Technology alone doesn’t make a city safe or smart
Safety is a basic human requirement. This is why most cities have at very least a plan – and in most cases an existing program – to make themselves safe cities, and meeting that fundamental need often requires the use of technology. Now, many cities are undergoing a transition to become smart cities: urban areas where security solutions work in unison with other systems, extending the benefits of technology beyond security and into other city operations. Even though this transformation from safe to smart has yet to become a widespread reality, the next crucial transition – from smart city to cognitive city – is already appearing on the horizon. In the first of three posts about this 3-level transition, we’ll focus on “smart” and explain why “smart” means much more than technology.
The world is becoming increasingly urban. Three years ago in its World Urbanization Prospects report, the United Nations reported that 54% of the world’s population lived in cities. That same report projected that by 2050, that number will hit 66%. From New York City to New Delhi, density follows development. There are many reasons for this: cities tend to provide more opportunities for jobs and education, as well as greater access to amenities like public transportation, sports, and cultural events.
These advantages result in growth, and with growth comes strain on existing public services, infrastructure, and resources. Not to mention keeping the city’s residents safe by preventing crime from growing with – or even outpacing – the population.
Increasingly urban
Increasingly urban
This basic need for urban public safety is one of the biggest forces driving the adoption of “smart city” solutions: approaches which seek to solve urban challenges through technological means. The thinking behind these initiatives is that with enough Internet connectivity and real-time data, surely environmental, social, economic, and public health issues should become more manageable. If technology can transform entire industries, why can’t it also make our power grids more resilient, transportation systems efficient and municipal water supplies more sustainable? Surely, more data can only lead to better outcomes… right?

Tech for tech’s sake

To quote a sharp American journalist and satirist – H. L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. In this context, you’d think the answer would be: “just add more technology”, right? Although tech is necessary for an urban area to transition to being a safe and smart city, tech alone isn’t sufficient. Truly smart cities are savvy cities, and that includes how they employ software, sensing, communications and other technologies to meet their needs.
There are types of problems which connected sensors, data, and software can provide straightforward and effective solutions. One example of these includes network-connected traffic cameras which can relay real-time traffic conditions to both city managers and the public at large, data which morning commuters can then access from a mobile app and adjust their route accordingly.
Smart electricity meters are another example. By monitoring and reporting energy usage in real time, residents can get instant feedback on how their lifestyle choices impact their energy consumption and their monthly bill. Utilities can also benefit from this data, as it could highlight both specific times and areas of high demand, as well as identify sections of the distribution network that are under heavy strain.
Both of these examples highlight the obvious need to collect the relevant data first, and thus explain why smart city initiatives have focused on the widespread collection of data (especially video) through the deployment of large numbers of monitoring and recording devices, like CCTV cameras and license plate readers. Some of those initiatives, however, like red light cameras or computerized flight passenger screening systems, have amounted to little more than “security theater”, which might waste limited resources and further delay the smart city transition due to over-hyped solutions and unrealistic projected ROI.
In other words, technology doesn’t necessarily result in more safety.

Safety and privacy

This new era of surveillance technologies can also assist law enforcement in maintaining public order and safety. The thought is the more areas we observe, the longer we observe them, and the more surveillance data we store and index, the more likely we are to be in possession of the information we need. But does this mean we are also more likely to quickly find what we need? Cities need solutions that help find what you need (e.g. a missing child or a suspect) and convert the “too much information” into “actionable intelligence”.

Crowd monitoring
Crowd monitoring
There is one major caveat to smart city solutions: the data tends to flow in one direction from what are ultimately surveillance devices to government officials (as we pointed out above), leading to tensions between personal privacy and government goals of safety and higher efficiency. Without a clear understanding and buy-in from all stakeholders (especially the citizens, law enforcement, and city management), those tensions will only escalate as wireless broadband connectivity becomes cheaper and faster, sensor and processing technologies get even more miniaturized and affordable, and big data tools like cloud resources and storage technology grow even more robust as they catalog more and more digital breadcrumbs of our physical lives.

Here’s the takeaway: even in smart cities, dialogue, public input, careful analysis, and consensus are still more critical than any technology. This is because city residents are not only consumers of public services and amenities, but also citizens with legal rights. In our next post, How a smart city can benefit both consumers and citizens, we’ll see how smart cities can benefit both.


How a smart city can benefit both consumers and citizens
In our previous post, Technology alone doesn’t make a city safe or smart, we explained why becoming a safe and SMART city requires a lot more than resorting to technological solutions for meeting urban challenges. As the global population becomes ever more concentrated in cities, limited resources (like drinkable water) and existing infrastructure (like roads) will have to be more efficiently used and prudently managed.
In this blog post, we will highlight a few issues to keep in mind, issues which illustrate the limitations and responsibilities that successful smart cities must navigate when they adopt smart technologies.

Personal Data is Often the Price of “Free”

Smart city initiatives can get tricky. Amazon is able to accurately recommend other products you might want to buy because the company meticulously records and analyzes your order history and browsing behavior on its site. Facebook’s behemoth “free” social networking platform is made possible by generating revenue through advertising from the information you freely (and unknowingly) hand over to the company, including your age, gender, political views, and education level. Users benefit from the free service, and companies earn revenue from the data those users give up in exchange.
Urban residents, however, aren’t mere consumers, they are citizens. Consumers provide revenue in return for a vendor giving them the goods or services they ordered. Citizens have defined legal rights, as well as responsibilities. This is one of the key reasons why the tech transformation that has occurred in the private sector has yet to have an equal impact on city life. Their governments likewise have specified legal authority, but no overriding profit motive like Google, Apple, Microsoft, or Salesforce.
While many informed consumers may balk at the privacy they forfeit for free or enhanced web services, asking citizens to volunteer data to their government in return for safety or more convenient access to public services is often a different calculus than trusting Facebook with a very complete and quantified digital portrait.

Safeguards for a Safe and Smart City

Even though many current smart city approaches depend on what are fundamentally surveillance technologies (as we pointed out in our previous article), the current transition to smart cities can benefit not only the city government and municipal managers but also all residents – both as consumers and citizens.
For example, lower cost, better service, and quicker resolution times for services such as transit and utilities (gas, water, sewage, electricity) appeal to consumers. On the other hand, skipping waiting in line for legal forms and proceedings (transfer of title, car registration, birth certificate, voter registration, voting, etc.) appeal to citizens. Since these groups largely overlap, a smart city must provide for the needs of both.

Smart public transportation
Smart public transportation

Due to the privacy issues surrounding government collection and storage of data, all smart city initiatives must effectively convey those benefits to all stakeholders (business community, non-profits, community organizations, the general public) in a compelling way, and put in place appropriate safeguards for the protection and use of all collected data, as Europe is about to do with the GDPR.
In a smart city, a lot of data flows from residents to the government. In one of our clients, a large city that has been using a combination of Qognify’s Situation Management solution (Situator), and video management together with video analytics, every citizen can approach the authorities and ask for a video clip (useful for traffic accidents, lost wallets, and the like). The security solution is then used to retrieve the precise clip and assist in resolving the situation. Obviously, this calls for clear permission levels as for who can see the footage and what it can be used for. As an external control, citizens can vote to provide feedback to the government (e.g. throw out all the officials who approved the technology that is deemed too intrusive).
Consumers provide feedback too, most notably through voting with their wallet. Additionally, they can provide the kind of continuous feedback and interaction that’s integral to modern tech-enabled businesses and do so in a way which augments their legal power as citizens.
In our third and final post in this series, Cognitive cities: correlation and constant citizen interaction, we’ll discuss why.


In our previous post, How a smart city can benefit both consumers and citizens, we pointed out that residents in a smart city are not only consumers of technology-driven services, but also citizens with various legal protections (such as privacy), which can make the transition from safe city to smart city more challenging than similar revolutions in the private sector.
In this third and final installment in our series on the transition to cognitive cities, we’ll explore how cognitive cities can deliver the constant citizen interaction and engagement which bolsters the people’s legal power and equips them with the real-time influence normally wielded by consumers.

What’s a Cognitive City?

Before we delve too deeply into just how this can happen in cognitive cities, we first need to ground our discussion in a more solid definition of what a cognitive city really is. Wikipedia’s article on the subject provides a good starting point by defining a cognitive city as one which learns through the constant engagement of its citizens and advanced technologies. Together, these two features enable the cognitive city to become more efficient and resilient by enabling information exchange within the city.
Safe cities protect their residents. Smart cities collect data from their residents and technologies in order improve safety as well as the efficiency of public services. Cognitive cities can effectively use that data for improving the health, safety, well-being, and prosperity of its citizens, because the whole city is involved in the gathering, sharing, and use of the data. In cognitive cities, data now flows not only from the citizens to and from city management (as in smart cities), but also from citizen to citizen, and citizen to system. Not only does the whole city generate and consume information, but the whole city learns continuously and adapts as the city learns from it.
The cognition in a cognitive city happens not only in an administrative office or in a control center, but in and across the complex web of systems which comprise an urban area: social networks, local industries, transportation networks, utility systems, communications infrastructure and services, non-profit organizations, and political parties and movements. In a truly cognitive city, all members in this complex ecosystem are able to not only disperse data but also store memories, like how your brain records memories by connecting individual synapses.

Photo by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash
Explaining urban life via neuroscience may seem a bit esoteric. Thankfully, this scholarly paper succinctly explains the difference between smart cities and cognitive ones, “In more concrete terms, in the smart city, individual citizens predominantly receive information on urban infrastructures such as traffic conditions or service outages; in the cognitive city, they also deliver information to others (e.g., other devices and sensors, machines, operating platforms, humans) to allow these systems to learn from and adapt their behavior.”

With that adaptability comes the resiliency necessary to take on the list of the current urban challenges we cataloged in the first article of this series – rapid growth, limited space and resources, crime prevention – while at the same time surviving and managing rarer crises like earthquakes, floods, and other disasters.
So how do we build this cognitive city of the future?

Interaction and Analytics

The first step is to fully realize the potential of a smart city because cognitive cities build on their foundation. In practical terms, this includes constant citizen interaction via multiple touchpoints: in-person at government offices, over the phone with city personnel, and online through social media, city government websites, online chat, email, and mobile apps. Of those, perhaps social media is the technology which has the best potential to quickly foster the harvesting of information from citizens and the citizen to citizen interaction we mentioned above, and which is an indispensable part of a cognitive city. In addition, the rapidity of social media communications naturally lends itself to crowdsourced feedback.
Once that feedback comes in through social, other tech can step in. Predictive analytics, natural language processing, and cloud computing can not only help analyze citizen sentiment, cross reference citizens data with systems and sensors but to also proactively respond to behavioral patterns and deviations in them. For example, if there’s a sudden surge of tweets which favorably mention the hashtag of the local hockey team by city residents, the city administration may want to allocate more police to directing traffic on the streets around the rink during the next home game, in order to accommodate the throngs of fans who’ve come out to see their team. That city could then also put out advance warnings of traffic restrictions special parking changes on Twitter, tagging those tweets with the same hashtag, thus contributing relevant and useful information back to those same fans.
In that simple example, we see the essence of the smart city: seamlessly knitting together communication technology (Twitter) with how city personnel (the police) are deployed to make existing infrastructure (the roads around the rink) function more efficiently.

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash
In the less simple scenarios of the real world, there will be multiple data streams, many different data formats (e.g. unstructured text, video, databases), and high volumes of data. Thus, the analytics tools smart cities will have to rely on will need to be robust, scalable, and flexible.

Once those tools are in place, the cognitive city can emerge. Cognitive cities learn from the data over time, and that learning will require more sophisticated tools for finding correlations between different data streams, trends within each of them, and instantly detecting anomalies in them and in the complex city system. Machine learning and the cloud will be key enablers in this transition from smart to cognitive.
A cognitive city would be able to learn from our above example, and generalize from the individual data points to valuable lessons which can then be used to make predictions of road traffic conditions and the number of police personnel required for any major sporting event, in any neighborhood, given historical data and real-time social media trending. This fundamentally shifts all urban operations away from situation management and towards real-time adaptation.
In the first post in this series, we saw how advanced technology alone is unable to make a city safe or smart. In our second installment, we discussed why:  city residents are more than consumers, they’re citizens, and thus tech must incorporate and augment existing legal and civic mechanisms. In this final post, we demonstrated how cognitive cities use extensive data analytics to make the city smarter over time, and one of the ways this intelligence shows is in predictive, proactive adaptations (as opposed to reactive, rushed crisis management).
Even though smart cities are still maturing, cognitive cities will be the future of efficient, connected urban areas which employ technology and human intelligence to foster community, innovation, and prosperity. Both elements are necessary because tech alone can’t make a city safe, nor are city residents mere consumers of goods and services. Constant citizen engagement, ubiquitous data collection, and sophisticated analytics can combine to produce the best kind of cognitive city: the kind someone would actually want to live in.