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IntelliStreets: Digital Scaffolding for 'Smart' Cities

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I'll admit it: streetlamps have had a hold on my imagination since I was a little boy, visiting my grandmother in Baltimore. Coming from the suburbs, where there were only occasional streetlamps tacked on to utility poles, streetlamps were an elegant aspect of urban life to me.

Now I've fallen in love with streetlamps all over again, because of the IntelliStreets version of the venerable urban fixture. homeland security, energy conservation, the Internet of Things, and "smart cities" rolled into one, Intellistreets hits all of my hot button issues! (see illustration here).

I think this new streetlamp-on-steroids may not only be very important in its own right, but also as a precursor to a wide range of Internet-enabled devices that meet multiple needs because they are "smart" and networked.

The IntelliStreets "smart" lamppost is the product of the imagination of Ron Harwood, principal and creative director of Illuminating Concepts, based in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. Harwood told Crain's Detroit Business that he got the idea from his company's projects for Disneyworld and Universal Studios -- a few of the companies for which Illuminating Concepts has designed exterior LED-based lighting systems.
The basic IntelliStreets lamppost looks like its conventional counterpart (available in both traditional and contemporary designs), and some actually use existing poles topped with a the company's unique lamp, but that's where the resemblance ends.

The basic version of the system features a self-organizing (which means, among other things, that it can still operate if one of the poles is damaged) wireless mesh network that facilitates significant energy savings: not only does it use inherently-efficient LEDs, but the lights can be dimmed significantly as ambient conditions change, such as after sidewalks and streets empty late at night. The built-in sensors can actually turn off one side of the street before the other at sunrise.

Illuminating Concepts estimates that the system can cut energy use by up to 70%, and that the LEDs will last 50 % longer than with conventional controls. Each light assembly also includes an all-weather speaker system to broadcast a wide range of information.

That's impressive enough, but what really struck me about the IntelliStreets pole is that it represents a paradigm shift in which a ho-hum light pole becomes a 21st-century scaffolding from which a wide variety of components can be hung. Among other features enabled by the mesh network, a pole can include:

• an LED banner system to promote coming civic events, defray lighting costs through ads, and provide real-time traffic routing information.
• digital street signs that can not only provide location information but also indicate nearby parking facilities or other routing information.
• real-time links to Amber Alert.

I was most interested, given my preoccupation with distributed systems in emergencies, in how the same components that facilitate communication in normal times can switch instantly to providing two-way emergency communications. "Blue-light" emergency communications buttons similar to those found on college campuses can allow invididuals to call for help, while the built-in speaker can broadcast emergency information. The digital street sign and/or banner system can provide emergency evacuation routes Optional built-in sensors can detect rising floodwaters, biological and radiological hazards and relay that information to command centers.

Illuminating Concepts says that, had IntelliStreets been in use locally at the time, response to several major natural disasters or terrorist attacks might have been considerably different:

• "Earthquake in Berkeley, California: Instead of a siren going off, through IntelliStreets more localized voice messages could have relayed the real information needed to know about the quake and any action needed to be taken...
• Hurricane Katrina: Instead of no warning system other than TV and Radio -- through Intellistreets citizens that were outdoors and not connected to some media device could have been told what to do and where to go. After the storm, relief efforts could have been facilitated by having much more information about where people were stranded and those in more desperate need...
• September 11, 2001: Instead of panic in the streets and traffic backed up blocking first responders, IntelliStreets would have been an aid in almost all forms of information and announcements." (a key advantage of the distributed mesh network model, BTW: Ground-Zero communications was seriously disrupted because it was dependent on a Verizon switching facility that was overwhelmed by the volume of traffic, whereas a mesh network could route around obstacles and still transmit low-bandwidth communications).

The Drudge Report and other bloggers have attacked IntelliStreets as an Orwellian Big Brother monitoring system. The actual system lacks that kind of capacity for intense surveillance of individuals, but I think most urban residents would welcome its potential as a resilient emergency communications network.

Given the cost (base price for a unit is $3,000) I think IntelliStreet lights are much more likely to be installed in retail malls, sports venues, on college campuses, and in new construction, as opposed to retrofitting, although increasing energy costs make the case for them more compelling. A full Activity-Based Costing analysis that would also factor in issues such as more efficient traffic routing during road repairs, special events and emergencies would further strengthen the argument for retrofitting. As the cost of the individual components comes down through economies of scale, IntelliStreets might well become commonplace.

I can't help wondering: as more and more prosaic devices from our everyday environment become networked Internet of Things "smart" devices, what other things that we now take for granted could assume new roles as invaluable sources of real-time, actionable two-way information?

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