Lampposts are rarely in the limelight. Gene Kelly climbed on one in the iconic Hollywood movie Singin’ in the Rain, but for most of the time the humble lamppost is just that. But not for long.

The European Union’s Humble Lamppost project aims to give a new lease of life to a long neglected resource by making them an integral part of the development of smart cities.

There are as many as 90 million lampposts in Europe, according to the EU and three quarters of them are over 25 years old. Street lighting accounts for up to half of some cities’ energy budgets and simply installing energy-saving bulbs would save almost €2 billion ($2.3 billion) a year.

Far from humble

Under the slogan “a dozen things you can do with a humble lamppost that has nothing to do with light” the EU wants to upgrade 10 million lampposts, making them solar-powered smart lampposts able to deliver a range of smart city services.

As well as providing bases for a city-wide network of 5G connected sensors to monitor vehicle and pedestrian traffic flows, the now far-from-humble smart lampposts could host a free public WiFi network.

The EU says smart lampposts will improve citizen safety by delivering public information through digital displays and speakers as well as measuring air quality and monitoring streets for flooding. 

Their sensors will have multiple uses from helping visually impaired people to navigate the city to alerting drivers to vacant parking spaces.

City authorities will be able to offset the cost of smart lampposts by using them to host digital advertising or provide charging points for electric vehicles.

Hong Kong plans to install 400 smart lampposts over the next three years, 40 are already in place. As well as measuring pedestrian and vehicle flows they use radar to monitor vehicle speeds in order to control traffic lights. 

Last year, Singapore signed a $5.5 million contract to install smart lampposts across the island state. Cities in Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Poland, Portugal, UAE, UK and the United States are also installing or trialling smart lampposts.

Talk to me, I’m a lampost

In London and Bristol, UK company Hello Lamp Post has pioneered a playful approach to smart lampposts. Citizens are invited to conduct conversations with lampposts and other street furniture by SMS text, using the object’s identification number.

The lampposts in the trial were programmed to ask questions about their surroundings and to engage people in conversations. In London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, they asked passersby about their favourite Olympians.

The EU project team says cities should think of their lampposts as “a regularly-spaced network of elevated posts with power throughout the city that can help transform the efficiency and effectiveness of city services, rather than just poles to hang lightbulbs on.”

It’s all a long way from Gene Kelly and Singin’ in the Rain.