Connected Public Lighting: A Powerful Accelerator for Smart Cities

Connected Public Lighting: A Powerful Accelerator for Smart Cities

This piece was originally published in the July 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Susanne Seitinger, PhD, Global Smart Cities Segment Lead, Philips Lighting

Dr. Seitinger works with civic leaders and designers to develop smart cities that leverage digital lighting for safe, inviting, and responsive urban environments. She serves on the IES Board of Directors.

The year 2008 marked a milestone. First, more than half the world’s population was living in towns and cities, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Second, for the first time in history, more objects than people were connected to the internet.

The analyst firm Gartner calculates that 8.4 billion connected objects will be in use in 2017, an increase of 31 percent from 2016.[1] As urban migration increases and connected devices proliferate, these parallel trends promise new links between physical spaces and digital infrastructures that increasingly include light-emitting diode (LED) street lighting, site lighting, and architectural lighting.

For municipalities, these two trends present an opportunity and a challenge. Cities small and large are flourishing, but the strain on infrastructure and services is bourgeoning. Leaders increasingly reference the potential for real-time information and controls that improve city services and enhance quality of life. Los Angeles recently implemented an artificial intelligence–based agent that fields many basic requests from citizens. Citizens themselves are also using location-based services and social networking tools in new ways to navigate their cities. Feeding these intelligent systems requires more data from the field, a requisite that is far from trivial.

Enter street lighting. Unlike many other systems, street lighting is omnipresent in our urban environments and provides an ideal backbone for gathering data. At the same time, public lighting does something that no other city service can do: it transforms visual appearances and how people experience places—from streets, parks, and walkways to bridges, monuments, and buildings—producing a particularly strong emotional impact.

More than any other public service, urban lighting is integral to a city’s identity, character, and livability. Its two strengths—ubiquity and visual impact—make lighting one of the most powerful accelerators for exploring new, smart city services.

Shedding Light on Smart Cities

Lighting consumes more than 10 percent of all electricity in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.[2] This presents an enormous opportunity to achieve energy efficiency goals, especially with the transition to LED lighting technology. New LED luminaires consume 50 to 75 percent less energy saving on utility costs, which also benefits the environment. Combine near-real-time monitoring with lighting control and you stand to gain an additional 15 to 20 percent energy efficiency.

While only a few years ago less than two percent of outdoor lighting was connected, we expect 35 percent of outdoor lighting to be connected by 2025. Digital lighting combined with other embedded computing capabilities enables lighting managers to easily monitor status and energy consumption from anywhere, anytime.

New approaches to systems that leverage the cloud and various networking technologies are revolutionizing the old paradigms around lighting control. Capabilities such as integrated workflow management shift how maintenance work gets done in the field. Now, asset data is automatically up to date and field workers can rely on their own first-hand view of the information while they’re doing the work. This capability shifts how city operations can be organized.

Lighting the IoT Pathway

Beyond the impact on street lighting itself, the pervasiveness of the lighting infrastructure is at the heart of discussions on how to deploy new IoT networks in cities. It is already powered, and it is increasingly connected. The next step is to leverage each location as part of a pathway for gathering, sharing, and analyzing data at a much more fine-grained spatial and temporal rate.

In 2016, the city of Los Angeles piloted a project to expand its smart city capabilities by collecting acoustic data through its street lighting system. This provides near-real-time insights about potential noise pollution or incidents, enabling better short-term responsiveness and long term decision-making. Unlike any other system, street lighting has the potential to foster new ideas around distributed sensing in cities.

Collecting additional data from the field needs to be linked with specific policy goals. Every city is driven by a distinct set of forces that might demand prioritization of one issue over another. Jennifer Belissent of Forrester Research refers to the networks in the field as systems of automation to connect the physical world, another way of referring to IoT.[3] These data are linked with what are called systems of record. It isn’t until systems of engagement are linked with constituents and citizens that we can expect smart city solutions to deliver systems of insight.

To facilitate a speedier exploration of potential insights, we need open technologies and well-defined software interfaces. These interfaces enable city managers to link services together and manage them centrally and comprehensively. Well-defined interfaces also afford an opportunity to start small and implement new applications quickly, as technologies evolve and needs grow and change. Many new applications, unforeseeable today, will evolve, ensuring the vibrant city life that people expect well into the future.

What’s Ahead?

Lighting reflects the metabolism of the city: on a large scale, a lighted skyline reveals non-stop activity; on a smaller scale, individual citizens can control their environments. Adaptive digital lighting solutions can contribute significantly to city operations and livability. Lighting alone, however, cannot revitalize a city or neighborhood. Rather, it is a vehicle that reconnects people with places and emphasizes the true strengths of their community.

In 1989, the city of Lyon, France, introduced a holistic lighting masterplan that revitalized the historic core of the city. Today, Lyon is known as the capital of light, hosting the largest festival dedicated solely to illumination, the Fête des Lumières.

As cities address new challenges, how will they leverage the capabilities of digital lighting linked with smarter infrastructures and new services to address the significant challenges of the 21st century? Anthony Townsend captures the challenge well when he talks about not only increasing “efficiency, control, convenience” but also focusing on “sociability, transparency, fun.”[4]

It is especially this latter category that may make all the difference in the long run to shape and sustain resilient, vibrant, and equitable cities.

[1] “Gartner Says 8.4 Billion Connected ‘Things’ Will Be in Use in 2017, Up 31 Percent From 2016,”

[2] “Frequently Asked Questions,”

[3] “Case Study: How Buenos Aires Became Insights Driven,”

[4] Anthony Townsend, SMART CITIES: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (W.W. Norton, 2013).

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