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Is the UK prepared for smart cities?

Is the UK prepared for smart cities?

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A ‘Smart City’ can be defined as a city which has undergone a transformational project driven by Information Technology to improve the standard of living in certain areas, usually urban areas. Here, we take a closer look at a report issued by UK Parliament which delves deeper into the innovation element of these projects and the benefits on offer. We also hear from Kamal Bechkoum, Head of the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Gloucestershire, UK, who discusses some of the challenges posed, from a cybersecurity and data perspective.

Smart City development in the UK is quite obviously behind the curve in comparison to other countries worldwide. The UAE, KSA and the EU are all shining examples of what Smart City development should look like and the UK has all the tools to enable it to follow in their footsteps.  

Research by UK Parliament published at the end of last year considers the factors driving the adoption of Smart City technologies and the potential benefits, barriers and risks associated with their implementation. The research outlines some of the projects that have been run across the UK, which are inclusive of Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Hull, Manchester, Milton Keynes, London and Peterborough.

Some of the key technologies included in Smart City projects are ones such as sensors, which help to collect data to measure air quality, for example. Communication technologies are also utilised as smart cities require communication networks to transmit data. 

According to the research, ‘Developments in computing are making it possible to rapidly process large quantities of data, improving the efficiency of Smart City systems and facilitating novel applications.’ More specifically, cloud computing, Edge Computing and data analysis methods such as Digital Twins are all contributing to this development.

Some of the potential benefits analysed in the report highlight the economic benefits of Smart City projects, such as the creation of new jobs and an improvement on certain areas; making them more appealing to reside in. Other more obvious benefits include environmental and social advantages.

However, some of the challenges of Smart City living in the UK must also be addressed. Professor Kamal Bechkoum, Head of the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Gloucestershire, UK, focuses on the growing challenges presented by cybersecurity and Big Data, more specifically.

“People across the UK are increasingly living in smart cities – urban spaces packed with technology that receives, processes and transmits data on a 24/7 basis,” said Bechkoum. “But despite the very real benefits on offer, the threat of cyberattacks to homes and businesses is increasing.”

Bechkoum continued: “On average, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, or 1 billion billion bytes, every day. Smart cities gather vast quantities of this ‘Big Data’ from digitally-linked objects and our online activities, and then use this to improve new services and products that aim to make city living better.

“In ‘connected places’ this might involve any Internet-of-Things (IoT) connected system, ranging from better traffic management and pollution control, through to improved security, public transport and intelligent street lighting.”

Although, Bechkoum points out, this offers the potential to transform our lives, it also comes with the same privacy concerns posed by any large-scale Digital Transformation.

He says that while tracking, monitoring and automated systems can enhance safety, productivity and cost-effectiveness, potentially unethical and ongoing surveillance, along with the ever-present threat of cybersecurity breaches, can negatively impact people’s lives in new and unexpected ways.

“The Cityware project, for example, tracked the physical interactions of 30,000 people using a combination of Facebook profiles and smartphone signals, resulting in reports that almost 250,000 owners of Bluetooth devices, mostly mobile phones, were spotted by Cityware scanners worldwide,” said Bechkoum.

“Privacy International, a UK charity with the stated aim of ‘defending and promoting the right to privacy across the world’ warns people that the next time they’re lured into a shop with the promise of free Wi-Fi, they should be aware that they are doing online could potentially be exposed, especially, as is often the case, if the Wi-Fi network does not require a passcode to get online.

“The charity goes on to say that unsecure networks like this make it easier for cybercriminals to eavesdrop on what you do online. You should also be aware of ‘rogue’ Wi-Fi hotspots, which might deliberately use a name similar to the coffee shop you’re currently sitting in but has nothing to do with them.”

As Bechkoum rightly points out, data generated by Smart City infrastructure can even be culled from sources such as unprotected parking garages, EV charging stations or surveillance feeds, all of which offer cyberattackers targeted personal information that could be exploited for fraudulent transactions and identify theft.

“A report from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport shows that while cyberattacks are becoming more frequent, only 13% of businesses are using managed IT providers to review security risks.

“In addition, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a part of GCHQ, has published guidance for local authorities on how to secure connected places and notes that critical public services need to be protected from disruption.”

Bechkoum highlights that one of the biggest challenges for Smart City progression is a lack of technical skills, local authority funding, regulatory hurdles for large-scale projects and low public trust in digital initiatives.

Research has found that security and privacy concerns have been raised about the use of Smart City technologies, particularly those that collect data about citizens’ behaviour, public services or critical infrastructure.

“Smart City projects may also raise inequality issues if the benefits or projects are not experienced equally by rural and urban communities, of if they disadvantage those without digital skills or access to digital technology such as smart phones.

“The weakest link in any chain can have detrimental effects for an entire urban environment,” said Bechkoum. “To address this, councils and city planners should always invest in the data security of their cities’ critical infrastructure to minimise risk and ensure reliable and secure smart systems.”

Bechkoum emphasises the importance of employing frameworks that promote a common security language wherever possible and feature protocols for ‘Industry 4.0’ – shorthand for industrial digitalisation – that:

  • Identify specific security levels between cooperating partners and companies across a supply chain, covering the three essential cybersecurity components: People; processes; and technologies
  • Include rigorous, transparent and replicable testing of all new tools and technologies before they are introduced

“These points are the minimum steps to take when introducing Smart City living protocols,” he continued. “Longer term, if the UK is to move forward in the current hybrid divide that exists between office and home-working driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgent need for legislative authorities and organisations to address their Digital Transformation plans.

“Ultimately, these actions are best guided by a strategy which addresses data-gathering legalities and key cybersecurity components to ensure risk is appropriately managed at every stage of the process,” said Bechkoum.

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