Making Newcastle Lit: Hacking the night economy

How many electrical engineers does it take to screw in a LED?

In our lab, it only takes one typically, unless we’re talking about a towering, sci-fi reminiscent, illuminated skatepark pole - that can sometimes take two of us. Okay, next question: how many hackers, hipsters, and hustlers does it take to light up a city? Although I’m unsure which of those categories I fall into, it is what I, my engineering colleague Heath, and the rest of our smart city dream team intend to find out over the latter end of this week as part of the Urban IoT Hackathon.

Although I led myself to believe that I had expelled all the big buzzwords of the moment in the previous month’s blog instalment, alas, it would seem I was sorely mistaken. Why urban? What’s IoT? Is a Hackathon what happens when the Olympics enter The Matrix? These are all questions that I found myself faced with as well so perhaps I should try to answer them here - at least before attempting to pitch an urban IoT Hack solution in front of a table of judges.

  There’s a lot of running in The Matrix, so picturing an alternative reality Olympics isn’t too much of a stretch.

There’s a lot of running in The Matrix, so picturing an alternative reality Olympics isn’t too much of a stretch.

Firstly, why urban?

The Collins English dictionary defines the term as belonging or relating to a town or city. I feel this raises more localised questions; Newcastle what are you, a town or city? Sub-categories aside, both globally and within our own community, the conventions of urban planning and design are rapidly shifting. In a world significantly impacted by environmental, political, social and technological change, it has become essential that we proactively adapt the way in which we maintain and enhance the cities we live in.

Okay, that all makes sense, so what does IoT have to do with any of it?

For those of you who aren’t engrossed in IT and the computer sciences - don’t worry, you’re forgiven - IoT refers to The Internet of Things which actually kind of refers to what it says. Simply put, the Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical devices (other than computers or smartphones) connected to the internet. Computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals, and people are bestowed with the ability to transfer data over a network without the need of human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. These ‘things’ commonly include cars with built-in sensors, temperature respondent kitchen appliances, self-monitoring organ implants, and even injectable ID chips that notify farmers when their cattle have strayed off the paddock. Thus far, we have barely scratched the surface of what IoT can enable. What we do know is that it’s ridiculously smart, and thus, a ‘smart city’ can do with a lot more of it.

Where does the made-up sport of Hackathon come into this?

If you’re thinking what I was thinking, your visions of a bunch of programmers coding away into the early hours of the morning in the pursuit of ‘urban innovation’ isn’t necessarily the case. Refreshingly, Eighteen04 have introduced something a little more multidisciplinary and inclusive. As they outline “…teams from IT, Business, Design, Sociology, IoT, Engineering and Environment Science backgrounds [are] to imagine IoT insertions, activations, integrations and solutions which benefit citizens, business, community and government”. Within the context of Newcastle’s big-city-feel in a small city appeal, the opportunity to trial, and not necessarily always succeed, is optimal breeding ground for urban innovation.

  The 30 LED embedded seesaws that make up Montreal’s    ‘Impulse’    installation.

The 30 LED embedded seesaws that make up Montreal’s ‘Impulse’ installation.

Although the team and I are yet to collectively agree on one of the event’s key challenge topics, I can’t help but be drawn to the topic of LuminoCity (and not just for the excellent use of pun). The smartest, sexiest cities are 24-hour. I’m hard-pressed to think of what could be more intelligent than more efficiently utilising the close-of-business hours of the day. This needn’t mean we should all be running on the treadmill of life at every second available to us, rather, we should be more actively considering the night-time economy with the same weight as we do when the sun is shining.

The City of Newcastle is already recognising the compelling opportunities a city after dark can have not only for the economy through the hospitality and entertainment industries, but also for the reinvigoration of a culture that nurtures public safety and creativity within the city. Although the concept of Newcastle being open later into the evening can inspire fear in the hearts of many, perhaps the opportunities created through IoT-enabled lighting can act as a more accessible alternative to the shifts employed by policy change.

  We need to more seriously consider the night economy and culture as much as we do with the day.  |  René Magritte , The Empire of Light, 1950. Oil on Canvas.  ( MoMA Collection )

We need to more seriously consider the night economy and culture as much as we do with the day. | René Magritte, The Empire of Light, 1950. Oil on Canvas.
(MoMA Collection)

Conversations around a safe and vibrant Newcastle at night needn’t be intrinsically linked to pub and club opening hours and how to reduce statistics in alcohol-related violence in our CBD and outer suburbs. Although these numbers need to drop, the subtle social and cultural shifts that smart, civic lighting can inspire might just be a piece of the night-time strategy puzzle that the poorly lit urban landscape wasn’t able to show us until now.

Do you have any urban after dark problems that you’d like to have us address? Please illuminate us with your insights via email or Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or visit us mid-hack at Eighteen04. Registration can be made here.  

  Maybe Dark City (1998) would have had a more happier ending with some smarter light design?

Maybe Dark City (1998) would have had a more happier ending with some smarter light design?