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  • Writer's pictureDane Sanders

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Smart and Sustainable Cities

A city street viewed from above at night

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the greatest computer ever created is asked to define the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  After a great deal of pondering, the computer comes up with the number 42 as the answer.  It goes on to say, the real challenge is not figuring out the answer but figuring out what the question should be. This is the same challenge Clanton & Associates faces when being asked to master plan a “smart city”.  Smart city is a term that has been applied with abandon in the tech and design industries for years and come to be mainly associated with infrastructure covered in cameras and sensors, as if the simple accumulation of data is what makes something intelligent.  Recently, while working on the streetlighting master plan for Salt Lake City, we assembled a team of experts to work with the city on this very issue.  The first question we asked was, what is a smart city?

Asking the Right Questions

So, you want to create a smart city.  Why?  What are your goals?  While many clients define their smart city goals as the ability to collect data and automate a response for the betterment, what is the other perspective?  Who needs to be aware of the project?  Each city is unique and good questions can come from anywhere.

Clanton & Associates advocates for the broadest level of participation by gathering the right team of city and public constituents for introductory planning discussions and subsequent debate.  This method of community engagement has proven to help cities seek out the right questions and avoid prolonged projects or wrongful outcomes.  So, we ask our question again, what is a smart city?

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better" - Albert Einstein

Dr. Travis Longcore, Associate Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability is an environmental science expert and advocate working on ecological management, and part of the SLC master plan design team.  Considering natural systems, ranging from flora to fauna, Dr. Longcore explained five elements of nature he believed to be “smart”, and applicable to a city master plan.

  1. Adaptable - An evolutionary perspective that nature builds on success and not failure.  Those that can adapt will remain viable.

  2. Redundant – Reliance on a sole characteristic/solution has inherent danger from disruption.  Having multiple like-systems will ensure some level of continuation.

  3. Distributed – Having decentralized empowerment to decide and act gives a greater chance for local success.  Like the color-changing skin of an octopus, decisions can be made about local conditions in real time versus a less-informed centralized system with lag.

  4. Symbiotic – Cooperation takes less energy than conflict.  When possible, it is efficient and productive for two species to work together and benefit from each other.

  5. Networked – Species in nature have networks capable of providing alarms and communication quickly, earning an appropriate response.  Trees and plants are often connected by fungi that communicate and share information between trees and nearby plants.

How to Turn Nature’s Lessons Into Smart and Sustainable Designs

The synergistic relationship between smart city design and lighting infrastructure cannot be ignored.  Known for their density, repetition, height, and access to electricity, light poles are quickly becoming a mounting platform for the camera, sensor, and communication technologies that will one day run our cities.  Perhaps the relationship between pole and the light is a fortunate accident, giving lighting designers the opportunity to employ nature’s lessons as a key ingredient for any smart city.

Adaptable Lighting

LEDs have revolutionized lighting design, allowing a level of flexibility not possible twenty years ago.  The ability to turn off or dim lighting levels in real time saves energy and environmental concerns without concern of turning lights back on when reassurance and safety is needed.  Additionally, the spectrum and color selection of LEDs can be tuned with the cycle of day for better health, and the distribution of LED light can be controlled, putting light only where it’s needed avoiding waste and harm to the environment.


LEDs have made the addition of nighttime light easy, perhaps too easy.  Architecture, landscape, signage, benches, handrails, steps, and bollards have all joined traditional street and area lights as a source for outdoor lighting at night.  It would be smart to leverage this level of redundancy in coordinated and controllable layers of light to save energy, create better vision, and prevent over-lighting.  Drawing electric power for these lights from the grid (or microgrid), renewables, and batteries is also redundant and smart, preventing disruption from an inevitable change in weather conditions.  


New lighting systems can be distributed and decentralized. Edge processing allows the lights to make their own decisions based on numerous factors. This decision making increases the speed of the system as information does not need to be sent to a centralized computer to make changes to the system. This has the added benefit of redundancy as the system does not rely on the central computer having power to make those decisions. If power is lost to one section of the city, that does not mean that the entire lighting system goes down.


Clanton & Associates recognizes the need to identify and create an advisory group of lighting users and stakeholders very early in the design process.  Getting input and feedback from citizens, first responders, city planners, and system operators is crucial.  In many cases, early identification of conflict can be overcome using adaptive lighting control design.


The advent of mesh networks and fiber connected systems allows us to create communication systems throughout the city.  Light poles can become the platform by which sensors and lighting facilitate communication and gain appropriate responses.  Everything from security cameras to autonomous vehicles and the associated traffic management will take advantage of our light poles.

A smart luminaire with power receptacles, USB charging, Wifi, Cameras, Signage, color changing lights, and a shuttle approach warning system

Defining Answers

Assemble a diverse team of city and public constituents early in the process, seek symbiotic relationships, and work hard to ask the right questions.  

Regardless of how many sensors or how much data is collected, smart cities will enjoy the greatest efficacy and longevity from their system if they are sustainable and flexible enough to adapt to changes.  Adding adaptive lighting into the smart city recipe can reduce wasted energy, improve pedestrian vision, and help save our natural environment.  All of these systems should be redundant, decentralized, distributed locally, and networked for greatest flexibility.  Preserving the environment and divining one’s own ability to adapt and withstand the changes of time might be the smartest part of being smart.

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