Where the Light Shines: Smart Street Lighting

Should the street lights be turned on at night?

The question might sound trivial, or seem to have a straightforward answer. But this isn’t the case. This is a controversial issue for northern Canadian cities where some, like Iqaluit, can experience as little as three and a half hours of sunlight during the shortest day of the year.

On the one hand, some municipalities turn street lights off at night to reduce energy costs. This also cuts down on light pollution, protecting aurora tourism and the experience of seeing Northern Lights from the city center. There are also arguments linked to wellbeing, such as in Halifax, where residents have complained about bright white LED lights keeping them awake at night. On the other hand, street lighting boosts the feeling of public safety and helps pedestrians and drivers avoid accidents. Take these Finnish towns, for example, which decided to turn lights back on at night to cater to residents disliking having to walk in the dark.

So, what do we do?

Allow us to introduce you to smart street lighting.

Smart street lighting basically implies connected street lamps via different technological infrastructure such as 4G, Wi-Fi or low-bandwidth networks. Through certain control systems, operators can keep track of energy usage, identify outages and malfunctioning to maintain the lights more efficiently, and dim the lights if needed. Smart street lights can be loaded with motion sensors to turn on in case of an emergency, or when a citizen passes by. Different ‘smart’ applications can be integrated into street lighting grid. They can be leveraged to stream video and voice, report gunshot detection, gather environmental data, and provide real-time feedback regarding traffic congestion and available parking spots.

Smart city lighting can also be leveraged to address a particular social issue. The lights can be built to provide free Wi-Fi service in a cost-efficient way, which is crucial for dealing with the ‘digital divide’ that is the chasm between who has access to internet and those who don’t – an important source of social exclusion.

This sounds like a big deal. Is it feasible?

The answer? It depends.

Cutting-edge applications might require huge amount of investment if applied city-wide. Also once locked in, it might be financially challenging to upgrade the systems. It’s therefore important for city officials to conduct needs-assessment and implement community engagement strategies to understand what kind of technological infrastructure should be set up that responds to the needs and expectations of the local communities. City administrators are also highly encouraged to being smart city lighting initiatives with pilot programs to assess scalability.

There are different ways of financing these smart street lighting systems. Public-private partnership is one of them. The City of Lloydminster, for example, partnered with ATCO for a pilot project. Other cities are planning to use Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge as an opportunity for raising the funds needed, such as the City of Yellowknife.

We can make our cities safe, inclusive, energy efficient, and easy to engage. To that aim, smart street lighting can be a starting point for northern Canadian cities!