Glimmers of a Smarter City

Photography by Jason Madara  

In Schenectady, New York, a city of nearly 66,000 located 20 miles from Albany, City Hall officials can enter a meeting room and speak into the air—“Alexa, turn on the lights,” addressing Amazon’s voice service—and the overhead bulbs will illuminate. A Wi-Fi hub controls the LED fixtures on the first floor, adjusting their intensity according to how much daylight passes through the windows. The lights don’t shine at full brightness when the sun is out or in the late hours of the night when no one is in the building.

The program, a partnership between smart home platform Wink and the engineers and scientists at Wise Labs, isn’t just about saving energy. That’s only one part of an initiative to turn Schenectady into a full-fledged smart city, spilling out of City Hall and into the surrounding streets. “We see this as the first of many steps in applying technology not only to City Hall but throughout the city,” says Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy.

Cisco is replacing inefficient streetlights with LED models that are equipped with Wi-Fi nodes to provide municipal Internet service to residents. And Wink is looking at ways to leverage that new connectivity by allowing small business owners to install motion sensors, smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms, and cameras potentially subsidized by the city that will feed information back to the city; imagine if authorities could tag surveillance footage in the case of a break-in, or detect and contain a fire before it flares out of control. Connectivity, then, is infusing a new layer of intelligence into cities that wasn’t before possible. And it’s not just in Schenectady.

Chicago is developing a predictive-analytics-based SmartData Platform to analyze trends and patterns across millions of city-related data per day, from building and infrastructure to roadway use, transit, and even public safety. Barcelona, Spain, deployed a layer of sensors on a platform, known as Sentilo, to experiment with smart water-, lighting-, and energy-management projects.

Amsterdam, in partnership with Philips, launched a networked lighting pilot that is exploring the potential for on-demand, usage-based service throughout the city. IT analysis firm Gartner predicts there will be 9.7 billion connected devices plugging into a smart city grid by 2020, up from 1.1 billion in 2015.

Furthermore, Pike Research estimates that global investment in smart city technologies will reach $108 billion by 2020. Inevitably a small subset of these platforms will emerge as the standard.

Wink is off to a running start, applying what it has learned from 350,000 consumers and their million gadgets to pilot cities like Schenectady, where government employees can digitally connect devices in novel ways to save money, control and monitor their environment, and generally make their lives easier and simpler. For many, the Wink app is a gateway to the Internet of Things—an expanding ecosystem of everyday products embedded with electronics that connect to the web—and an industry expected to reach $4.59 trillion by 2018, according to Bloomberg analysis based on data from International Data Corporation research.

As Schenectady’s Mayor McCarthy told The Daily Gazette last fall, testing connectivity throughout the city with Wink and any other partners “is like the progression from a desktop to a laptop….It’s an element of convenience and the ability to test and demonstrate.” Wink lets you control hundreds of smart products—from companies like GE, Honeywell, and Philips—from your Android or iOS device.

Other smart home programs such as Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings, and AT&T Digital Life will let you connect devices, but, says Wink Founder and CTO Nathan Smith, no other program approaches Wink’s depth of integration among major brands. What does that mean for everyday life? Imagine driving home in your Tesla. As you turn down your street, you call up Wink on the car screen and activate the Chamberlain garage door opener. The Schlage lock on the door separating the garage from your house unlocks as you approach, the lights come on, and the thermostat is set to your optimal temperature.

One Wink user expressed enthusiasm for Wink’s seamless integration in a Reddit post titled “Stupid awesome Echo now makes me love my Wink hub.” The user described how tethering a Wink account to an Amazon Echo made home feel like “the Star Trek future I always wanted [it] to be.” One commenter went a step further, praising the intuition in smart home technology rather than needing a phone as a bridge: “The difference is subtle, freeing, and amazing.”

Most of these other programs offer one thermostat, one lock, one lightbulb, and if you don’t like it, then hit the bricks. We’re specifically trying to create a manufacturer-agnostic platform, says Smith.

“Most of these other programs offer one thermostat, one lock, one lightbulb, and if you don’t like it, then hit the bricks,” says Smith. “We’re specifically trying to create a manufacturer-agnostic platform.” Wink aims to bring all the best brands onto one system, including Nest, the poster child for innovation in the smart home space.

Although Nest has its own connectivity program, Works With Nest, it doesn’t aspire to become a be-all, end-all platform—one of the reasons it operates on Wink. “They see us as an ally,” Smith says, “because we provide to them the same thing we provide to the other manufacturers—a connectivity layer that they can’t build themselves—while still being true to their mission of making great point solutions.” Wink began as a small, employee-driven initiative within Quirky, the now-bankrupt startup that used crowdsourcing to develop new products.

When Quirky first launched in 2009, it focused on simple devices like injection-molded cord-management tools, but by the following year, amateur inventors were submitting proposals for high-voltage designs.

One of the most popular ideas, produced in 2011, was an articulated power strip dubbed Pivot Power, whose bendable form allowed chargers to fit neatly into each socket without blocking any of the others. Soon, submissions for connected gadgets rolled in. At the same time, some of the nerdier people on staff, like Smith, then head of engineering, began experimenting with new prototyping tools such as Arduino and XBee to make one-off smart devices. There was one that opened an office door from a web browser; another controlled the color of Christmas lights from a smartphone. Wink connectes products from your favorite brands and control them all from a single app. Photography: Jason Madara

The merry band of tinkerers showed their creations to GE, which was interested in introducing some of its patent portfolio to the Quirky community. The two companies decided to partner on a collection of five connected products, among them a smart piggy bank a smartphone-controlled power strip, and an egg tray, which tracked how many eggs were left and when they were going bad. (Of the egg tray, Smith concedes, “It sounds kind of silly, and it was, but the idea was that we’d integrate it as a standard feature into GE fridges themselves.”)

The best-received product was Aros, a programmable air conditioner that could adjust the temperature based on a user’s budget. The basic hardware was modeled on one of GE’s preexisting “dumb” 8,000 BTU models, Smith says, but Quirky and Wink designed and manufactured everything else—the circuit board and Wi-Fi chip that ran the LCD and controls, as well as what would become the Wink app to control all of the GE–Quirky devices. Says Smith, “It was a funny time, because we were designing the products themselves, we were designing the app to run them, and then we were doing things like smuggling laptops from Hong Kong into mainland China so that we could set up test stations for these connected products, because a lot of the factories had never made anything like this before.”

Still, it wasn’t until 2014, when Quirky joined forces with Home Depot, one of its major retail outlets, that Wink grew from being an app into its own company. Home Depot, looking to simplify the connected product ecosystem for its customers, enlisted Wink to provide the software and San Jose, California–based Flex to manufacture a hub that would allow a smartphone to talk to any device, regardless of its frequency.

The hub became Wink’s first branded product. “Wink was at the earliest stage of a startup you could think of,” says Sumir Kapur, Flex’s senior vice president of Innovative, Connected, and Emerging Technologies within the Consumer Technologies Group. “But they were also very unique in the sense that they wanted to be an open system.” The compatibility with a swath of brands made Wink attractive to both Home Depot and Flex, which shared Wink’s core philosophy of working with top-of-the-line companies. When Quirky filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September of 2015, Flex made a $15 million bid for Wink and moved into Quirky’s former headquarters, a 60,000-square-foot space in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Wink was at the earliest stage of a startup you could think of. But they were also very unique in the sense that they wanted to be an open system, Kapur says.

Going forward, Wink will continue to focus on helping people automate their homes, even if it doesn’t bill itself as a smart home solution. “We don’t care about home automation at all,” Smith says. “We’re saying, ‘How can we make it easier for normal people to use this new type of technology that is starting to become common?’ We don’t think people look at their houses and say, ‘Oh, I want a connected home.’”  There will be 9.7 billion connected devices plugging into a smart city grid by 2020 Wink will also focus on providing its lauded customer service through the company’s call center in Schenectady. Wink’s presence there led to its involvement with the smart city effort and collaboration on how to scale up at the city level. Wink’s prediction: Even if you don’t live in a smart home, you may soon find yourself working in a smart office or walking down a road lined with smart streetlights.

Schenectady, for its part, is in the nascent stages of becoming a smart city, but the convenience of Wink’s on-site call center should accelerate its development, says Mayor McCarthy: “These products can be deployed, tested, and get almost instant feedback in terms of what people like and don’t like about them.” Says Smith: “We want to be able to speak to the systems in a city the way we talk to our thermostat or garage-door openers. There are only a few providers in any given space, and once we’ve made those connections, we can take this and replicate it for any city.”