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What are Smart Cities and how can they help keep us safe?

Alexander Kenny
26 Oct 2022

In short, Smart Cities are Internet of Things (IoT) enabled environments that collect and utilise data. The IoT is a network of technologies, ranging from everything between your smartphone to weather monitors, which are all interconnected through sensors and able to share data. Smart cities capitalise on the plethora of IoT data available by responding with automated actions and tailored user information, so that citizens can enjoy a more informed and streamlined digital interaction in their everyday duties. For example, in Yinchuan, China, commuters can ride buses that use facial recognition technology to automatically charge them for their ride, meaning they no longer need to carry cash or go to the effort of buying a ticket.

The possibilities for smart city applications are truly phenomenal in size and will exponentially grow during the next decade. A critical area of adoption that could benefit us all resides in law enforcement. In a world of increasingly rich data, smart cities could significantly amplify law enforcement capabilities by automating investigatory and assessment work, flagging potential risks for closer inspection by a police officer that can be actioned further. Law enforcement applications are already being deployed and explored, which include:

  • Predictive policing systemsIn Xinjiang, China, which utilise surveillance camera feeds and a citizen’s personal data, such as phone use and travel records, to identify suspicious individuals that require further investigation.
  • Enhanced safety and traffic capabilities – Capgemini’s Research institute recently highlighted in a research paper on smart cities that in Dijon, France, CCTV combined with image analysis to create abnormal event detection, fire detection, traffic monitoring, traffic management through automatic bollards and city-centre access control.
  • Boosting citizen safety confidence in London, UK – This can be done through the installation of intelligent street lighting that will deliver environmental efficiency benefits whilst increasing how safe Londoners feel when walking the streets.
  • Mitigating time pressures on crucial policing time – This can often be spent on dealing with non-criminal activity and addressing the wellbeing of communities. Smart city enabling start-ups such as VENN have created a neighbourhood platform to help build and maintain local communities digitally, tackling loneliness and mental health challenges.

Whilst Smart cities can provide a wealth of benefits to people and police alike, this comes with a great amount of responsibility, particularly for law enforcement agencies who will need to keep us safe in an ever more data-self exposed world.

For every smart city opportunity, there’s also a challenge for law enforcement

Whilst some may see the promise of smart city technologies as one to be hailed, others may perceive them to be the realisation of an Orwellian nightmare.

The relationship between effective protection versus being under the constant supervision of ‘big brother’ is always a challenging one, with real world consequences. Morality aside, law enforcements agencies will also face a swathe of difficulties in tangibly realising these benefits smart cities pose. Some of the key challenges are diverse and include the following: 


  • A vast array of ethical questions, ranging from whether government bodies should have the right to peer into people’s lives so intrusively to the end of privacy as we know it, which could diminish trust in the very organisations trying to keep people safe. A smart waterfront project was labelled as ‘Permissionless Innovation’ for its level of data collection intrusion.


  • Smart cities generate a vast amount of big data, in which finding a single insight can be tremendously difficult. The technology will need considerable development and co-ordination to make it worth law enforcement’s time. 
  • Legacy technologies that are viewed by law enforcement staff as slow, out of date and unreliable. These outdated systems are not suitable or capable of interacting with the latest smart city technologies, and thus will require end to end transformation.
  • Smart cities themselves could be hacked by foreign powers and terrorists, resulting in citizen or infrastructure harm, leading to a ‘cobra effect’ where a solution actually exacerbates the original problem, leading to diverted police and security effort.


So how can law enforcement agencies overcome the challenges?

Evidently, law enforcement has some difficult barriers to break down if it wishes to utilise smart city technology as a means of keeping citizens safe. In reality, this is not a choice, but a given, as the world accelerates towards the fourth industrial revolution. To enable the benefits, law enforcement agencies should consider the following solutions:  

  • Identify critical legacy systems that have reached the point of development obsolescence and mark them for end-to-end transformation, with the aim of creating a future ready environment that is capable of securely integrating with smart city technology. For example, New South Wales Police has replaced over 200 legacy systems with cloud-based technologies that integrate Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, which can work as a major catalyst for automated smart tech.
  • As new solutions are delivered, it’s important to back it up with extensive training and process redesign, so that organisational adoption is strong from the outset.
  • Redesign organisational models and ways of working between departments and external bodies. The Metropolitan Police and Cambridge University conducted research that analyses existing non-fatal knife crime data, such as the time and location of offences, to accurately forecast knife crime and predict hotspot locations. The insights derived can provide automated daily updates of homicide risks. Communicating this insight can help the Metropolitan Police coordinate and deploy front line officers to high-risk areas, adjust patrol car patterns and possibly monitor school exclusions to further discourage criminal activity. 
  • Engage in open and honest dialogues earlier on with citizens, making them aware of how their data is harvested and utilised. For example, the Metropolitan Police completed the world’s largest deployment of 22,000 body-worn cameras to improve evidence-gathering, but crucially increased accountability of their officers in public interactions.

Smart cities offer an unrivalled opportunity to create a more digital-centric experience for citizens and an entirely new way of policing. By facing the challenges head on with pragmatic, open minded and bold solutions, law enforcement can significantly boost its ability to keep the public safe whilst also earning its trust.