What’s Light Got to Do with It?

As lighting designers, we are concerned that light poles in the public realm are quickly and, in many cases, seamlessly evolving into the “Swiss Army Knife” of Smart City technology.  Their “perfect elevation,” strategic positioning and complex wiring capabilities have made them the preferred host for video cameras, echo location systems and a variety of sensors, including audio sensors.

There are (of course) advantages to Smart City technology -- noncontroversial uses of light poles to   provide wireless Internet city-wide, responsive traffic signals or pavement maintenance alerts, for example.  However, some of the more granular ‘data collection services’ that a Smart City system may provide are quite controversial, including (but not limited to) facial recognition technology, audio sensors that record conversations, and sensors that track foot traffic or purchasing practices in public space.

There is push back and concerns about the potential dark side of omnipresent surveillance. The media as well as state and federal governments are now asking about the use and interpretation of facial

 recognition technology by law enforcement or public housing developers of public housing.  Concerns are also being raised about the retention and storage of data collected in a raw format in “Data Lakes,” where data is never thrown away and could be accessed at a later date by those perhaps lacking civic-minded intentions.

As lighting designers, we feel a particular concern that controversial data collection sensors are being integrated into new pole designs or simply added onto existing light poles without public oversight, debate or even awareness that this is happening.   We, as lighting designers, need be clear that street/pedestrian lighting in no way requires any of these services nor are they a necessary component of more efficient LED light sources for reasons. Additionally, we feel that companies promoting friendly- sounding Smart City services that rely on the use of strategically-placed light poles need to be clear with us and with our clients if there is granular data collection involved and for whose benefit it is being collected.