The sci-fi future of lamp-posts
Street lighting has always been a form of social control. As ‘smart’ lamp-posts start to adapt to our needs, are we entering a brave new world of big city lights?
The Guardian, Rory Hyde, Thursday 13 November
From first gas lanterns to today’s big data-driven smart LED systems, street lighting has always been a powerful tool of social control: it shapes what is, and what isn’t, permitted in the city after dark. (…)
The next big thing in lighting, as with seemingly everything today, is “smart”. The Philips company’s IntelligentCity system offers a “complete insight into what is taking place within your lighting system, [and] allows you to communicate with it”. This is the world of the city dashboard, a central control system of glowing monitors and data feeds, promising mayors and city officials a god’s-eye view of their city, and the ability to control it at the swipe of a touchscreen. This promise isn’t new, it has its roots in the cybernetic thinking of the 1960s, a fascinating history Evgeny Morozov explores over at the New Yorker. But with today’s technology, the dream of the smart city dashboard finally appears realisable.
These systems are promoted as environmentally friendly and cost effective. Philips claims that switching to LED street lights and installing intelligent systems can save cities 70% on energy. But just as with the earliest gas lamps, the IntelligentCity system is also pitched as a way to maintain social control, “prevent[ing] crime by keeping lights on in problematic neighbourhoods”. The latest product in Philips’ arsenal is the LumiMotion lamp-post, a street light and motion sensor in one, which lights up as people walk under it. And new navigational headsets for blind people use sensors in lamp-posts to help you “hear” your surroundings as a “3D soundscape”.
Do these generally useful new technologies also point toward a more sinister future for public lighting? In the pursuit of adapting to the public’s needs, these pieces of urban infrastructure are harvesting more and more private data, further eroding our privacy. Similarly to the smart bins that caused outrage in London last year for tracking smartphones, smart lamp-posts proposed for Chicago will scoop up the mobile phone traffic of passers-by. At stake is the question of who owns this data and what’s done with it. When public infrastructure such as lamp-posts become tools for private companies to snoop on public citizens, a line is crossed.(…)
Roosegaarde’s big trick is bioluminescence. Working with the State University of New York, he has developed a prototype plant containing luciferin, the compound that produces light in a firefly or jellyfish. His team is now working on bioluminescent street trees, which would effectively replace existing street lights. “It’s energy neutral, but also very poetic,” says Roosegarde. “I think in the end the technology will completely disappear.”
In this future, where trees glow into the evening, nature is adapted to conform to our nocturnal lifestyles, providing a soft green glow. Perhaps this beautiful sight could even tempt the plying punks out of their holes.