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The complexity of multifunctional smart city projects

One of the so-called low-hanging fruits in smart city plans is street lighting. Significant savings can be achieved by replacing the existing system with LED light and allowing for the management of light contingent on the level of traffic. This, of course, also results in cost savings.

I discussed the street lighting project with my colleagues in Amsterdam last month and received a good indication of the complexity of what looks like a rather straightforward project.

For starters, there is always the barrier of upfront costs. Before you can even start the project significant money needs to be spent on these new lights. They can be prefabricated in the factory with Wi-Fi chips, dimmers, etc. However considerable cost is associated with this, and most of the time cities don’t have the money for a large-scale approach; and for small-scale projects the costs per unit can be very high.

Then there is the actual changing of the street lights. This has to be done manually and in Amsterdam there are over 150,000 of them, so launching a project to replace all of the street lights is a near impossible task.

Next on the list is the underlying infrastructure for electricity and communication. In the older parts of the town some of that infrastructure is more than 50 years old. In many parts of the city the original telephone grid is still used to switch the streetlights on and off, and, because it’s analogue, it would require major investment to use it for IP connections. As will as this, it was privatised in the 1990s, meaning Amsterdam must negotiate any changes with the company that runs it.

Other equipment such as sensors and antennas also require IP connections. Amsterdam is also looking at partnerships with other service providers (eg, mobile operators) who could also profit from such a smart lighting infrastructure, but at the same time the city needs to consider its history and heritage. Part of the city even has a UNESCO World Heritage listing and spoiling charming old-fashioned lamp posts with antennas might not be appropriate.

Innovative solutions are being considered – even replacing areas along the canals with so-called ‘tree boxes’. Trees in Amsterdam are another problem as they can’t grow too big within the rather small areas along the canal, where they compete with parking spots, bike racks, cafe terraces, foot paths, and so on.

A ‘tree bank’ is a series of boxes in which the trees can grow and which can easily be replaced when they grow too big. The trees can then be used elsewhere. An infrastructure project like this can also be used to include other infrastructure, such as placing the street lights and communications equipment in waterproof containers that can provide the smarts needed for a broad range of ICT managed services linked to the street light project.

The next item on their list for discussion now is the water drainage issue. Climate change is causing very heavy, short downpours and the city’s drainage system has not been built for that, so there is an urgent need to solve this problem as Amsterdam is suddenly facing flooding problems.

While all these projects and issues are under development, the fact that Amsterdam has had a smart city plan for seven years allows the city to look at these issues in a holistic way.  Silo thinking is replaced with a multifunctional approach, as the solutions can’t be simply implemented city-wide. Using the opportunities that require urgent action these multifunctional projects will most likely first be implemented in areas where the problems are the most severe and from there they can be spread out into other parts of the city.

Paul Budde