Seeking Smart Streetlights: Creative Procurement in Pittsburgh

By Robert Burack • March 13, 2017

Pittsburgh is leveraging an effort to replace the entirety of its 40,000 city owned and operated streetlights as an opportunity to enhance city service delivery through connected technology and address neighborhood equity issues. The city is taking an open and iterative approach, learning from the successes of peer cities and from the constraints of its past procurement efforts.

By issuing a less prescriptive and open Request for Information (RFI), Pittsburgh is making room for the rapid pace of smart city innovation. This shows that even a straightforward procurement for something concrete, like streetlights, can turn into an opportunity for creative engagement with vendors and innovators, and for internal problem-solving.

Crossing Paths with the Internet of Things

Many of the streetlights that illuminate Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods still use conventional lightbulbs. But Pittsburgh has not been unaware of the trend toward, and energy savings realized by, LED replacements. In 2012, a state-funded energy savings program upgraded 4,500 of the city’s streetlights to LED. The potential for significant savings led Pittsburgh to consider upgrading all of its streetlights, and the city subsequently released a request for proposals.

The response was different than the city had anticipated. While Pittsburgh received a number of proposals to simply upgrade the streetlights, as the city had done previously in smaller batches, many proposals offered additional possibilities involving connected networks of sensors. The city had crossed paths with the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) market.

“Pittsburgh was focused on lighting fixtures and energy savings,” said Laura Meixell, Assistant Director for Performance Improvement in Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance. “And what we received was a whole variety of responses, including IoT solutions.” While the city was comfortable evaluating lighting fixture proposals, the selections committee had less experience evaluating IoT proposals. For this reason, the city paused the effort. “We’ve since expanded the varieties of expertise at the table,” said Meixell.

The openness and scale of the newly-released RFI, inspired by a similar effort in Boston, reflects that expansion and a renewed commitment to internal, intellectual engagement with the broader community of innovators.

Sensors, Data Utility, and Emerging Revenue Models

In the past two years alone, streetlights have emerged as a hub for the connected sensors enabling responsive, on-demand city services. With the initial lure of cost savings, cities have used large-scale streetlight upgrades as an opportunity to more holistically consider how real-time data from sensors can serve as key operational inputs. Sensors can monitor and help manage traffic, measure air quality, detect gunshots, and much more.

These enhancements, which go beyond the original vision of replacing the lightbulbs, could be enabled by federal and state funding as well as emerging revenue models. A recent $10.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation aimed at creating “smart spines,” and an anticipated match from the state, has opened up new possibilities for sensors throughout the city. Additionally, to ease costs and generate revenue for the upgrades, the city is considering collaborations with cellular operators in the region to install small, lower-power cellular stations (femtocells) on streetlights. This could in turn enhance the city’s cellular network infrastructure to meet increased demand for mobile data.

Meixell notes that any data collected from sensors becomes a sort of utility that can not only inform city operations, but be available for public access on an open data platform. Pittsburgh’s innovative, regional open data platform has laid much of the groundwork to allow for aspects of sensor data from across Western Pennsylvania to be publicly accessible.

Considering Equity and a Phased Approach

But Pittsburgh’s interest in a citywide streetlight upgrade and companion system of connected sensors goes beyond achieving energy savings or transforming city services. Guided by Mayor William Peduto’s vision of a “livable city for all,” Pittsburgh is considering how a potential reconfiguration of streetlights could ensure that all neighborhoods, including commercial districts in areas with a history of disinvestment, are lit equitably.

With a recognition that IoT and LED technologies will further develop in the coming years, the city plans to phase the upgrades. “There’s a cost associated with replacing or climbing up the pole,” noted Nick Hall, the city’s Open Data Services Engineer and a co-author of the RFI. “The way we plan to mitigate and manage that is to phase the upgrades, as we expect the technology and best practices around LED luminaries and sensors to evolve.”

“We want this project to be grounded in what the actual benefits are to residents,” said Hall. “Not just the technology as a solution narrative. There are genuine, potential benefits of data-driven feedback into city services if we go about this focused on public benefits.”

Meixell hopes that respondents to the RFI will see this as a “chance to have a city in your portfolio that is truly a model” and be part of “a story of urban reinvention.” With increasingly open and creative processes for procurement, and the flexibility to keep pace with changes in technology, the city is already living out that story and is well on its way to realizing a smart cities vision.

About the Author

Robert Burack

Robert Burack is a Data ​Fellow for the Civic Analytics Network. He is based in Pittsburgh where he works with the Chief Data Officer to further the City's open data and analytics efforts, and to support regional open data collaboration. Previously, he was a Fellow at the Richard King Mellon Foundation, where he focused on manufacturing innovation and helped to launch the nation's first accelerator for craft businesses. He has also served as Programs Director at Break Away, where he forwarded the development of shared community impact assessment tools for the service-learning sector. He has a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Michigan-Flint.