Smart Street Poles are the Key to Smart Cities
You heard it here first: as cities around the world embrace new technologies and become more efficient, sustainable, and livable, street poles will emerge as a crucial infrastructure element. Obviously, smart street poles are less appealing to the masses than flying cars and holographic adverts. The pragmatics among us will nevertheless realise how ubiquitous they are today, and how important they will soon come to be — in a boring, predictable, yet futuristic / SciFi way.
These seemingly mundane objects will serve as a hub for a wide range of smart city applications, from traffic management and public safety to environmental monitoring and energy efficiency. As such, it’s important to understand what they are, as well as their benefits and drawbacks.
What’s Smart Street Pole, and why are they important?
An intelligent street pole is, in essence, a lamppost that’s been pimped out to host a variety of connected objects (IoT devices), including cameras, sensors and display screens — all of which have gotten rather cheap over the past decade. It obviously also provides light to its environment, though that’s often forgotten in the existing literature on the topic.
Using these connected objects, smart poles will be able to support a wide variety of tasks.
5G network backbone
5G is needed to make much of the City of Future happen. It however uses higher frequency waves than 4G. These waves don’t travel very far (comparatively) and can’t go through walls as easily. So we need more antennas than we have today to make sure that these waves can reach everywhere. Only the can everyone get super-fast internet without interruptions. Street poles are the perfect objects to house 5G antennas (to a certain extent). No smart poles, no city of the future!
Another City of the Future staple is electric cars. They are however power-hungry, and charging stations are not as dense in cities as they should be, given EV’s lower range compared to their polluting cousins. By using street poles as charging stations, we will dramatically increase the EV charging infrastructure and reduce the “range anxiety” that often keeps consumers from making the switch to electric vehicles.
Air / sound quality analysis
Sensors at every corner of a city could help government officials analyse the quality of life at a very granular level. Ideally, this would help us identify where noise is costing people precious sleep (and thus productivity), and where heightened pollution may be harming children. This of course could be weaponized… but when has the government ever enacted harmful, neighbourhood specific policies targeted at specific populations?
Localisation / tourism
A precisely localised sensor, matched with a screen, could be a life-saver for many tourists. Additionally, since the poles can provide internet access, they could be used to inform or direct tourists and locals alike. Many travellers would benefit from knowing where the nearest grocery store is without having to go to a Starbucks for Wifi.
Finally, cameras equipped with computer vision algorithms could easily identify crime and send notifications to law enforcement when such events are identified. It could also be used for crowd control, by identifying potentially dangerous behaviours and automatically communicating with people’s smartphones. This is of course very Orwellian and should be seriously questioned / audited (hint : it won’t be). Another less nefarious use case is the use of sensors to light up paths when someone comes near them, saving energy and increasing security.
Who would own Smart Street Poles?
Smart Street Poles will become valuable real estate, as their prime location and ability to interconnect many sensors will avoid multiple installations and provide cost efficiencies for smart city operators. Though this infrastructure would ideally be controlled and monitored by a single operator (the state?), the many corporations vying to operate many services in the space will likely make this difficult.
What’s most likely to happen is that many different operators will emerge. Public actors, always eager to cut costs, will be happy to let private companies have a crack at operating part of their pole park. They will be deployed in parking garages. They will become part of smart real estate developments. They will be used by retailers to attract, and communicate with, potential clients. By 2040, most curbs will be privatized. Who knew a dystopia could be so boring.
Nevertheless, private actors would be wise to understand that their business can only be enhanced by data exchanges between ecosystem partners; EV charging times, matched with location and browsing history could be very attractive to advertisers, for example.
Issues With Smart Street Poles
I can identify three critical issues that will emerge from the creation and implementation of Smart Street Poles; all of which will slow down their adoption.
Lack of ownership clarity
As highlighted above, if everyone owns a street pole, no one really owns it. Nothing will get done, and it will go down as a good idea poorly executed. Issues around management of assets mounted on poles, together with maintenance, data orchestration and cybersecurity need to be addressed to enable scalability and drive adoption.
Operators will need to enforce digital security at three levels: the pole level, the transmission level, and at the Cloud level, where the data from all the poles will be stored. With an increased number of connected services becoming available, digital intrusion and privacy violation risks are greatly increased. Without the best security, one can only imagine the mayhem bad-faith actors (institutional or otherwise) might cause to the city of tomorrow.
Cities are already in a state of quasi-total and continuous surveillance. Adding cameras and scanners on every street pole will not help this. As such, citizens’ privacy concerns should be managed upfront. Strong legal frameworks need to be created — the EU’s GDPR was a good start but will need to be enhanced (strengthened?) for a new age of smart cities.
The idea of a Smart City is a tautology. Cities are already smart, with their own specific memories, habits, and quirks. Nevertheless, it will be fascinating to observe how new infrastructure can be installed to change the way we interact with our urban environments.
If privacy and cyber-security concerns can be assuaged, I believe Smart Street Poles will be beneficial to millions of current and future urban dwellers.
Good luck out there.