In the modern age, seemingly everything has an added dose of intelligence built into it. Phones, homes and appliances are smart, even mundane items like floss, too — but what about the cities in which people live?
Most people may not associate inner-city infrastructure or gridlock with artificial intelligence (AI), but there is an effort underway from Intelligence of Things (IoT)-enabled technology providers to solve those problems — and other issues plaguing cities — with the help of smart technology. Lighting and electronics provider Philips Lighting, for one, recently teamed up with wireless and broadcast communications infrastructure provider American Tower to design and deploy a network of “smart poles.” The devices look like everyday street lights, but combine a mini cell tower with built-in telecom equipment and radios.
The smart light poles, which can be deployed on roadways, streets and parking lots, work to improve wireless and broad network coverage in urban areas via wirelessly connected LED lighting, thus creating a foundation for urban communities to evolve into “smart cities.” According to Roger Karner, president of Philips Lighting’s U.S. Market group, the pole partnership is part of a larger effort to build the “smart city” of the future — an urban environment equipped with IoT-enabled technology to monitor and address issues like traffic, crime, repairs and other problems.
In a recent interview, Karner told PYMNTS the poles will help cities accelerate adoption of smart city technologies by providing the first steps to connectivity.
“We strongly believe that lighting will be a backbone for smart technologies in cities,” Karner said. “Not only can you have energy-efficient lighting, which is going to be very important for the future, [but] you can [also] use that as a backbone for future IoT propositions. For example, if you want to have a transmission or collection of data, lighting can do that. When you’re talking about the digitalization of communication and you’re talking about lighting, those things can go hand-in-hand.”
Slow to Adopt
But, while Karner extolled the potential value of Philips Lighting’s smart lighting and city planning technology, he also acknowledged that adoption rates in the market remain very low. That is due, in large part, to the legacy infrastructure in which most cities invested decades ago and on which they still rely today.
Replacing legacy infrastructure with shiny new IoT-enabled light fixtures takes more than just an optimistic attitude and an open embrace of fresh technology. It also takes a serious investment of both money and time to overhaul a major city’s entire lighting system.
“I would say the first [challenge] is that we still have [that] slow adoption rate,” Karner said. “On average, cities have 20-year-old lighting installations, and the rate of new fixture installation is still very low. That means [to come] up with a high penetration rate, we need really big investment from cities.”
Some cities, however, including high-profile metropolises, have already faced those challenges head-on and made the investment.
Breaking Down Barriers
In 2016, Philips Lighting announced a new partnership with the city of Los Angeles in which it introduced IoT-enabled lighting technology to the city’s streets. With the installation in place, Los Angeles officials can remotely manage more than 100,000 smart street lights and help the city reduce the estimated 40,000 maintenance calls it receives for outages each year.
But, according to Karner, more cities need to take the smart city plunge for the technology to see its full potential. To convince them to take that plunge, Philips Lighting and other IoT-technology providers need to prove the benefits of smart lighting and smart cities.
Most importantly, providers need to stress that those benefits include savings on energy costs, he explained, which can help offset the initial investment. Providers also need to show other uses for the smart technology, like attracting visitors, that can bring additional revenue into city governments.
“These kinds of things need to happen much more in order to get that really big scale, but you need someone willing to make the decision, to make the kind of large investment [it] requires,” Karner said. “But, when you have the chance to explain the energy savings, especially, and the other value propositions you can add on top of that — the effect it can have on traffic, on tourism, on safety — [those] can really impact how people think of smart cities.”
The Future of Cities
Despite the monetary and other impacts smart city technology holds, it still struggles with those historically low adoption rates. According to Philips Lighting, fewer than 1 percent of the more than 44 million light poles on streets and roadways in the United States are connected.
But, Karner and his team hope the new poles — and other AI innovations — can help accelerate the adoption of smart city technology in the U.S. He noted connectivity upgrades like these are often the first step to delivering future applications that harness IoT for operations like emergency services, acoustic sensing, air quality monitoring and autonomous vehicle navigation, among others.
Because, Karner said, if even a fraction of cities offered the same intelligent technology found inside phones, homes and appliances, the possibilities for city planning and urban improvement could be nearly endless.
“The value propositions, the energy savings — these are all making it more attractive for cities; because it’s not only refurbishing an old light … [it also] derives more value for the city,” he added. “There are almost as many applications as you can think of for this technology, from offering brighter and safer lights to providing Wi-Fi connectivity to climate detection to even helping the police. That’s all possible.”