Cities turn to high-tech for curbing traffic, crime


Stockholm, New York and other cities across the globe are increasingly relying on information and communication technologies (ICT) to manage low-emissions traffic zones or improve their ability to fight crime. But privacy issues are never far away and will require political decisions, warns John Post, chief technology officer at IBM Benelux.

In a recent report, ‘A Vision of Smarter Cities,’ IBM makes the case for cities to use new technologies to optimise the use of finite resources such as water and energy or better manage road traffic.

Such high-tech solutions are already in place in Stockholm, for example, where local authorities introduced a road charging system similar to those seen in Singapore, London or Oslo.

Vehicles are charged as they drive under control points fitted with laser beams that are placed on the way in and out of Stockholm city centre during rush hour. The charge varies according to the time of day.

John Post, chief technology officer at IBM Benelux, says the benefits for Stockholm went far beyond merely raising money to complete a new ring road around the city. 

“In Stockholm, what we achieved […] is 20% less traffic which resulted in a 12% decrease in emissions, 40,000 new users of public transport and an additional million euros income for the city and the shops in the city,” Post said in an interview with EURACTIV.

“The big story in this is that you know how to translate that money-related aspect to the city’s advantage. So it is not just taking people’s money, we are creating a mobility system which allows [people] to get faster into the city and gives more possibility to go to the shops, reducing emissions, etc. So in that respect, you are contributing to the health and wealth of the city.”

Towards a ‘system of systems’

What IBM is now looking to, Post said, is to create what he calls “a system of systems” where all the different aspects of a city’s daily management can be dealt with, whether it be transport, social policy, waste, water, energy or even crime.

“In most cities, you have distinct systems for managing water, energy, transportation, security, waste, emissions and ICT as separate components,” Post explains. “And within those distinct columns you have separate data, separate infrastructure and separate responsibilities, tasks, projects, etc., and at the top, departmental responsibility.”

“But what you miss is the possibility to have a holistic view on a city level. In our integrated system, the distinct columns are coming together on the city level at the top where you see a small triangle. This is what I call the ‘system of systems’, which brings together the different data and infrastructures for the different city responsibilities like water, energy and so on.”

Post cites an example whereby it starts raining over the city. “If it is raining there will be more pressure on public transport and you can put in more trains and inform the community that there will be an improvement in the public transport offer,” he says. At the same time, rain can also be measured and collected to feed so-called ‘grey water’ systems used for flushing toilets or washing cars, he says.

When there are ozone pollution peaks, as is often the case during the summer, specific traffic management systems can be enforced, Post further explains. And if there are security problems in one part of the city, policemen from another area can be quickly informed and dispatched to the area.

Challenges for cities

However, IBM admits that such a comprehensive system may pose challenges for cities, not least in terms of human organisation.

“Becoming a ‘smarter city’ is a journey, not an overnight transformation,” warns the IBM study. In particular, it underlines that city administrations must decide what their core activities are and therefore which ones they should shed, retain or expand into. Cities should also rethink their own administrations and see how they need to work with other levels of government, especially country-level, as well as private and non-profit sectors, the report says.

Data protection and privacy concerns

The pervasiveness of those technologies might also be a problem, Post admits. 

As personal data is migrated to remote servers in so-called ‘cloud computing’ models, the issue of privacy protection becomes more acute. Ultimately, public acceptance of such technologies will be key if the technology is ever to pick up on a mass scale. 

“If you talk about smart cities, this means putting sensors in your house, public buildings or infrastructure,” Post says. “And these are interconnected to the Internet and it gives you the possibility to read out signals and to take action.”

In Amsterdam, “smart metering” systems developed by IBM will enable 500 selected households to gain better insight into their energy consumption and help drive change in usage behaviour. The smart meters will be connected to the Internet, allowing consumers to get an instant view of their energy consumption. 

But cities and national authorities will have to decide first how invasive they want these technologies to be, Post warns. “If you want to go inside the energy consumption of all your people – supposing you are allowed to do so – you can warn them that they are using too much energy or you can cut supplies down if they haven’t paid the bill,” he said.

Especially, companies or administrations are likely to be reluctant to share potentially sensitive data with outsiders. “That is always an issue when you talk about strategic outsourcing,” Post says. “Like with anything regarding data managed outside your own premises, you have to trust the capabilities of the provider.”

“But you can also turn the question around: suppose you do it in your own premises. How sure are you of your own people? How sure are you of your own security or of the security of your Internet connection?”

Towards a ‘database society’?

One area where data protection issues are particularly controversial in Europe is police cooperation and the fight against organised crime.

Information and communication technologies already allow police to easily retrieve information about known criminals and bust crime faster. Cities like New YorkSyracuseSanta Barbara and St. Louis in the United States are already using IBM’s data analytics, wireless and video surveillance capabilities to strengthen crime fighting and the coordination of emergency response units.

And similar systems might be applied in Europe soon, says Post. “Here in Holland, we have some areas that are hardly accessible any more. How do you prevent that from expanding to other parts of the city? How can you put systems in place that will protect other people? How much does it cost if you don’t do it? I think that in many cases, business cases are to be created and are very visible.”

However, access to personal data by police authorities is creating controversy. On 1 October, European civil rights groups have launched a campaign, ‘Reclaim your data!‘, criticising the EU’s “transition towards a database society”.

The campaign encourages people to exercise their right to access police databases, including the Schengen Information System (SIS), the computer systems of European police office Europol or data that is exchanged via the so-called ‘Prüm Treaty’.

According to the campaigners, the risk is that EU citizens will increasingly be randomly checked for ID at political protests or during sporting events. Over time, the danger is the “normalisation of uncontrolled storage and cross-referencing of data collected in one country to be continued by another country,” the campaigners warn.

To read the interview in full, please click here.

Home to 80% of EU citizens and 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, urban areas play a key role in fighting climate change.

In January 2008, nearly 100 mayors from across Europe signed up to a Commission-backed Covenant of Mayors, which consists of a commitment by the cities' leaders to go beyond the EU's own stated aim of slashing CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020.

But climate change is not the only problem cities are grappling with. In September 2008, the Commission released the results of an 'urban audit' of European cities. Measuring everything from housing, health and crime to environment and climate-related issues, the audit revealed large disparities in the quality of urban life across Europe (EURACTIV 24/09/08).

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