Smart Cities: Citizen involvement, security and the future

This is the third post in our series on Smart Cities and focuses on the Smart Cities of the future. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. 

So, what will Smart Cities of the future look like? Will we see data-driven robots constructing buildings that tower miles into the sky? Or GPS-driven cars transporting passengers to their destinations and then automatically driving themselves home to recharge? Will video billboards sell products to pedestrians using personalized sales pitches based on individual shopping history data?

Any of these scenarios are possible, but most experts agree that an era of enhanced city connectedness, communication and data sharing with citizens is inevitable. Rick Robinson, member of IBM’s “Smarter Cities” initiative, told BBC News that “the behavior of a city is about the behavior of its citizens. Unless systems can become the fabric of their lives, nothing is going to change.”

But while there are interesting “pockets of smartness” happening in cities throughout the world, fully-integrated Smart Cities are not yet within our grasp. The problem is that cities are complex entities that are often inefficient because systems are not interconnected and have no way to “talk” to one another.

And then there is the elephant in the room whenever data collection is mentioned — privacy. As quoted in The Guardian, Dan Hill of Future Cities Catapult says, “A vast network of sensors amounting to millions of electronic ears, eyes and noses … potentially enable the future city to be a vast arena of perfect and permanent surveillance by whomever has access to the data feeds.”

And where there are concerns about data collection privacy, there are even bigger apprehensions about cyberattacks. As reported in the New Scientist, US Army Cyber Institute director Greg Conti says that cities vary widely in terms of how prepared they are for possible attacks because unlike companies that have unified leadership and policies, cities are fractured into public and private silos, making them harder to defend themselves. According to the article, “Hackers can target multiple layers, from breaking into officials’ email accounts to tapping wires underneath drain covers in the street to targeting your home.”

To minimize the problems of cyberattacks, Conti suggests that smart cities “take a more holistic approach to cybersecurity by leveraging large companies for lessons in cyber defense and appoint a chief information security officer with appropriate resources.” Cesar Cerrudo of security consultancy IOActive Labs believes that cities must also “develop plans for responding to cyberattacks, just as they have plans for earthquakes and other natural disasters.” He says “citizens should get more involved and have a responsibility to learn about threats and demand action from their officials. Building developers and business owners can also be proactive in this regard because cyber security affects them as well. Cerrudo says, “If no one says anything, nothing will change.”

It is clear that Smart Cities will require involvement from more than just the technology companies and government officials to succeed — participation by people and businesses is critical. Cisco, one of the leaders promoting the benefits of a smarter and more connected world, agrees. In a recent white paper on Smart Cities, Cisco said that smart cities “cannot be founded on the vision of technology companies or the aspirations of the city’s elected officials, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. City leaders are looking for ways to preserve their cities’ assets (data), as well as those of their constituents, while also integrating these data sources with others coming from the private sector. A strong public-private partnership approach is necessary, beyond the silos of existing city infrastructure providers.”

To that end, Cisco is urging cities, innovators, developers and business leaders to work together to combine public and private data so we can continue making progress toward the Smart Cities of the future. The organization recommends competitions, active communities of interest, fellowships of leading thinkers, support of cross-city knowledge networks and dedicated teams that facilitate cross-community and cross-industry engagement. The time has come for developers who have a stake in their communities to become informed and involved in the discussions about data sharing and the dawn of the Smart City revolution.

Inevitable future 

The proliferation of data and the lightning fast development of smart phone technologies and apps have made the future of Smart Cities inevitable. Despite all the unanswered questions concerning the lack of privacy and the growing danger of cybersecurity breaches, we believe Smart Cities will have a net benefit. Beyond introducing and encouraging the development of futuristic technologies that make cities more efficient, Smart Cities will allow citizens to play a more hands-on role in the way their buildings and cities respond to their needs, enabling people to be more closely connected and engaged with their local communities than ever before in history. And we believe that is smart.

Stay tuned for future Blog posts that focus on the evolution of “Smart Buildings.”

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at dantonellis@suffolk.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.

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