The completion of Montreal’s $40 million Jacques-Cartier Bridge project was marked last week in a spectacular eruption of colour and light, but many people are wondering: what else?

Eyes have been glued to the structure in hopes of observing the intricate, multicoloured features promised by engineers and city officials.

These features are supposedly controlled by intelligent programming “activated by millions of human and natural connections.”  

However, in the days following its unveiling, curious spectators glancing towards at the bridge at night see it lit up in green, much like its color in daylight.

Aside from being dimmed one night in homage to the victims of the Manchester bombing, the bridge’s appearance seems largely consistent.  

It turns out that most people are just going to bed too early.

How does it work?

While the crux of the transitions rests on social media activity, the bridge does go through some preset, autonomous colour changes. The bridge is programmed with a 365-day calendar that gradually shifts to reflect the changing of the seasons: every day has a colour that’s unique to the spectrum.

For example—the bridge’s current green hue is reflective of springtime. According to the 375th website, the core colour will shift from green to orange, to a “voluptuous” fall red, and blue for winter.

Officials behind the programming of the lights say these gradual changes are intentional, strategic even.

 “[The Jacques-Cartier Bridge] is a presence that has its own character,” explained Roger Parent, president of Réalisations, one of the five multimedia companies behind “Living Connections.”

“It’s not a marathon thing,” he said. “We want to generate randomness with meaning.”

With the installation remaining in place for the next 10 years, Parent explains that a bridge that’s constantly in “show mode” – much like the night of its unveiling—will wear out its welcome.

But a show is supposed to be presented every hour of every night. (For those of you who don't find themselves near the bridge at night, CTV Montreal livestreams the bridge each night after dark online).

At the top of the hour, the bridge displays a five-minute vigourous animation in colours that are coordinated to reflect the trending topics on Montreal’s social media: red for society, green for the environment, light blue for technology, grey for business, blue for sports, pink for institutions, and purple to represent culture.

For example—if rain is falling and the wind is blowing southwest—the show will feature a digital rendering of raindrops, angled to reflect the wind.

The bridge will also reflect traffic statistics for the day. While nearly 160,000 vehicles cross the span every day, the bridge uses dots and dashes to represent cars and trucks.

At midnight, the bridge cycles through the 365 colours on its integrated “calendar,” until it goes back to rest at 3 a.m.

Intelligent programming

The Jacques-Cartier Bridge’s “intelligent” programming – the first bridge in the world to have it – uses social media algorithms to reflect trends in the Montreal network.

That means the bridge was designed to capture the city’s pulse in “real time” and reflect online conversations with the intensity, speed, and density of the light.

When someone makes a social media post with an official hashtags --#IlluminationMtl, #375mtl, #montreal, #mtl, #mtlmoments – the bridge’s master system gets an alert.

That ping will be marked with a light at the apex of the bridge which travels down the structure.

If the tweet is favourited, the moving light will expand. If it’s re-tweeted, its speed will accelerate. Without any response on the network, the light will disappear.

But this is only a segment of the bridge’s “smart” capabilities.

Over the long term, the data submitted over social media is analyzed to establish what words or feelings are most closely associated with Montreal.

The graph below demonstrates how, in the days following the bridge’s unveiling, public sentiment about Montreal went from neutral to positive. Thousands of tweets poured in and were registered in the databank.

These transitions are facilitated by extensive work done on the 100-year-old structure prior to the anniversary unveiling. Nearly 200 workers added a whopping 2,800 LED lights to the structure – with a lifespan of 50,000 hours—and approximately 30 kilometers of fiber optic wiring, pipes, and internet cable were added, all connecting to the nucleus of the operation on the South Shore.

Parent and other bridge officials rebuff Montrealers who criticize the cost and purpose of the bridge project. He explains that when data is used to create beauty, as is the case with the bridge, people won’t understand until the final result is visible.

The project’s $40 million price tag is an all-inclusive one, Parent adds, including utilities, maintenance, and equipment for the next decade.

When compared to a reported $12 million in installation costs alone for lights on the Golden Gate bridge, Parent insists that there is a bigger picture to be observed.

It’s an emotive project, he said, one that prompts a visceral—rather than practical—response in the viewer.