Cities can be like children. We want them. We spawn them. But then we sometimes worry about how they’ve developed. And so we set about trying to shape them in the hopes of making them perfect: beautiful, kind, environmentally conscious. This vision is part of what drives proponents of smart cities, who dream that technology (specifically, urban micro-sensors) and the information it collects may hold the key to municipal optimization.
Well, good luck.
Smart cities are on the rise: the sector is projected to grow to U.S.$6,829.24 billion in 2030. While these projects offer utopian promises, they involve challenges. Municipalities often don’t have the financial resources to implement new technology, and many lack the capability to effectively analyze data they might collect. Cities must also contend with privacy concerns of citizens, many of whom balk at hyper-surveillance.
Liveable Cities, a division of LED Roadway Lighting Ltd., stepped onto this tricky sidewalk of micro-sensors in 2019. LED lighting, the company’s core business, had become commonplace, and mindful of declining profits margins, CEO Chuck Cartmill saw a way to grow the business through smart sensors that could be plugged directly into an industry-standard socket on the top of LED lights. Cartmill was aware of the issues facing municipalities and wanted to go beyond designing tech devices. The goal was to make existing cities function better by creating a one-stop service that gives municipalities information to make improvements.
“Our first sensor was a Doppler radar to measure speed and gather traffic analytics,” explains Mike Andrews, account manager of Liveable Cities. The company quickly progressed to developing air quality units and noise sensors. Seated in the boardroom of their Halifax office, the 35-year-old sets out a row of canisters the size of pop cans with the enthusiasm of a teenager showing off his latest gadget. Late last year, Liveable Cities started deploying dual lens high-definition camera units, which offer two fields of view in each direction along a street. These devices are mainly used for community safety, pedestrian and traffic counting, as well as police investigations and infrastructure planning. But because they’re fast and easy to deploy, the cameras can also be used to generate insig
ht to help create evacuation alerts during extreme weather events, Andrews says, such as the torrential rainstorms and flooding in Nova Scotia this summer. Its particulate matter sensors were also used to monitor air quality during the recent wildfires.
Many cities were initially reluctant to purchase untested technology. As one public works manager says, “Part of the challenge is figuring out which tools are beneficial and which ones are just neat.” To showcase the value of its platform and devices, Liveable Cities came up with a surprising business model: no-cost pilot projects, in which the company offers software training and customized, easily digestible reports to help municipal managers make decisions about everything from traffic management to security issues to climate adaptation. (Next summer, it also plans to help municipalities monitor and analyze air quality during wildfire season with no-cost projects.)
It’s a win-win arrangement. Municipalities learn about the tech and how it can best help them; Liveable Cities better understands how to apply its services, which helps develop case studies for other prospective customers. “Every municipality has similar problems but also very specific problems,” Andrews explains. “I can’t be bored.”
Over the last three years, Liveable Cities has run more than three dozen pilot projects in Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean and the U.K. Communities have reported energy savings of up to 62 percent, and close to 30 percent of those projects have been converted into paid programs with more in the budget phase.
In the busy port city of Hamilton, city council wanted to lessen the impact of heavy truck traffic in downtown residential communities. They deployed 15 noise sensors along established truck routes as well as along diverted truck routes to analyze the impact on noise levels. For another year-long pilot, part of a national initiative funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), the city will install 20 of the company’s air-quality sensors. (A recent air-quality study in Hamilton showed elevated levels of cancer-causing compounds.)
Andrews is quick to point out that none of the sensors compromise privacy. The audio sensors merely measure noise levels — they are not recording devices. The air-quality sensors track unhealthy particles in an area. The speed sensor is a radar that doesn’t record licence plates. Positioned on top of streetlights, the cameras are unable to read licence plate numbers or perform facial recognition. And all Liveable Cities programs operate on an existing cellular system, which makes them easily scalable.
In Parry Sound, Ont., where one of the first Liveable Cities pilot projects was conducted, the municipal government has moved to a paid program. Traffic and speed sensors have proven to be great tools for transportation planning, says Mike Kearns, director of the town’s public works. They had implemented other traffic measures, such as portable radar signs that display the speed of passing vehicles. But they didn’t have a way to quantify their efforts.
“Simply telling folks that they’re going too fast has a very short-lived impact,” Kearns says. “The data helped us understand that we did have an issue, as well as the magnitude of that issue and what additional, feasible traffic-calming measures were needed going forward.”
The municipality is currently in discussion with the company about the possibility of deploying cameras on main corridors for pedestrian safety. It’s also looking into monitoring trails along the town’s popular waterfront to aid in strategic planning. “We don’t have the resources to deploy someone to physically sit and count,” Kearns explains. The cameras could recognize different uses — hiking, cycling, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing — without personally identifying the individuals captured on film.
The applications are endless, says Andrews. Livable Cities is currently working on “data-driven lighting” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by setting a dimming pattern on real-time traffic data. “Rather than having your streetlights cooking all night, we can use fluctuating light levels to save energy and let municipalities be confident that they’re providing appropriate levels of light when needed,” says Andrews.
Cities, of course, will never be perfect. Perhaps their slightly chaotic beauty and unique vitality is part of the pleasure of experiencing each one. But well-informed decisions, based on carefully collected and synthesized data, can make cities more pleasant to live in.
“As we grow, we need technology to help us understand the cities we’ve spawned,” says Helen Stopps, assistant professor in architectural science at Toronto Metropolitan University. “It can be a checkpoint. Are your development strategies or development restrictions working for you?”
But it’s not only policy makers who can find value in this technology. Citizens also need to know the quality of the air they’re breathing. During the pandemic, many people turned to COVID wastewater counts to determine what risks they were willing to take. The granular information collected by urban sensors “would allow for accountability and transparency about how well the city is doing,” says Stopps. “That’s great from an equity perspective, and in terms of making sure your government is doing what you want them to do.” Information, as they say, is power — and for cities to flourish, that power should be accessible to the people who live there.
Liveable Cities is one of seven companies in Mission from MaRS: Public Procurement, a special initiative that’s working to make it easier for communities to adopt climate solutions. Find out more about the program here.
Photo illustration by Monica Guan