The potential for cities to improve performance and personal security using data and crowd-sourced analytics is both dramatic and potentially unlimited

The vision of a utopian urban future rests
heavily on the success of Open Data
and a Cloud Computing paradigm

Confronting urban challenges using technology requires the private sector to work in tandem with governments to enable "smart cities." In fact, one report predicts the number of safe cities worldwide will quadruple in the next decade. It’s a topic that is increasingly top-of-mind.

For example, the Safe Cities Asia 2015 conference in Singapore in May brought together senior professionals and thought leaders to focus on topics such as cyber security, the cloud, Big Data analytics and mobile engagement strategies. Smart cities – as well as safe cities – were a big topic at IFSEC 2015 this year, too, and one of the presentations addressed emerging trends and technologies related to safe, smart and connected cities – and the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT). In this article, Simon Moores, a speaker at IFSEC, expounds on the impact technologies will have on our urban environments in coming years.

At the turn of the last century, in 1900, it’s estimated that 200 million people lived in cities. At the time, this was about one-eighth of the world’s population. A little over 100 years later, over 3 billion people now occupy an urban space. In 2015, London surpassed its 1939 peak of 8.5 million residents, placing unprecedented demands on both infrastructure and public services.

Rising urban housing demand

It’s the raw speed of urbanisation that matters. As the TV news reports nearly every day, we are in the middle of the largest migration period in history, and one can’t help but notice the future of the millions of urban poor being conspicuously absent in the utopic vision offered by the digital prophets in many developed and developing nations.

The security researcher Robert Muggah describes the phenomenon of “turbo-urbanisation,” and this is one of the key drivers of fragility and risk in developing economies today. For example, China is adding a mega-city the size of London every two years, and India needs to build the equivalent of a new Manchester every year to keep up with inexhaustible demand for urban housing.

It was as true of the era of Thomas Edison as it is of the present, that the search for an answer to the challenges of growing human urbanisation is believed to exist in the smarter application of new technologies. Where once, electricity and the arrival of the elevator gave us vertical cities, today, we have the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, micro-controllers (MEMS) and new materials to help manage a very crowded future.

Getting rid of "sick cities" first

In hundreds of cities across the
world, we are seeing the arrival
of a new civic consciousness
as the smartphone becomes a
platform for reinventing the
urban landscape

Perhaps we should simply admit that nobody has a clue what the world will look like in even five years’ time, and before we start prematurely celebrating the arrival “smart cities,” we urgently need to solve the problems of “sick cities” and “safe cities” first. More importantly, we might ask if we so focused on the promise of an urban utopia, that we have lost touch with some of the very real technical, infrastructure and social problems that define the fastest growing urban environments. I noted on a recent BBC news report that some Chinese cities have been erected without adequate drainage and sewer systems to deal with regular monsoon-driven flooding.

An Era of Possibilities

Today, we are living in what has been described as “An Era of Possibilities,” a special window in both time and technology that is now driving the scaling of commercial and social activity beyond the familiar boundaries within which we become accustomed to thinking. Everywhere you look, it can be argued we are on the cusp of a technology-based societal transformation that will be at least as big as that of the Industrial Revolution.

In hundreds of cities across the world, we are seeing the arrival of a new civic consciousness as the smartphone becomes a platform for reinventing the urban landscape from the bottom up and we move away from dull, monolithic and centralised, City Hall-controlled data into far richer and more useful crowdsourced data from millions of smartphones. Cities are already the most complex structures mankind has ever created and for a new generation of civic leaders, in larger and developed “super-cities” like New York, London and Singapore, smart technology represents an opportunity to rethink and even reinvent the tired-looking model of local government.

In a conference presentation this summer in London (IFSEC Global) I was asked which “Smart Technologies” will have the biggest impact on cities in the future and what emerging trends are keeping people and property safe? Can we evolve the emerging concept of a smart city organically; one app, one Uber, one check-in, one API call, one Arduino, one hot spot at a time?

Two sides of IoT technology

The potential for cities to improve performance and personal security using data and crowd-sourced analytics is both dramatic and potentially unlimited. Technology appears to hold many, if not all, the answers it promises, but it simultaneously presents us with most of the bigger problems too. Why? Well, for one reason, whereas in the past, urban risk was widely distributed among structures rather than devices, the situation is changing.

The Internet of Things will
deliver exciting opportunities
and new kinds of services,
many of which we have yet to
imagine. However, there will be
equally unimagined and
unintended consequences

Today, technology companies and even politicians imagine anything capable of holding an electric current, from the city’s water supply valves, to your bathroom light-bulb, with its own IP address, can be connected to the Internet. We are confronted with a perfect storm of risk factors and potential vulnerabilities that might make the recent Ashley Madison hack look like child’s play as each of these connection points is potentially a source for a security breach.

If I were to summarise the message of my presentation at IFSEC Global this last summer, it would be this:

Much like the arrival of Uber and Airbnb, The Internet of Things will deliver exciting opportunities and new kinds of services, many of which we have yet to imagine. However, there will be equally unimagined and unintended consequences, if only because, in highly complex systems with many connected and tightly-linked elements, accidents are inevitable.

Open Data and Cloud computing for secure urbanisation

The vision of a utopian urban future rests heavily on the success of Open Data and a fast-evolving Cloud Computing paradigm. However, unless government and industry can collectively find a standardised model to properly secure a trillion or so smart devices, the surface area risk for tomorrow’s Smart Cities appears daunting as a wider communications break-down in the Cloud could lead to the kind of “Downtime” paralysis described by the science fiction novelist, Cory Doctorow, in his short story, “Human Readable.”

That’s not to say I’m a pessimist, far from it. On a recent visit to give a talk in Hong Kong, my taxi from the airport had five smartphones fixed to a specially constructed Perspex dashboard, neatly positioned in front of the driver and at any one time he appeared to be using at least three.

Having grown-up with an earlier vision of the future in the Ridley Scott movie, “Blade Runner:”, the oriental combination of a very old Toyota taxi and a small gallery of smartphones, pointed me firmly in the direction of another urban landscape. Governments and big technology companies may have grand visions for the future of smart cities, but ultimately, the coming age of global urbanisation will be crowd-shaped by citizen interest groups, market forces, Open Data, smartphones … and even an army of fast-talking, multi-tasking Chinese taxi drivers?

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