A conversation with... Theo van de Wiel

Street lamp must move with the 5G times

“Yes, but when,” is the question typically thrown at Sustainder CTO Theo van de Wiel. He has heard this quit often throughout his career. At Dutch railway operator NS, telecom giants BT/O2, Telfort and KPN, and at cable operator Ziggo. Technological developments came thick and fast, but the eco-system was often missing. And now the smart city concept faces the same challenge. What role does he see for Sustainder in the smart city eco-system, and what does the arrival of 5G mean for it. A look at the future in six questions.

You have been involved in numerous transformations; how do you view what Sustainder is doing?

Soon, light won’t be sold as a lamp, but as a service, just like the way you buy power. That is a really interesting business model and I find the position of Sustainder in this very exciting. I’m interested in looking at these sorts of developments from the smart city perspective. I like to do new and complex things, which I always did in the past. The more complex the better. And that is part of thinking up new business models and what they can mean for the future. Sustainder is one element in a new eco-system. We are small now, but we will be a major player soon.

What does the model you envisage look like?

Whereas today we think in terms of the vertical organisation of sensors, I believe far more in a model that involves working with a standard number of sensors. Through the use of multiple sensors, and with the help of artificial intelligence, we can determine what is going on in a street, square or an entire city.

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Artificial intelligence?

Put simply, I am a person with senses. More than five (neurologists say there are nine or more). If I pick up a glass, my senses tell my brain that it is made of plastic and contains beer. I unconsciously draw conclusions from multiple senses at the same time; not just from one sense. That principle will soon be found in street lighting as well. Using an algorithm and machine learning software, you can make a network of fixed sensors smart. This software learns from everything the sensors register, and this raises the question of how quickly we can process this data. That’s going to be a real challenge for the coming years.

And 5G will play an important role in this?

Exactly. The growing demand for connectivity requires a much denser infrastructure than the current wireless one. This means you have to hang up far more antennas in the city. And what are the best places to hang them? Think about it: the public lighting network is the densest network on Earth. If you hang sensors and antennas on as many lamp posts as possible, you create an information structure that offers unprecedented possibilities. At the same time, the need to constantly communicate places huge demands on the infrastructure. All the captured data needs to be linked to a software platform, for analysis. To do this will requires wireless networks. So you need a very dense 5G network, and the lamp post is the start of making the city smarter. It becomes a smart-city hub, and you almost forget it also provides light. 5G is the most important gamechanger in this.  The way it looks now, 5G will only be standardised in 2020, so we are going to have to wait a bit before we can actually use it. However, by taking part in trials we can start building our knowledge now.

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What is Sustainder going to do in the short term?

I’m going to look at how we can improve our business model. I’ll be closely analysing technological developments, and thinking from the point of view of connectivity. Nothing more or less. Our vision for Sustainder goes further than simply building a good luminaire that you can control remotely. We are already thinking a couple of steps ahead. For example, what social movements are we going to see and how can we turn these into services for smart cities? The enormous growth in urban population is creating a need to make cities more liveable, and keep them that way. If you offer residents lots of services, they can then choose the ones they want to use. The only thing we do is think up an enabler for implementing these services.

And that enabler is?

A cassette in the luminaire. Currently, the focus is on directing and dimming light, but in the future, it will be on intelligence in the form of state-of-the-art electronics and software. The cassette provides a space to house electronics in the luminaire. With software set to develop even faster in the future, this will give us a simple, remote means to update the firmware in our electronics. This will make our infrastructure another notch smarter and better prepared for the services of the future. The cassette and its content are our USP, and I am going to be focusing on that in the years to come.