Some time ago I was asked what a city like Sheffield could do that would set itself apart in terms of digital infrastructure. Sheffield City Region already has an ambitious broadband access plan (Digital Region) that is already rolling out high speed broadband to many areas. Also, the challenge is to digitally enable a city rather than address (the very great) need for even basic digital access to more rural areas. So my thoughts ran to digitally enabling the city rather than its citizens.
I have always had a fascination with street hardware, everything from park benches, litter bins to manhole covers and most interestingly, street lights. These bits of civic infrastructure are often invisible and perfunctory, but when they are well designed they can become part of a city’s identity.
This is not a suggestion that we need to preserve old lamp posts or create overly ornate new ones, but that street lights have previously and should in future be used to create a sense of commonality or purpose and municipality. This city binding can now be aided by thinking about the digital presence of a city.
When posed the question of ‘What could Sheffield do in the digital space?’ my answer was to suggest that we create a device that when fitted to a street light post provides not just a visual identifier for the city, but also acts as a platform for interfacing between the physical public space and the digital world.
I imagined a beautifully designed box that would sit high up the lamp post and contain:
- a wifi networking access point
- bluetooth networking
- NFC senors
- environment sensors like:
- ambient light
- noise level
- air quality
- motion sensors
- coloured light indicators
- a video camera with Kinect style gesture recognition
- a LCD projector focused on nearby pedestrian areas
While the potential for Sheffield City Council to use a network of such devices to gather data and inform their planning, decision making and provide information services to the public is interesting, it was the potential unlocked by opening up this platform to commercial organisations and the wider public that really excited me.
Not only could the data be made open to be used by anyone to understand and add value, but the platform, if properly mediated and managed, could be ustilitised for people to develop applications for way-finding, local services and advertising, community building or even more excitingly, games.
Having suggesting all this over a coffee, I left the idea alone. Until I heard that Sheffield City Council had let the contract to replace all of its 46,000 street lights to Amey, a public services outsourcing company, via a Public Finance Initiative (PFI).
We have now have passed the point where we can influence what Amey do with the street lights in Sheffield, but it might be worth finding out whether they have thought of the possibilities above.