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On a quiet street corner in downtown San Diego stands a lamppost that doesn’t look particularly smart. But watching and listening from it — in addition to the pigeon perched on top — are sensors collecting data about nearby people, cars and even the air.

“In this street light is a wireless connection just like your cellphone that connects it to the cloud and connects it to other street lights,” says David Graham, chief operating officer for the City of San Diego’s Neighbourhood Services.

He’s standing under one of the city’s thousands of vintage-looking lights. San Diego, known for its historic gas lamps, is now being recognized for these futuristic lamps which will soon illuminate the city in more ways than one.

“All those sensors are powering applications that can be used for everything from pedestrian safety to parking availability to things like knowing air quality and air quality sensing,” Graham says.

Using his smartphone, Graham demonstrates how the sensors mounted in the light would spot open parking spots on the street below.

“That street light can be your solution, just like Waze data or a Google Maps,” Graham says.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could look on your phone and know exactly where there was available parking? Rather than having to drive round and round and round to find a parking space, your street lights can actually tell you exactly where there is available parking.”

The city is deploying 3,000 of the smart sensing lights, which Graham says will make San Diego one of the smartest cities in the world. San Diego is spending $30 million on its smart city infrastructure, and this is just the beginning.

At the world’s biggest tech convention held recently in Las Vegas, thousands of attendees got hints of what cities are doing to make themselves smarter.

For instance, the Missouri company Fybr is rolling out platforms in 30 cities, including Montreal, that could monitor air and weather, tell garbage collectors to pick up the trash when bins are full, detect leaks in underground pipes as soon as they happen, dim lights at night when no one’s around and, like the system in San Diego, steer drivers to open parking spots.

“At least 30 per cent of downtown traffic is for people looping around looking for a place to park,” says Fybr vice-president Bret Beringer. “We can direct you right to a spot, and you’re also reducing the emissions.”

Other cities are installing sensors around neighbourhoods that listen specifically for gunshots or car crashes.

“It gives instant and automated information that eliminates all the confusion and allows them to respond exactly and in the proper way,” says Databuoy Corp. president Kathleen Griggs. “We’ve got the interest of several Canadian cities.”

By 2020, Dallas will be able to ease traffic congestion and help emergency response using real-time data from a network of smart sensors embedded in traffic and street lights.

At the Ericsson Advanced Technology Labs booth at CES in Las Vegas in January, Keith Shank calls up a street camera that shows an intersection in downtown Dallas.

“You can watch the traffic cameras, you can watch the street lights, and then we can integrate them into a seamless movement so that when there’s an accident, traffic lights change the right colour for the emergency vehicles to get through,” Shank says.

It’s all about gathering and sharing data. But as cities become smarter, many worry that authorities will gather too much information, or accidentally share it with the wrong people: Big Brother 2.0.

But Graham says the San Diego sensors strip any personal information, like faces or licence plates, from the data that’s sent to the cloud before it’s seen or analyzed by humans.

“It may see a vehicle-sized object but it’s not doing facial recognition or streaming video or anything along those lines because that’s not necessary to actually accomplish the goals that we have,” Graham says.

Another big problem is scalability. Deploying the technology over hundreds of square kilometres is extremely expensive.

“We have a business case and a use case for every single one of these projects,” Graham says. “We’re actually saving money by having this smart street light network. We’re reducing our energy usage by 60 per cent, saving $2.5 million a year just on our energy bill alone.”

Still, it doesn’t pay for itself. And companies have a vested interest in foisting expensive technology on some of the world’s largest and richest clients: big cities.

“Solutions in search of a problem is smart cities gone wrong,” Graham says. “It’s not about the gadgets and the whiz-bangs, it’s about what challenge are you trying to solve.”

Think about where smartphones were 10 years ago, Graham says, right before they were everywhere, before they could do almost anything. One day, the smart city may just be an extension of your smartphone: a smart assistant that’s everywhere.

“We think about it as the use of data and technology to improve decision-making and help people’s lives,” Graham says. “It’s about interconnectivity. It’s about repurposing infrastructure, making it smarter and more connected.”

You want the latest on street-by-street weather, parking, or pollution? Soon, you may be able to listen to your city. But be warned: it will be listening too.

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