Smarter Cities for a New Normal: Improving Infrastructure Post Pandemic

Nicholas Church - Schréder Hyperion
Nicholas Church
Global Business Development Manager for Smart Cities

Cities have been drawing people to them for millenia. Hubs for ideas, creativity and relationships, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and 68% of us will be living in cities by 2050, according to UN forecasts. The global outbreak of COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work and play, and while city living still holds tremendous appeal, it’s made many urban centres think about deeper infrastructure challenges and how to rebuild as people exit lockdown conditions

From decluttering pavements to facilitate social distancing, to staggered start times for schools and offices, the pandemic has been an opportunity to try doing things differently. New lighting systems can help make some of the positive changes permanent, by integrating everything from EV charging points to 5G infrastructure. As cities consider adapting their infrastructure at this inflection point Nicholas Church, Global Business Development Manager for Smart Cities, shares his perspective on what lighting can do.

Let’s start with the big picture - are people actually leaving cities?

There’s a lot of articles suggesting that cities will change completely, but I see it more as an acceleration of existing trends. It’s more that people will inhabit cities differently. A number of people have said, “hold on, during COVID we went to live with my parents out in the country and we’ve been happier.” Once people have settled down and had children, having space, or a garden, is more important. Basically, we’ve also realised during the pandemic that you don't need to be in the office 5 days a week, going in once a week for a few meetings is more productive. That model is probably going to be COVID accelerated. 

At the same time, there's no doubt that cities are where things happen: they’re where people meet, where they get stimulated and have ideas. This means that we are going to see faster disruption for mobility as the balance of people working at home and working in the office is going to change. That's something that was already happening, but it has been accelerated. The whole way people travel is going to evolve; perhaps it will be less congested at rush hour.

Lighting infrastructure can help cities become smarter and more sustainable

So people are moving differently? 

Yes. It’s obviously evolving as people travel outside of rush hour, people go in and out of cities more at off-peak times, they want to avoid crowds. As we started coming out of COVID we all realised that we need to be together to get re-energised, and that's really important. 
But my view is that there's going to be a middle ground that we're going to be content with, which will be getting together when required, but a bit more living in the countryside or suburban areas. And that means a change in lighting patterns that reflects the actual flows of people.

As lighting becomes more intelligent, it is controlled by a platform. We can integrate sensors, from a simple PIR sensor, to intelligent sensors or an edge computing camera that actually detects people waiting, the training arriving from the tunnel, weather conditions: there are a whole lot of different ways in which we can make the lighting smart. It’s about creating places, making them comfortable and welcoming and also saving energy - even when they’re being used in different ways post-COVID.

That can involve innovative ways to measure things, right?

Yes, totally. So the Bois de la Cambre is a forest within the city of Brussels, just south of the centre. Sometimes the road that goes through it is really busy, and at other times it’s virtually empty - and you don’t want to disrupt fauna and flora when it’s quiet. We connected the street lights there to an API from an online traffic system so we were able to adapt the lighting according to the real-time traffic without having to install sensors on the luminaires or road. That’s a huge saving in terms of energy, maintenance, in terms of installation disruption. It’s a case of using anonymous data that’s freely available and making people’s lives that bit easier.

The street lights in Bois de la Cambre are dimmed to 50% when there is less traffic on the roads

Things like this are growing, and we’ve been developing projects like this throughout the pandemic. Because of mobile phones, we know where quantities of people are and can get light to adapt directly.

Managing pedestrian flows and saving space are huge issues for cities now aren’t they?

Again, this is a trend that had been happening slowly but is now accelerating. Cities are using space differently, and maybe thinking that pavements are going to need to be wider. We want to declutter streets and avoid areas being uncomfortable or too crowded. Pedestrianised streets means smartening up infrastructure and a smart pole like SHUFFLE, can be really useful. Instead of an ugly Christmas tree, with bits sticking out, signage, cameras, lights all over the place, you have one sleek, smart, futureproof pole. 

One of the clear reasons to do this is to save some energy, but it’s also about safety, about having tidier streets. And lighting is connected to the grid, it’s everywhere. We can use it to actually build other technologies. Rethinking streets in the wake of COVID has unleashed this potential. Parking spaces are being used to extend cafes as we can only sit outside, so that needs extended WiFi. So why doesn't the city actually just put some WiFi on the streets with a smart network? Outdoor spaces are being used differently and we’re talking to partners about what they want and need now.

At the same time, there’s been a huge demand for the internet, hasn’t there?

Indeed. With remote working and virtual meetings during lockdown, demand for bandwidth has exploded. And remote working practises are likely to persist; take the UK where the 50 biggest employers are set to embrace hybrid working models. The reality for a lot of people is they don't have a fiber optic cable at home, they rely on 4G, so we need to think about the missing link. Whether that is the next generation of mobile network or satellite internet, lighting infrastructure can help cities develop connectivity

To expand the existing mobile network to include the latest technology, cities require more antennas. There's nothing particularly magic about 5G - what's behind it is a slightly more efficient data model to communicate information through a network, and more masts. The masts and antennae can be quite unsightly but we can help cities integrate them neatly into lighting rather than having more untidy poles on buildings. It’s part of what makes working with cities so exciting, thinking about what they need to grow next.

So really, it’s about how lighting can help reimagine cities post-pandemic...

Exactly. At the start of the pandemic, cities invested heavily in technology to manage the crisis, but as we emerge from this phase, we need more smart city solutions that enable new ways of living and working. Making the transition to a carbon neutral circular economy is a huge deal for cities right now, but it can be tricky to figure out how to get from jargon to concrete steps that people really notice. This shift creates opportunities and lighting infrastructure can play a big role in making cities more liveable and sustainable. At Schréder we’ve been creating cities people love to live in for a long time. So, get in touch to discuss your needs!

About the writer
Passionate about building a sustainable future, Nicholas joined Schréder Hyperion, our Smart City Centre of Excellence, when it opened in 2019 in Lisbon. He is focusing on developing outdoor lighting control system offering to help cities build FutureProof lighting systems for smart city projects. Today he chairs the UCIFI marketing workgroup aimed at supporting and growing the UCIFI alliance that is intent on breaking down barriers to make smart city technologies more open. Nicholas studied Civil Engineering at Imperial College London, did an Erasmus in France and is now based in Portugal.

Connect with Nicholas on LinkedIn.