As cities move towards becoming smarter, much of that activity can be invisible to the human eye. It can be difficult to see how data-driven insights improve municipal operations, but the exception is smart lighting. LED and smart lighting upgrades – from the hue of the light to the strategic timing of lighting events to resulting energy bill savings – can be immediately evident, especially to citizens and residents.

The lighting industry has transformed drastically over the past two decades.

Amanda Dixon, a lighting control expert at Selc, a Xylem Brand, has been working on the front lines of the smart lighting evolution for the past 15 years. She recently shared her insights at a Smart Cities Connect roundtable with city leaders across North America.

For those considering a future upgrade to their smart lighting systems, the following will reveal valuable insight; it details the impact of smart lighting to operations, finances and overall smart city initiatives. 

In its 2019 report, “The Benefits of LED & Smart Street Lighting“, the Northeast Group states that “Streetlights are the low hanging fruit for cities not sure where to start.”  This comprehensive analysis of the U.S. street lighting market states LEDs have a 45% adoption rate and smart streetlights have a 5% adoption rate.

This points to the fact that these are early days and there is great opportunity, not only for the smart lighting sector and the emerging smart city applications, but also for the benefits that it can produce for cities and utilities, including:

Operational Efficiency

Many utilities are not astute at asset mapping,  asset tracking or maintaining inventory. This is not a criticism but rather a reflection on the limitations of traditional technology. In the past, these tasks were all performed manually, with high cost but no obvious return on investment.

In the modern era, smart technology offers embedded tracking, automatic alerts and alarms as well as remote support and maintenance. The cost of a truck roll can now cover the cost of a smart module.


Smart kits on lighting assets offer the ability to control all elements related to light including brightness, color, temperature and timing. This is incredibly relevant to those communities that are committed to dark sky initiatives and/or reducing the impact of municipal lighting on wildlife.

For example, in Florida, the turtle mating season is directly impacted by city street lights. In the past, a season dimming meant crews spent many hours of manual labor at premium cost. With smart lighting controls, this activity can be managed remotely and instantly with minimal cost. 

Sensor Integration

Smart streetlights provide a gateway for cities to attach additional data-collecting sensors for a myriad of use cases including pedestrian counting, air quality monitors and even snow depth sensors, to name a few. Absent of a smart street light platform, these individual use cases run the risk of being siloed and limited in application.

However, when applied strategically and thoughtfully as attached to a smart street lighting system, the integration can yield a powerful, comprehensive, city-wide, smart city approach. 

Given all of these benefits, it would be easy to assume that every municipality would be rushing into this new platform. But there are still questions to be answered, most of which were addressed in the Smart Cities Connect Roundtable.

Here are the top concerns of city and utility leaders:

Future Proofing

Because technology is moving quickly, there is a hesitancy across city government to invest too early at the risk of needing to “upgrade and replace”. While this is a common concern related to overall next-generation smart technology, lighting systems are unique from a digital perspective. Instead of having to make the investment and take on risk all at once, a more modular approach is possible and encouraged. 

An iterative, ‘rolling replacement’ strategy can support a “pay as you go” model where savings from each segment can be applied to the next step. 


One panelist wisely stated, “If we don’t have interoperable systems, we don’t have interoperable data” which underlies the true conundrum of smart cities.

While the need and the use cases are evident, the path forward is not always clear. The standards around lighting controls as they apply across other smart platforms are being written in real time. 

Operational Cost

When looking strictly through the lens of hardware costs, current photocell technology is less than the cost of smart lighting packages; however the returns on the more modern investment far outweigh the traditional approach. This point underscores the ‘smart versus not’ conundrum.

A move to an integrated smart city approach mandates a convergence of departments, metrics and assumed outcomes. When smart city hardware is viewed holistically across energy savings and operational costs, the payback is quick.

For example, the cost of a truck roll to rip and replace an old photocell light far offsets the cost of a smart node as does the energy savings that result from the technology upgrade.

In addition, the life of the fixture is extended by being able to control the wattage and lumen output. But hardware, maintenance and associated costs are tracked differently and separately and herein lies the challenge.

Smart lighting is an invitation for municipalities to be on the cutting edge of the smart city evolution and invite more much-needed collaboration. From data sharing to risk transference, experimenting with an integrated approach is exciting and ground breaking.

City and utility leaders should not shy from making investments and embracing this next phase. This is the opportunity to lead and write the history of modern cities. 

From data sharing to cross-department and cross-sector collaboration, smart lighting holds the natural incentives for municipal leaders to work together.

A transition to smart means getting buy-in across different departments to transfer the burden off of the asset owner and disperse it across multilateral use cases. This kind of shared understanding and cost shifting is difficult to quantify and even more difficult to track, but it is a required step for cities to shift into a different form of accountability. 

By supporting modernization lighting infrastructure efforts, city and utility leaders can see immediate returns as well as a pathway to future monetization.

Smart lighting can be the pathway to get there.