Small cells, big ideas
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason looks at how small cells can be used in combination with the urban environment to make cities safer and more appealing, while also helping to bring civic history to life through augmented reality.

As anyone who has watched the news in the past year will know, the digital comms sector is tantalisingly close to numerous major technological shifts, many of which have the potential to revolutionise society in any number of ways. From the use of AI to analyse data to automatic cars controlled with the help of 5G, we could – if these solutions are intelligently and sensitively deployed – see the dawn of a new technological utopia.

Arguably the most anticipated of these solutions are related to the Internet of Things, the use of which is so easy to conceive of in relation to our everyday existence. They are also among the most fascinating; when used as part of the driver towards smarter cities, they have the potential to open up new debates on how to use the space we inhabit, and therefore by extension how we live our lives.

One example of how this is already happening in the UK is via the use of lighting manufacturer Schreder’s Shuffle and Shuffle Site products, the latter of which combines a modular LED light column with Huawei-manufactured small cells to provide broadband coverage.

Speaking of the Shuffle towards the end of last year, the company said: “[It] is the ideal multi-application platform for smart city development. It can integrate control systems, loudspeakers, surveillance cameras, hotspots, electrical vehicle chargers, signage and many more smart services to help cities deliver the connectivity that citizens expect.”

The statement not only described the product itself, but also gave a reasonably comprehensive overview of industry expectations and hopes regarding urban IoT deployment.

Bombers over St Paul’s

Adam Rice is the marketing manager for Schreder in the UK. He gives an overview of the product’s development, and in particular how it fits in with the company’s plans when it comes to furnishing smart cities with the required street furniture and digital infrastructure. “The Shuffle was conceived to extend our current business model, which is ultimately based around selling high-performing street lights, mainly to local authorities,” he says.

“The product is designed to fit into clients’ existing street lighting foundation, enabling them to retro fit where necessary. The idea is that you simply replace the existing column and add an IP connection, be that fibre or whatever.”

He continues: “The small-cell element of the Shuffle Site is to help improve 4G coverage over a given area, for instance if a local authority wants to provide free broadband. There’s currently quite a lot of divergence in terms of the technology, with companies currently hedging their bets between public
Wi-Fi and small cells. At the moment we’re backing both – we’re a man for all seasons.”

As discussed, the Shuffle and Shuffle Site have been designed to help provide what are generally regarded as the ‘core’ smart city use-cases such as pollution reduction, metrics around traffic flow and so on. According to Rice, however, the company is also currently developing a variety of tourism-based solutions, such as an augmented reality product allowing users to interact with sites of particular historical importance.

Speaking of the origins of this application – which Schreder recently demonstrated to the Corporation of London – Rice says: “We initially entered a competition, using the Shuffle to show how the parks and green spaces within the Square Mile could be better used. Out of that we developed the augmented reality app, which essentially enables the user’s device to give them a history lesson on the street.

“The idea is that the user follows a series of markers within a designated area, which allows the system to understand where they are in relation to a local hub. That could either be the Shuffle or another smart object, using a hardwired connection rather than GPS. We can then deploy an augmented reality show, where they can hold their device up and – for instance – see bombers coming over St Paul’s Cathedral in real time.

“There’s also a static element, where users can see historical information overlaid on top of the buildings themselves. In theory, you can broaden that out for use in museums, and the Museum of London has been involved in the discussions we’ve been having about the project.”

Meaningful physical environment

It’s clear that the various use-cases enabled by smart-city technology have the potential to increasingly redefine how we interact with the urban space (even if that’s only encouraging people to visit a particular area via the provision of reliable broadband).

With that in mind, to what degree are architects and town planners now taking these opportunities into account when embarking on new projects? What’s more, how exactly do you create a meaningful, coherent physical environment on behalf of people for whom the ‘virtual’ space is just as real?

One international example of the apparent will to plan ‘smart’ can be found in Africa, where authorities in new developments such as Eko Atlantic near Lagos are now looking to incorporate digital communications technology across the planning effort as a matter of course.

According to American news platform CNN, this thinking is exemplified by the Rwandan government, which has recently defined the ‘smart citizen’ as being: “Empowered through enhanced connectivity via mobile and social platforms... making the invisible visible to city managers.” The same document – the country’s ‘smart city blueprint’ – anticipates that the level of urbanisation across the continent will reach a staggering 60 per cent by 2050.

Another, doser to home, example of how IoT technology is being gradually incorporated in the layout of public space itself is the recently redeveloped Queens Square in Crawley, West Sussex. Re-opened last year following a collaborative effort between Crawley Borough Council and landscape architects Burns + Nice, the project included eight Schreder Shuffles dotted strategically around the site.

These provide a platform for IP-connected security cameras, as well as – naturally – lighting for the square. The square’s water feature is also controlled by IP.

Discussing the brief for the project, senior associate at Burns + Nice, Gayatri Suryawanshi, says: “There were specific issues around Queens Square, a central one being that many of the retailers were leaving because of the effects of the recession on the local economy. It needed to find an enhanced role within the town to complement other regeneration initiatives.”

According to Suryawanshi, the idea for the layout was to create what she calls a “hierarchy of space”, positioning the aforementioned (incredibly fun-looking) water feature in the middle, with access to the shops – aka the ‘outer zone’ – separated via newly installed seating.

The objective in terms of aesthetics, meanwhile, was to retain elements of its original ‘new town’ character, while at the same time refreshing the space in terms of colours and materials. Integral to all this was the lighting, or more to the point the variety of functions that the lighting could carry out.

A crucial example in relation to this was use of the Shuffles to help engineer out anti-social behaviour, offering optimal levels of illumination – as well as CCTV coverage – at strategic points around the site.

“Clearly, it’s immensely important that people feel safe,” says Suryawanshi. “We approached the lighting, again, with the intention of creating a hierarchy around the square. The columns provide multi-directional illumination, which can also be dimmed when necessary.

“Another reason for going with the technology is that we were attempting to de-clutter, so the ability to incorporate CCTV – and potential future broadband provision for those using the square – was also important.”

Reshaping our lives

For Suryawanshi, the improvements made to Queens Square only scratch the surface of the opportunities available to architects and planners when it comes to incorporating smart-city solutions into their designs. Indeed, she believes that the tech is likely to be integral to planning conversations going forward, with stakeholders becoming increasingly curious as time goes on.

“For me, it’s all about being connected,” she says. “The technology has already shaped our lives, and now it’s also shaping how we use the public realm. Going back to the provision of something as simple as Wi-Fi, we can see how that informs things such as anticipated dwell time, which in turn has to be taken account of during the design stage.

“Ultimately, to get full value from this we have to understand what infrastructure is needed, because it’s through that that the space is managed. The virtual world is becoming as real to us now as the physical world, but how we plan what the physical world will look like is still crucially important.”

The deployment of cutting-edge digital communications technology is central to the effective running of society across a plethora of areas, from public safety to retail. IoT and smart-city solutions not only hold the promise of more efficient public services, they also offer entirely new ways of looking at the space we inhabit and how we live our lives.

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