How to make our homes and Europe’s economic powerhouses fit for (future) purpose?

Our future is in cities.  Today, around 72% of the European Union’s (EU) population lives in cities. As well as providing a home to most of us, cities are neuralgic centers of power, innovation, economic dynamism and demographic growth. As such, they are vital to the future of Europe. And just like any other vital resource, they and their inhabitants need protection.

The current demographic situation in the EU is characterized by continuing population growth, from 406.7 million in 1960 to 511.8 million in 2017, an increase of 105.1 million people. Cities not only provide a home to most of us, but they are also the engines of the European economy, holding 62% of jobs and representing 67% of its GDP.

There are many reasons why citizens opt for one city over another, but one of the key components for settling somewhere permanently is personal safety.

People want a city that acts responsibly and that proactively addresses threats and vulnerabilities. A city that protects them; a smart city

The great thing about the digital age is that this can be literally translated into reality. Technology innovation can help cities strengthen public safety. But cities cannot become smart alone. They need private actors to bring new ideas to the table and the European Union to support them during their transformation. Each of these elements is an important piece to the urban safety puzzle.

Digitalizing the way cities are protected: Smart policing

In July 2017, tens of thousands of people took the streets of Hamburg to protest against the G20 summit. That week, violence rose to a critical level, as a group of thousand protesters broke away from the crowd to destroy shops and set cars on fire. Although a special forces unit was sent to stop them, it was “only after extensive damage had been done”, as the New York Times observed. 

This example shows that when a crime occurs or a protest escalates, if the police arrive at the scene after the fact or if they enter a situation unprepared, it is more difficult for them to be efficient. Smart policing can overcome this.

Firstly, this involves digitalizing the police force. The police of the future will use machines that make it possible to gain insights that go beyond human capabilities. Body wearables and sensors are already being trialed in different cities, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. We are only starting to grasp the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – which can bring together facial recognition, object detection, translation, geolocation, semantics, and more – and then analyze these and other factors to alert police officers in real-time of suspicious behavior.

The positive impact of wearables and embedded sensors include the City of San Francisco, which has recorded a 35% reduction in firearms violence since deploying sensors in streetlights. The sensors detect and locate gunfire; alerts are then broadcast to dispatch centers and patrol cars.

Smart policing relies on human cooperation

Secondly, empowering citizens and connecting them to their local police will develop a strong community network of communication across cities that helps to cover blind spots in urban spaces. Police forces need to assess and understand how their actions and personnel are perceived by the public and whether they support them or not. If people trust the institutions that protect them, they will be more willing to help them. This trust combined with technology can have a major impact. Already in 2013, the city of Paris launched the app Dans ma rue for people to report non-emergency issues such as damaged street signs, graffiti and potholes. Imagine what would have happened in Hamburg if witnesses had a similar reporting app to quickly and directly warn the authorities? Take a picture, write a short description and submit your alert. Easy!

Cooperation between people and between people and technology will be the key factors of a successful smart city in the coming decades. With so many people living in cities, political leaders – European and national, should be looking for innovative approaches for making urban living safer – but not paranoid.

How can a city become smart?

City and police authorities need to better understand emerging technologies, which represent a novel way to tackle potential threats in urban spaces. If used proactively and conceived as a shared and collaborative infrastructure, they can enable strengthened resilience of public spaces.

However, innovation comes at a price, and cities cannot bear the costs alone. In October 2017, the EU Commission presented the final Work Programme for Horizon 2020, representing an investment of around €30 billion. Four political priorities were identified, including “Boosting the effectiveness of the Security Union”. Out of a budget of €1 billion, 16 million was dedicated to promoting smart and safe cities, with the aim of “protecting infrastructure against threats, including cyber-attacks”. This is a promising first step towards encouraging cities to develop intelligent, data-driven urban solutions.

EU funding is crucial to the success of a much-needed transition towards smart cities, but it is not sufficient. The EU should play the role of a platform that connects business to cities, as well as cities to cities, for knowledge to be shared effectively. Many innovative solutions require new business models and financing solutions, thus the importance of engaging different actors.

For example, Singapore worked with four private organizations including Accenture on the Safe City Test Bed. The project included running trials on a video analytics system that can detect abnormal scenarios such as traffic congestion, abandoned objects, etc.  Combined with social media monitoring to identify abnormal activity and keywords, the system was able to manage large crowds and respond to incidents in real-time.

A secure city is a breeding ground for economic prosperity & social cohesion

Rapid urbanization and high population density represent a challenging opportunity for cities. Due to escalating citizen expectations, terrorist threats and the ongoing digital transformation of the world, the need for changing the way cities are governed is more pressing than ever. Many European cities including Eindhoven, Madrid and Stockholm have already embarked on safe city initiatives and it is inevitable that more will follow their lead. In the digital age, it is crucial for the EU to encourage and support all European cities in fulfilling their technological potential, because a secure city is a breeding ground for economic prosperity and social cohesion.

Want to know more about the role of technology in the city of the future? Feel free to contact us!