An EU scheme could use “smart streetlights” to cut energy bills and create Wi-Fi hotspots

Image: Skitterphoto at pixabay.

There are at least 60m streetlights in Europe. This, of course, is a good thing: they make roads safer and far more pleasant to walk along, and do much to minimise the chance of something horrible happening to passers-by.

But most of those street lights – as many as three-quarters – are at least 25 years old. And until relatively recently, lighting technology wasn't very efficient. As a result, the need to light up the streets can cost local government anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent of its energy bills.

Lucky for councils, then, that the EU is on hand to ride to the rescue. Even at this very moment, the European Commission’s “European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities & Communities” (or EIP-SCC, if you prefer something snappier) is working to replace 10m streetlights across Europe with new, low-energy models.

That means more LED bulbs, which can cut energy costs by 50 to 75 per cent, mounted on lightweight poles, made from fibreglass or wood. Emissions-wise, replacing 10m streetlight bulbs with LEDs is equivalent to removing 2.6m cars from the road.

There’s more. The lights could also be raised or dimmed centrally – if an incident was playing out over CCTV and security needed a better view, for example. Some of the streetlights also have “smart” features, such as air quality monitors and Wi-Fi hubs: after all, since these things are inevitably going to be all over the place, we might as well use them.

Of course, replacing millions of streetlights is a pretty expensive business – so the initiative will be based on what Graham Colclough, the partner at consultancy UrbanDNA, who’s leading the project, calls “open component-based design”. That basically boils down to encouraging manufacturers to produce different parts which could combine to make street lights smarter, without the need to fully replace millions throughout Europe.

Late last year, representatives from different European countries met to discuss how to put the plan, which was launched early in 2014, into action. “ Ministers get it, leaders and mayors get it,” Colclough says. “Lots of smart city ideas are quite abstract, but street furniture is something you see and use every day, so the benefits are much clearer and more immediate.”  

And, he says, the challenge has also been taken up by designers and manufacturers: “Nine months ago, if you searched Google for images of streetlights, you just found pictures of bog-standard models. Now, the results page is full of new, funky designs.”

Without finalised designs, it’s impossible to say how long it’d take for energy savings to pay back smart streetlight investment. Estimates from the Green Investment bank, however, show that the switch from standard to low-energy lighting generally pays for itself within five to 15 years.

Maintaining the lights would be cheaper, too: LED bulbs offer around 100,000 hours of light, as opposed to the 15,000 hours supplied by a standard bulb. And because LED streetlights use collections of bulbs rather than just one, the street wouldn’t be plunged into darkness when one went pop.

These “smart” streetlights would be more appropriate for some roads than others, of course: Oxford Street has greater need for Wi-Fi and air quality sensors than residential areas would. For village roads and country lanes, meanwhile, we’re still rooting for those bioluminescent tree streetlights

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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