Sustainder: Leveraging big data to make cities smarter 

Air quality, noise, traffic density, vibrations. There’s a lot going on in the outdoors that has an impact on people, day in and day out. With technology being as advanced as it is, tracking and measuring each of those metrics is certainly realistic. There’s just the question of finding the right access points.

Niek de Jong, founder of Dutch startup Sustainder, and his team believe to have the answer: street lights.

“Street lights are the most widely dispersed access points. They are already there, they stand at five to six meters high, and they are simply very well positioned to be the eyes and ears of the smart city,” Niek says.

There is a long list of sensors that can be placed inside them, too – sensors measuring anything from sound and vibration, to carbon dioxide and particle matter levels. As a result, users can access and track all the data that’s relevant to them, and derive the insights they need the most.

There’s an important distinction to make here: The distinction between collecting and analyzing data.

While Sustainder has developed a solution that generates and funnels large amounts of data from the outdoors, it is not involved in any of its interpretations. The team sees the latter as a next step in the value chain, which “the customer is best equipped to take.”


All the things a street light can do

A street light’s initial purpose is quite obvious: to provide light. “Up until now, street lights operated based on when it was time to switch them on and off,” Niek says. “Today, you can do that based on data.”

A sensor placed inside can measure the exact amount of light in the outdoors, and once the level goes below or above a certain threshold, the light can be programmed to turn on or off automatically. “You could also dim the lights, if there is no one in the street.”

And that’s just the beginning. With different sensors integrated into it, a street light could do so much more. It could detect changes in the levels of particle matter in the air and give real-time updates on pollution; it could detect vibrations and predict earthquakes; or it could detect (traffic) accidents by processing sounds patterns.

“For every measurement, you’d have a different response,” Niek says. “If there’s too much particle matter, for example, you might want to stop diesel cars from driving in a specific area.” This is just one of many ways this data can be used.


Laying the foundation of smart cities

So far, Sustainder’s largest target audience has been municipalities – about 85% of their customer base, as outdoor lighting is mostly public-owned. When asked about how many municipalities they have sold to in the Netherlands, Niek turns the question around: “I can say how many we haven’t sold to and that’s only one: the Province of Utrecht.”

The demand is certainly there.

There are also private companies interested in the startup’s services, such as airports and hospitals with large parking lots, or industrial complexes like harbors. 

Sustainder is currently a team of 25, of whom 12 work in sales – four in the Netherlands and eight in Germany. “We also have 25 people working in a factory that we bought in late 2016.” The team has grown quickly, yet that is only natural, if the goal of a company is to create “a managed access network for smart city sensoring,” as Niek puts it.

In other words, Sustainder is there to make a network out of street lights and have it generate data about the cities we live in. Cities that are becoming smarter and smarter by the day.

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Photographer: Raymond de Vries photography

Copywriter: Mina Nacheva

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