Smarter cities could start with a simple light bulb swap

Simply swapping out the old-school incandescent, sodium or metal halide lamps with newer LED bulbs that can also contain an array of sensors can push a city on the path to becoming smarter, said Wim Elfrink the Executive Vice President for Industry Solutions and Chief Globalisation Officer with Cisco. According to Elfrink, while cities are installing the LED lamps they often elect to put in video surveillance and even Wi-Fi access points too.

“We see this as an enormous inflection point,” Elfrink told me during an interview on Thursday. “This could blanket a city in Wi-Fi and enable the city to offer citizen services and we are always looking for what will be that inflection point. The simple light bulb could be it.”

He pointed out that having the video surveillance means that computers could count the number of people in the area and reduce or increase the light based on the amount of foot traffic. More people require less light, cutting down on energy. Of course, not every city will be comfortable with video surveillance in all public areas, and Elfrink says most will start with small pilot projects such as one that is being deployed in Chicago.

The Chicago street lamps don’t use cameras to track people, instead they count the number of people by tracking the number of cell phones as they ping asking for Wi-Fi hot spots. They also track temperature and various weather and pollution data via sensors. In Copenhagen, Elfrink estimates that by placing Wi-Fi access points in about 92 percent of the street lamps you could blanket the entire city with Wi-Fi.

The video wall at the DOLL Visitor Center in Copenhagen showing  the live feeds of the streets and data visualizations.

The video wall at the DOLL Visitor Center in Copenhagen showing the live feeds of the streets and data visualizations.

And while the Wi-Fi wouldn’t be part of the actual LED bulb, many of the sensors and maybe the camera could be. In fact, many of the smart bulbs coming out in the consumer and commercial markets double as speakers or sensors of some kind or another. Beacons or ambient light sensors seem to be the most popular in the commercial space.

Such plans also require the city to own or have access to dark fiber so it can offer its own services, but the data it can gather and the potential savings it can realize are substantial. For example, there is the obvious savings from more efficient lighting being turned to the most appropriate level, but adding more sensors means the city can better predict weather patterns and position snowplows in areas where the snow is likely to hit hardest, before it happens.

Elfrink says that every city should have an information and telecommunications technology plan, much like they have an urban and economic development plan, so they can understand where the data from these endeavors should go and who owns it. These plans should also detail how the data should be shared across these city instead of being locked up in a single department. For example, if the lighting and power department claimed this data and didn’t share, it would be much less valuable.

Even as cities start with one-off deployments in smart parking or perhaps a connected street lamp pilot, it’s worth thinking about how to bring these disparate forays in the digital realm into a holistic platform that citizens, governments and developers can access and make use of in ways that protect privacy and ensure security of city assets. That can be an overwhelming project, but as Elfrink says, just start with a single light bulb.

Updated: This post was updated January 26, 2015 to correct the spelling of Wim Elfrink’s name.

Qualcomm and LIFX partner up for smart lighting reference design

To make it even easier to build a connected light bulb, Qualcomm Atheros and startup LIFX have teamed up to create a Wi-Fi module and software that lets lighting manufacturers get a connected product on the shelves in no time. And if that weren’t enough, anyone can buy a reference design kit containing a connected A19 bulb (the typical lamp bulb) with the connected module and software) from Arrow Electronics, a distributor. Qualcomm will be showing off the module and reference designs in Las Vegas this week at CES.

The goal here is to make the Raspberry Pi of lighting, and see what digital dividends might accrue when people combine connectivity, LEDs and their brains to the concept of lamp bulbs. As someone who talks so much about lighting on her podcast that listeners complain, I’m excited about the possibilities. Qualcomm Atheros and LIFX are already working with established lighting manufacturers such as Havells Sylvania and home networking leaders such as D-Link to build smart lighting products.

Using the Wi-FI module and LIFX software means the light bulb won’t need a hub because instead of the lower-power ZigBee mesh standard, the light bulb will just be able to hop directly on the Wi-Fi network. The manufacturer will have a choice of using colorful lights or white lights, which will impact the overall price of the bulb. A Qualcomm spokesman was unable to offer any sense of price as that would be set by the end customer. Typical LED connected bulbs can run the gamut from $15 for the connected white Wink bulbs to $99 for the colorful LIFX bulbs.

It’s worth noting that the Qualcomm module and LIFX software will work with the new All Seen Alliance standard for lightbulbs which means it should work with other AllSeen Alliance member’s products. This means that future games from fellow member Microsoft running on the Xbox might be able to turn your lights red when you get killed or flick your on and off when your baby’s Sproutling monitor wants to let you know something is wrong.

The lighting module and LED bulb reference design are available now.