How the ‘humble lamppost’ means smarter streets — through London’s big collaboration with fellow European cities

Chief Digital Officer for London, Theo Blackwell writes about a major European city initiative on smart infrastructure — but warns of lost EU tech funding in the future.

A group of European cities, spearheaded by London, are making a bold commitment to deploy smart technology at a grand scale: and at the heart of this is the ‘humble street lamppost.’

Street lighting has long been a fundamental service provided by municipal government. It ensures safe transport, makes cities safer, and allows cities to look their best. However, there is so much more that can be done to ensure street lighting is able to serve citizens better.

Smart street lighting provides more than just light. In the future, city lampposts could charge electric vehicles, monitor a broad range of environmental issues such as noise and air quality, increase connectivity at a hyper-local area, improve public Wi-Fi and provide CCTV to improve public safety. Lampposts are also an important publicly-owned asset for the roll-out of 5G — which will require hundreds of thousands of small installations scross London — in coming years.

The lamppost —

As the largest city in the EU, London has potentially hundreds of thousands of lampposts in scope for modernisation.

Implementing innovative solutions like smart street lighting, the EU-funded Sharing Cities programme at City Hall acts as a pathfinder in developing the concept of a ‘packaged’ smart city.

By fostering international collaboration between industry and cities, the project seeks to develop affordable, integrated, commercial-scale smart city solutions with a high market potential. The project partners work in close cooperation with the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities and with other `lighthouse` consortia.

Representatives from city-clusters across Europe (Greater London, Metropole Rotterdam Den Haag (MRDH), Bordeaux Metropole and broader Aquitaine, Piedmont region and soon also a Spanish city-cluster) signed a declaration in Sofia, Bulgaria to align their smart project activities.

The EU as a whole has somewhere between 60 to 90 million lampposts; 75% of them are more than 25 years old, and only a single digit percentage of them use energy-efficient bulbs. Across the EU, there is an estimated waste of €200 million each week in energy that could be saved by upgrading old lights.

It will have a marked positive impact on the market. It will deliver the scale and consistency of needs that attracts the ‘supply’ market, and deliver better value solutions at more affordable prices for the cities and their citizens. It aims to trigger €500 million in investment and to engage over 100 municipalities across Europe.

London’s contribution

London is at the heart of Sharing Cities’ European work in realising the potential of the smart cities of the future. This is reflected in our new Smarter London Together Roadmap which sets out a bold ambition for smarter streets.

It pledges to support a new generation of smart infrastructure through major combined procurements and proposes planning powers to promote common standards with smart tech to maximise benefits.

Lampposts are primarily a responsibility of London’s boroughs, so City Hall has a big coordinating job to do. So far 19 of the London Boroughs, Transport for London, and the Metropolitan Police have been supportive of this initiative.

This represents significant scale.

Across all 19 boroughs and TfL there are around 350,000 lampposts. Through collaboration we can reduce costs, provide common designs, secure better finance and make the technology more easily available to boroughs. Joint projects like this are meaningful for cities, many of which have suffered from significant budget cuts. Buying at scale like this creates new tech markets and saves taxpayers money.

Our programme is currently engaging with boroughs with the aim to enter pre-procurement next year.

The programme is having an impact beyond Europe too. At the WeMaketheCity Conference in Amsterdam, I signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Sao Paolo in Brazil to collaborate on smart city solutions, including the ‘humble lamppost’ project.

Our new MOU with Sao Paulo

Brexit worries

Pan-European collaboration has already delivered huge gains for citizens living and working in European cities, but the worry is that Brexit is set to create new challenges for city leaders in delivering the smart cities of the future.

London and UK cities stand to lose if Whitehall either doesn’t plan to replace investment available to EU cities and regions for smart cities, or become an “Associated Country”, from 2021. We are also concerned about new opportunities for city-to-city collaboration after the ‘humble lamppost’ project.

The European Commission recently published a proposal for a Digital Europe Programme for the 2021 – 2027 with a budget of €9.2 billion (more detail here).

The Commission’s intention is to fund activities that will shape Europe’s digital transformation to the benefit of citizens and businesses. In the post-Brexit environment, the UK must match the EU’s ambition for smart cities or risk becoming left behind.

The EU has set out a bold plan for smart cities in the 2020s and beyond. With Britain set to leave the EU in March 2019, it’s vital that London remains a trailblazer for European smart cities in the post-Brexit environment.

Going forward the Government must embrace the spirit of collaboration and work with European partners to ensure that UK cities can benefit fully from radical smart city innovation across the continent.