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Smart Cities: Signage of the Future

  • Fri, Dec 13, 2013
  • Marshalls Plc

As part of an ongoing series, we are looking at the particular characteristics that make up a smart city, highlighting case studies from around the world. Last time, we looked at how cities are using street lighting systems to make themselves smarter, with Barcelona showing itself to be a glowing example of smart city design. This month, we are shifting our focus to signage systems, and pulling together examples of how signs and advertising in cities are getting smarter.

Smart Digital Signage

Digital signage systems are paving the way towards smarter wayfinding in cities, with interactivity, personalisation, and low energy usage being key.

Interactive and Personalised Directions

Have you ever wondered what a sign that only shows you directions to what you want, when you want it, looks like? Enter Points, a directional sign that features a custom menu and 360° rotating arms.

As you can see from the video, the sign is highly customisable and could be used in a variety of applications. There are of course issues, as some YouTube viewers have astutely pointed out, such as the sign being only useful for one person at a time because the arms move depending on your selection. But the technology and the idea are sound, and it is a sign of things to come in interactive wayfinding (pun not intended).

Lighting Your Way

Montreal has explored the idea of using light for creating signage and “expressing identity“. The pilot project saw light being projected onto pavements and roads, marking the urban landscape with directions to local venues and more. By using light, the markings can be easily changed, and could be linked to a smart system that gave markings appropriate for the time and application. While it certainly looks like something of a spectacle, it is nonetheless an idea with potential, particularly for providing markings for use in pedestrianised zones.

Interactive Mapping

Interactive maps are making their way into more and more locations, especially those where there are many diverse destinations crammed into a small area, like shopping centres and airports.

The example below shows an interactive map used in shopping centres; although it isn’t clear from the video whether this is a live demo or one used in a real-life context, the mention of Westfield London suggests the latter.

Interactive signage like this is interesting in that it not only makes the core job of wayfinding easier (or at least, should do), it opens up the possibility of incorporating other bits of information such as events and special offers (don’t forget advertising too).

This is another example, being used within a DIY store called Leroy Merlin in France. This system even lets you enter your phone number and have your route sent to you by SMS.

Solar Powered Wayfinding

An important aspect of smart city design is a reduction in energy usage, and this digital wayfinding kiosk being used at the University of Florida does just that. While being solar powered itself isn’t particularly new, this kiosk runs an Intel atom processor and 21-inch high contrast monitor, making its energy usage a more impressive feat. The kiosk is being used mainly as a way of illustrating the university’s solar array project, giving information about energy usage across the campus, but it also connects to the university’s website and could be used for more advanced wayfinding applications.

Smarter and More Personalised Advertising

While advertising isn’t strictly the type of signage we deal with at Woodhouse, we feel it is still deserving of being mentioned in this discussion. Smart and personalised advertising is nothing new on the Internet; we see ads tailored to our interests everywhere online, sometimes to the extent of being vaguely creepy in their knowledge of us and our browsing history. Now, advertisers are looking to bring a similar experience to our everyday lives in the streets of our cities, which is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

We Know Your MAC Address

In one of our recent posts, Cities With Brains: What Does it Take to Create Smarter Cities?, we shared the story of smart recycling bins being used in the City of London that captured the MAC address of passers-by’s mobile phones. While the company responsible said this was all a test and no information was stored, it certainly illustrates us the boundaries of where advertising platforms and providers are willing to go to to provide advertisers with “better” advertising. Imagine a scenario where you receive an message on your phone offering you a deal, unique to you, at a shop or cafe you’ve just passed by on the street. All made possible because of the tracking of people’s MAC addresses. While this particular technology has since been banned in the City of London, there are other examples which are being used or are still in development.

Advertising That Has a Use

What if the advertising adorning the streets of our cities did more than just push a product or service? One example of this type of advertising has a direct connection with the concept of smart cities and it’s from IBM. As part of IBM’s Smarter Cities campaign, they originated with outdoor billboards that actually had a use in the city. These uses included acting as a bench, a rain shelter, and a ramp for stairs. The idea behind these billboards is that if cities got smarter, then life in them would be better.

Guerrilla Wayfinding?


© Walk Raleigh

Or how about something a little bit different? Under the cover of darkness, a group called Walk Raleigh posted walkable direction signs around the city in North Carolina, a stunt used to promote the group, their campaign, and better city wandering in general. The group’s activities apparently caught the eye of city officials who were considering making the signage permanent. So what has this got to do with smart cities you ask? This is an example of how cities can incorporate participation from citizens to make them a better place. Who knows better than the people who actually live and use a city everyday? We can make assumptions about what people want but by letting them have a direct hand in the development of where they live, they can make changes that have the greatest impact.

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