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Cities looking to get smart take a lesson from an iconic shopping mall

It’s a small world, after all — at least when it comes to leveraging technologies to create a smarter community experience.

From Disney World to the Mall of America, public venues are turning out to be microcosms for smart city projects. Cities and towns looking to up their infrastructure game can extrapolate from the experience of major sports stadiums, for example, as demonstrations of what happens when you offer free Wi-Fi to 70,000 people. And metropolitan areas can learn from shopping hubs that have installed Bluetooth to pinpoint consumers.

Cities across the globe are installing technology to gather data in the hopes of saving money, becoming cleaner, reducing traffic, and improving urban life. In Digital Trends’ Smart Cities series, we’ll examine how smart cities deal with everything from energy management, to disaster preparedness, to public safety, and what it all means for you.

“It’s the concept of offering smart services that make these places mini cities,” explained Chuck Sabin, senior director of business strategy and planning at the Bluetooth SIG, the standards body that oversees the wireless technology. “The Mall of America is using Bluetooth for services inside their operations. They have 109,000 visitors a day or 40 million people a year. At Disney World there are 56,000 visitors a day.”

With such huge numbers of visitors, these venues act as digital petri dishes — providing valuable data for bigger, city-wide projects. So what can be learned from a trip to the mall?

Showrooming Smart City Features

The Mall of America (MOA) outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul has 5.6 million square feet of public space with over 500 indoor stores and numerous attractions that present challenges not dissimilar to those faced by most towns. Visitors need to access transportation services, such as parking spaces, as well as public services like restrooms. And just finding the retailer what you want can be daunting.

Mall of America

“It can be very confusing for wayfinding,” acknowledged mall IT director Janette Smrcka. After all, MOA is the second largest indoor mall in North America (the largest is the West Edmonton Mall in Canada). To address that issue, the mall installed Wi-Fi throughout the facility in the fall of 2015. “But we found that the phones made really bad choices.”

“We found that the phones made really bad choices.”

Using Wi-Fi on smartphones for location-based services is relatively ineffective because the handsets tend to lock on and then stick to a particular access point. So MOA began testing Bluetooth beacons to deliver more precise navigation inside the mall.

“One of the challenges is the open architecture of the mall. We have multiple levels, for example,” explained Smrcka. Like a growing suburb, the mall sprawls astonishingly far, reaching across four floors, including a 7.5-acre indoor amusement park, an escape room, multiple parking facilities, and about 50 restaurants. “So we had to deliver accuracy within a few feet” to create a you-are-here, blue-dot experience, said Smrcka. It wasn’t a straightforward process. The MOA worked with several different technology partners and experimented with different solutions until it settled on Senion, a Swedish firm that specializes in Bluetooth beacon systems for indoor positioning.


The location and indoor navigation feature debuted in 2017 at the mall as part of the MOA app. There are now over 700 Wi-Fi access points and over 600 Bluetooth beacons that plug into Cisco access points. Each module is housed in custom boxes containing the access point, Bluetooth beacon, and antennas that can be configure from a central location. Smrcka said they decided to forego battery operated models, based on feedback from stadiums that use battery power. “The cost of labor was too high,” she noted.

The blue dot experience now shows visitors the quickest route to their desired store and can re-route them should there be unexpected complications.

“For me the most exciting part is now being able to track our escalators and their uptime,” Smrcka said. The escalators are over 25 years old, so they require regular maintenance but don’t include the kind of connected services now common on building services. So the MOA added wireless nodes and put the escalators on an IoT hub that now reports on when they have stopped or need planned maintenance — all of which goes into the wayfinding app for shoppers, directing them only to working escalators.

Mall of America Getty

Smrcka noted that the mall hopes to add similar features to the elevators in the MOA. However, it’s not just a matter of plugging and then playing the technology; the elevators have to undergo another inspection and re-certification by the municipality every time such a new feature is added.

About 70,000 shoppers have used the software so far, although the MOA hasn’t promoted it extensively as it builds out the system. And she notes that the opt-in program is careful to anonymize all data in order to respect users’ privacy.

Dude, Where’s My Car?

Whereas cities have existing infrastructure — such as light poles on which to hang new technology like mesh networks — the MOA didn’t find it economically practical to cover its acres and acres of parking lots. Instead, it’s made it easier for drivers to find parking spaces by installing a Park Assist system.

Take a glance down any row in the mall’s multi-level garages and drivers will see green LED lights indicating open spots and red lights denoting occupied stalls. It reduces anxiety and wasted time looking behind SUVs and minivans only to discover spots are already full.

The mall is also beginning to analyze parking data from the overhead sensors, which cover up to four spots, to determine popular entry points and lot areas. Knowledge of when the majority of drivers leave could also help the MOA determine when to add more staff to assist customers.

In the future, Smrcka hopes to leverage the Bluetooth beacons and network to streamline the work of the over 10,000 people employed at the mall. Engineering services, for example, could use the beacons to automatically pin the location of a new work order rather than spending time describing the location. The MOA could also improve logistics such as tracking, collecting, and dispersing the scores of electronic carts and wheelchairs the mall rents out every day to visitors.

The House of Mouse

In addition to malls, amusement parks have expended considerable energy and resources to determine the best and most efficient way to move people and offer them the services they want.

Disney World already uses proprietary RFID MagicBands that let visitors access various services. The company wants to make guest services seamless — or “like magic.” The bands allow for automatic access to the parks and ticketless entry to rides, and they serve as passports to the park’s shuttles, wireless keys to Disney Resort hotel rooms, and digital wallets for food and souvenirs. The MagicBands also let people order food in advance at some restaurants; when they arrive, the band automatically tells the Disney staff the customer’s names and automatically locates the guest so that the wait staff knows what table to deliver their order to.

Disney MagicBand Walt Disney World

While such bands may work for an amusement park visit, it’s probably not a technology that will translate well to city spaces. Citizens are unlikely to accept government-issued wristbands that they have to wear 24/7.

Visitors to The Magic Kingdom don’t even have to register at the hotel’s front desk.

However, Disney is already using what it has gleaned from the bands and applying that experience to Bluetooth-connected smartphones. Earlier this year, at Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge, for example, the company started allowing guests to unlock their rooms using digital keys on their smartphones.

Disney guests opt in and activate the feature on the app on check-in day. To get into their room, hotel guests tap the “Unlock Door” button and then tap their phone on the door lock. Visitors to The Magic Kingdom don’t even have to register at the hotel’s front desk. The app lets them know when their room is ready so they can go straight there.

It’s that kind of secure application using Bluetooth that is more likely to translate into a smart citywide app. Citizens could use such Bluetooth-enabled digital keys for public transportation, for example, or ticketless entry to a museum or automatic queuing at the local DMV office.

Turning Blue Into Mesh

In the past year, Bluetooth has been adding to these beacon-based location services.

“You can monitor the condition of a smart building, and automate processes that can in turn be integrated into smart cities,” said the Bluetooth SIG’s Sabin.

Beacons can collect sensor data on vibration, heat, or moisture, for example, and then trigger actions such as shutting off valves on a network. Electric pumps can also be retrofitted with sensors and Bluetooth transceivers so that technicians can walk around with a tablet or phone to wirelessly collect diagnostic data.

More Smart Cities

The next wave is leveraging secure Bluetooth mesh networks, which don’t require a hub and can even be set up and operated without being directly connected to the Internet. The first application has been large corporate lighting networks, but Sabin says the organization is looking to expand its use into other areas of the infrastructure. Bike sharing and point of interest information are two of the most obvious scenarios.

Aside from the experience of actual deployments, these mini cities tend to offer some consistent words of advice for administrators working on smart city projects.

“The biggest challenge is finding the right technology partners,” said Mall of America’s Smrcka. “And guests have really high expectations. Remember, it’s an ask to take out a device and download one more app,” she underscored. So you’d better deliver something valuable to users — whether they’re shoppers or citizens.

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John R. Quain
John R. Quain writes for The New York Times, Men's Journal, and several other publications. He is also the personal…
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