Public Procurement Matters: Four Ways of Buying LED Streetlights
Let us start with buying a lamppost. Or, more accurately, with the light it emits. Each global city operates tens of thousands of streetlights at significant cost, since illuminating our streets, squares, and sidewalks also consumes a lot of energy. How cities procure can deliver dramatically different results.
Over the past fifteen years, LED lighting technology has become a viable alternative for cities, offering the same light at significantly lower cost — and as a result, lower carbon emissions. That is what led cities like Sydney to test the performance of LED lights as early as 2009, resulting in contracts with suppliers of lighting systems in 2011 to replace existing luminaires with LED lights.
For early movers like Sydney, public procurement is the art of asserting their buying power to get the kind of commercial terms from the market that makes innovation viable. For citizens, nothing much changed and the investment would pay off about ten years down the line.
Meanwhile, two cities in California, San Francisco and San Diego, set out to procure so-called smart streetlights. In 2009 San Francisco started its own journey to upgrade its street lighting to energy saving LEDs but also considered installing a wireless control system that would allow the city to centrally adjust lights and get maintenance alerts. In addition to the smart solutions pitched by suppliers, project managers wanted the wireless control system to be open source and open standards, so that it could also be used to manage electricity meters or parking terminals.
What had begun as a project to upgrade streetlights, now exceeded the capabilities of established lighting manufacturers. To get viable bids, the city decided to open the opportunity to startups and other technology providers — a strategy which garnered 59 proposals for the $16M Request for Proposals. San Francisco selected eight suppliers to run pilots, testing the viability of the systems and collecting feedback from citizens.
At the conclusion of the pilot, citizens and neighborhood organizations expressed concern: that the sensor-laden streetlights had now become monitoring devices, and might be used as a tool for police surveillance.
These fears foreshadowed events in the City of San Diego where smart streetlights were procured from GE in 2016 without community consultation. Civic organizations, when presented with the plans drawn up by city experts, expressed a growing concern about how the streetlights’ video monitoring capabilities, supposedly intended for traffic monitoring, were soon being used for law enforcement to solve crimes. Concern grew into a major civil liberties’ scandal when police used these video-equipped streetlights in 2020 to surveil Black Lives Matter protesters.
By engaging the community in its procurement process, San Francisco avoided this outcome. The pilot not only revealed the discomfort of citizens, but also showed that the business case for the smart control system was too weak to justify the major upskilling of maintenance workers that would be required to maintain this high-tech infrastructure. In the end, the city contracted its lighting upgrade for 18,500 lampposts with the kind of dumb daylight sensors that had been around for decades. Behind those dumb lights lay a creative, adaptive procurement process that both solicited and reflected the will of residents — and avoided the pitfalls of San Diego.
In Europe, the City of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, took yet another approach when they thought about street lighting and emerging technologies. Eindhoven had long celebrated its culture and freedom by being popularly called The City of Light. In 2012, the city approached their transition to LED lighting with a human-centered and artistic mindset, drafting its “Vision and roadmap for urban lighting in 2030” after extensive research into human needs and technological trends. The vision states that lighting innovation should be closely anchored in socially relevant themes, combining a master plan for a smart infrastructure platform with a clear policy that citizens are to be in control of local plans and decisions. Across the city, lightning installations replaced or complemented traditional forms of street lighting. Artists, like Daan Roosegaarde, were commissioned to explore the latest technologies to invent new forms of urban lighting, like the glowing pebbles that illuminated a bike path inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, or illuminated walking sticks to be taken, like torches, from one end of the street to the other. In one installation, drones waited on rooftops to follow people walking down the street providing a personalized streetlight.
Eindhoven’s idea wasn’t simply to tinker with new lighting technology, or to produce public art, but it was to acknowledge the cultural, environmental and economic importance of lighting. Eindhoven used procurement not simply to purchase a lot of lamps, but to orchestrate a long-term partnership between the city, the technical university, citizens and corporate partners that opened up the spending normally used for maintenance to allow continuous innovation. Anchored in citizen participation, the city and its partners can now continually explore new ideas to benefit the community, at a hyper-local level. Eindhoven’s annual GLOW festival showcases new ideas, local design talent and innovations in technology, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors and inspiring citizens with new ideas for their own neighborhoods.
What happened in Sydney, San Francisco, San Diego and Eindhoven are four tales of procuring streetlights in cities. They started out with similar intentions, spotting an opportunity to save money and reduce carbon emissions by investing in new technology. In all four, public procurement played a central role, and guided each to profoundly different outcomes.
Contrary to the prevailing preconception that public procurement is a neutral administrative function, these stories illustrate how, depending on our expectations, public procurement has a profound impact on how we experience and participate in our cities. Procurement is central to how cities balance their interests — be they commercial, creative, technical, innovative, participative, inclusive, environmental, transparent, political, time bound, open or manipulative — in practically all domains of public service and government. This balancing act is a choice played out in tens of thousands of procurement transactions in cities every day, whether in urban mobility, education, health, public works, urban services, energy or social care.
This post is a more comprehensive version of cases presented in “Serving the Citizens — Not the Bureaucracy”, my report on city procurement for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.