage different aspects of city functions. Part of it has to do with traffic. And part of that information is utilized to manage safety and security .

Metropolis: You mentioned that there’s always a benefit of security and safety. Can you elaborate on how exactly that works and what that means? Will lighting posts have different kinds of sensors?

KK: You’re right in terms of sensors. The sensors are basically instrumental in feeding the information. Once you get the information in the nerve center, you are able to act upon that information, if necessary. For instance, let’s say a mob gathering could trigger flood lighting as a deterrent, or use the LEDs to trigger public sirens.

In the event of weather-related warnings, the sensor-based lighting could be synchronized to help you with snow removal. This way the light generates additional data points which would help the city determine how they can synchronize or dispatch certain services out to certain communities, linking together different functions.

It’s not so much the sensors being on/off, but how they are synchronized to manage other functions, like mobility and traffic. This could be linked to your building. It could be linked to dispatch of services, which then leads to more immediate engagement with local governance. These different functions are actually made possible by lighting in a smart city.

Metropolis: So, what we traditionally think of as just a lighting post is becoming a very complex and a very deep piece of technology that is involved in all these other systems.

KK: Yes. The light pole is your termination point for communication infrastructure. It’s now your communication hub, your dispatch point for a lot of vital information that feeds into the nerve center of city management.

Metropolis: Is there a city that you would say is, by whatever metric, most sophisticated or advanced, in terms of implementing this kind of tech?

KK: Ultimately, they’re all aiming to be at the same level of advancement. You need to remember that technology is always advancing, so cities now starting their smart programs are  benefiting from the latest innovations and latest design additions to those technologies.

Today cities are aspiring to go where, ultimately, we want them to be, in terms of having this seamless connectivity, being able to benefit from the new information, and being interactive in a multitude of services. We’re not looking at lighting in isolation, not looking at buildings in isolation, but leveraging all these different smart volumes as the multitude of power points within a smart city, to be able to use each of them as a conduit to manage their services.

A smart city is never delivered by a single vendor. Phillips, Cisco, IBM and others are working on phases, creating parts of the infrastructure and revamping conventional lighting to smart lighting.These projects typically go on for years and use existing cellular networks to operate their small platform.

Metropolis: Let’s talk about energy units saved. What can municipalities expect to save in terms of energy costs and usage?

KK: Unfortunately those numbers all over the place. Some  claim  30 percent, others  go as high as 50 or 80 percent. It’s a question of how that lighting was installed and what was the baseline. Cities all over the world will have different footprints.

Metropolis: A lighting designer I know has been working with the city of New York. At a meeting with city administrators, she was told about a problem where standard fixtures were retrofitted with LEDs. Because they didn’t really know about color temperature, the LEDs are now very, very cool in color and make the streets unpleasant to be on at night. There’s been a lot of complaints from community. If you had some city folks in front of you with buying power, and they just knew that they wanted to switch to LED, what would you suggest they be aware of when looking at these kinds of systems, specifically with product and color in mind?

KK: LEDs have improved quite a bit. Manufacturers today have access to some of the latest outputs. There are different ways you can test these and they have different color dimensions. I’d be very surprised if any city wasted that kind of money today without really testing these products directly.

Metropolis: Does decision making happen at the neighborhood scale or the building scale? Is it just a single control center for the entire city monitoring different neighborhoods and different blocks? What is the scale of decision making?

KK: If it’s just the public square they are renovating, it’s pretty much going to be basic. But if they are trying to do things on a more centralized basis, bringing in many different buildings together to benefit from the upgrade, this can be scalable.

Metropolis: Let’s say this kind of smart, sensitive technology is broadly distributed throughout the city. The bigger the system gets, the more centralized that control will be. Will communities be cut out of this digital decision making process?

KK: The real benefits of centralized control, especially if you look at it from the perspective of a city, has to be centralized control, from the administrative point. The objective is to put budgets together, to maximize as many functions as possible, and that’s how they, basically, take approval for most of these projects at any given time.

Metropolis: When municipalities are having these kinds of conversations, either with vendors or with other providers, is the question of citizen privacy a topic? Is it something that’s considered?

KK: I don’t think that it’s being given the kind of importance it needs to have. This is just one of those questions you have to ask.  Also, what form of privacy? From a citizen’s standpoint, the more information you provide, the more vulnerable you make yourself.

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