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The digital infrastructure of our future smart cities

September 18, 2017

With the ubiquitous influence of artificial intelligence, our everyday life has entered the enchanted realm of hyper-connectivity. We live in a time of massive opportunity in the digital space, to lead better, easier and more connected lives.

In the developed world, the future is always released a season ahead. Anything that can be connected will be connected.

However, in the emerging world, focusing on the Internet of Things (IoT) appears to be putting the cart before the horse. Digitalisation shouldn’t be about things — it is about people. We need to focus on the Internet of People.

The over-reliance on smart devices and capital-intensive technology has given the emerging world limited access to new world connectivity.

To extend wider access to connectivity, private smart devices are not the only gateway for individuals to step into a collective digital consciousness. We need to ensure our public infrastructure is as connected as the technologies we use in our daily lives.

The recent national emphasis on digitalisation and collection of data as an asset has brought another essential building block of the future into the spotlight.

With an estimated 59.2 billion lighting points available by 2030, the opportunity of an intelligent lighting system as a pathway to connect cities and individuals to the digital ecosystem is phenomenal

Lighting is a much overlooked physical public infrastructure already in place that could put us on the high speed road to a well-lit, sustainable future.

Digitalisation does not always have to require significant capital outlay or an overhaul of existing infrastructure. There are existing turnkey solutions in the market where current infrastructure can be retrofitted with newer technologies.

Case in point: Connected lighting is a future-proof ‘plug-and-play’ platform for data collection and urban sensing, managed through smart controls in the IoT.

With an estimated 59.2 billion lighting points available by 2030, the opportunity of an intelligent lighting system as a pathway to connect cities and individuals to the digital ecosystem is phenomenal.

Connected lighting has the potential to transform each of the estimated 300 million street lights worldwide from being an output point for light to becoming an input point for information.

Each lighting point can collect data about its surroundings and inhabitants. These light poles can then start to provide input on human and vehicle traffic flow, air quality, crowds and security risks, energy consumption, waste, transport and other critical functions.

In the United States, 4G LTE wireless telecommunications technology is already being merged with energy-saving LED street lighting in Los Angeles to provide an architecture that can help residents improve cell service — with the scalability for further integration with new technology in the future.

For example, the city of Los Angeles is testing out streetlights outfitted with integrated sensors that can wirelessly detect gunshots and other noises to enhance public safety, and may expand the capabilities of these censors to recognise air pollution and earthquakes.

In Southeast Asia, connected street lighting has been a core component of the ongoing transformation of cities like Jakarta and Malacca into the region’s smart cities.

A connected lighting infrastructure, as a platform for data collection, can create an auto-learning environment for the spaces we live, work and play in

As part of a city-wide upgrade by DKI Jakarta Government office, nearly 90,000 of the Indonesian Capital’s street luminaires have been replaced with energy-efficient LED lights connected to a cloud-based smart lighting management system.

The true added value in bringing light points into the IoT is that connected lighting is an ideal platform for urban sensing. A smart city’s systems need to be open. Smart city systems need to be connected.

The ability to integrate with existing infrastructure using standardised interfaces presents the opportunity for a city to deploy new applications quickly as technologies evolve.

In a world where technology continually modifies our everyday experiences and the physical environment around us, an overarching infrastructure convening people, assets and data will serve to gradually narrow the divide between the built environment and the virtual environment we reside in.

The recent slump across the global retail landscape, in both developed and emerging economies, points to existing challenges we need to navigate around un-boxing our experience engaging with digital and physical spaces.

For digital natives, the growing disconnect with the physical experience of a product or service along the purchase journey has much to do with the lack of experiential value in a static physical environment.

What the connected consumer needs is a physical environment that can automatically learn more about its inhabitants as they spend more time in it and anticipate their consumption needs, preferences and patterns.

The pairing of visible light communications with indoor positioning technology is already reimagining the physical retail experience.

Lighting fixtures in stores can be embedded with sensors that can collect data about consumers for analysis — where they are, what time of the day they are most likely to visit the store and which aisles they are spending time at.

The sensors can also detect the shoppers’ smartphones across the shopping floor to deliver services, such as way finding, digital store mapping, notifications of prevailing sales promotions of interest to the client, personalised shopping assistance and recommendations, and location-based information and recommendations.

In the near future, we can also expect our offices to run on connected lighting systems adapted to each user’s personalised preferences for lighting and temperature settings. In-built room luminaires can track activity patterns and daylight levels, collect human occupancy and foot traffic data throughout the day.

For the connected consumer, the true meaning of ‘virtual reality’ hinges on a hybrid experience that pushes physical and virtual environments to adapt to their inhabitants’ changing experiential consumption patterns.

As technology continues to transform the way we relate to and engage with the spaces we inhabit, artificial intelligence and smart applications will continue to push the demand for infrastructural updates that can support our evolution into a smart nation.

This is my theory: the catalyst of the next big bang will not be unlike the first one. Let there be light, and there was light.

The writer is theChairman and CEO for Philips Lighting in Pakistan

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 18th, 2017