Silver Spring Networks

The environmentally friendly lights can also dim at times to save energy.

Copenhagen is known for its environmentally friendly ways, and now even its street lamps are going green. Twenty thousand of the city’s outdoor lights—half of the total number—are being replaced with more efficient lamps featuring LED bulbs. Energy use will be reduced by 57 percent starting in 2016, reportedly equal to the annual consumption of 4,500 Copenhagen households. The project is just one step in the city’s quest to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

In an even greener move, the local government decided to auction off 7,000 of the old street lamps for reuse. You might wonder if anyone would buy such beat-up objects, but the lights, whose deep, bowl-like silhouettes have hung from wires in the middle of Copenhagen’s streets since the late 1970s, are proving to be objects of both nostalgia and fashion for residents.

“The demand has been very high,” says Helle Kamvig of Lauritz, the auction house facilitating the sales. “People want a piece of Copenhagen history in their living rooms, and they like the raw and industrial look.” She notes that the lights fit well with the Danish interior design trend of mixing time periods and styles to “make things personal and unique.” Lauritz has sold some 3,000 lamps over the past five months, and expects to sell the rest by March 2016. People are paying an average of $100 per lamp.

Brandon Davito, a vice president at Silver Spring Networks, the company providing a wireless network for the new streetlights, says the new lamps don’t look much different from the old ones because Copenhagen residents liked their appearance (“it’s so distinctive,” he says).

Yet despite the lamps’ familiar shape and size (if not patina), they are unlike the old ones in more ways than just their bulbs. Davito’s company is installing a “communications module” inside each new lamp. The city has a central console that uses the modules to control the lights—dimming them at certain times during the night, for instance, thus saving more energy. Such a mechanism is part of what are called “smart city” applications, in which communications technology is used to augment urban services.

At present, in addition to dimming the lights on a schedule, the technology can sense an approaching cyclist and shine extra light for safety as he or she traverses an intersection. With half of commuter trips taken on bicycles in Copenhagen, other bike-friendly light features will likely appear in the future. And there’s a wealth of other Jetsons-like functions in the works, such as monitoring garbage cans so that city trucks can empty them only when they’re full. “The macro trend is that streetlight networks like the one in Copenhagen are ‘on-ramps’ to more smart city applications,” says Davito.

Copenhagen’s “smart” new street lights look a lot like the old ones (above) but are more environmentally friendly. (City of Copenhagen)

While these developments sound positive, the question remains whether the technology will ultimately help governments collect information on individuals in urban public spaces. Davito notes that the kind of information that Silver Spring Networks’s modules collect is “meta data”—nothing personal, but rather figures on such things as traffic flow.

Robert Karlicek, director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says data collection on individuals through smart city applications will eventually need to be addressed. How it is handled “will depend on the city, the country, and ultimately the society,” he says.

So as features like Copenhagen’s streetlights and their downstream applications become more and more the norm around the globe—and indeed, other cities such as Miami and Glasgow are also adopting LED streetlights and the accompanying technology—issues of privacy may push some citizens to feel even more nostalgic for their street lamps of the past.

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