Europe’s Smart Cities Put Citizens’ Privacy First

For more than a decade, public authorities around the world have been quietly adding many thousands of remote digital sensors to urban infrastructures.

Consequently, all kinds of civic amenities from street lighting, CCTV and traffic management to buildings access, heating systems and waste disposal now contain smart components designed to improve the efficiency of public services.

Smart cities as a concept began with the big U.S. technology companies. The idea was to create top down, data-centric neighborhoods to help administrators improve living conditions.

Today, the trend is more towards creating intelligent ecosystems and giving end users a say in how data is used. Pioneered by some of Europe’s leading city bodies, this citizens-led approach places a far greater emphasis on personal privacy.

Central to preserving the people’s digital privacy is virtual private networking (VPN) software.

Trouble with Tech-Driven Cities

Cities everywhere are installing smart technology to gather the data authorities need to save public money, cut traffic congestion, reduce air pollution and improve living conditions.

In Washington D.C., data analytics is transforming water and waste management systems. Seattle’s progress towards becoming a smart city owes much to round-the-clock monitoring of the environment by smart sensors. San Diego has thousands of intelligent street lights while Songdo, in South Korea, was built from scratch as a smart city.

However, town planners have discovered that it takes more than a few sensors around the place before a city can claim to be truly smart. More often than not city smart projects are not interconnected but instead exist in complete isolation.

The trouble with the tech-driven city is, as Songdo’s residents are finding out, that it can be a soulless place to live in.

Putting Citizens First

For this reason public agencies increasingly recognize that, to be a success, smart cities must ultimately have the support and trust of citizens themselves. 

To this end, a number of smart cities in Europe are taking the first steps.

Amsterdam’s smart city program, for example, stipulates that plans for digital technology improvements must be designed and implemented according to the needs of the city and its residents.

At the same time, public officials encourage the creation of platform cooperatives (collaborations between multiple technology suppliers). The aim is to prevent communities becoming dependent on any single vendor and to keep city data as open as possible so that citizens can observe and actively participate in its use.

The Belgian city of Ghent is evolving its smart credentials along similar lines. Its Traffic-Management-as-a-Service system analyzes all journey-data whether by bike, bus, tram, train or on foot and keeps every single commuter up to date with travel conditions via social media. Individuals can also provide feedback to the system helping the platform update itself automatically for the benefit of all.

The first city to take this approach is believed to be Barcelona where use of smart systems dates back to the early 2000s. Today, the city has a vast web of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that manage everything from electric vehicle charging stations to Wi-Fi and optimize energy consumption to waste collection.

Civic officials have established a digital participatory platform where citizens shape the policy agenda. Around 70% of proposals for affordable housing, air quality and public spaces come from citizens themselves. 

In the process around 47,000 jobs have been created, 42.5m Euros has been saved in water usage and 36.5m Euros has been generated through smart parking systems.

Such advances have persuaded the international business community to stay and invest in the city. This is reflected in a healthy growth in the numbers of universities, research and training centers, start-ups and cutting-edge tech companies now based in Barcelona.

Securing Privacy by Design

Europe’s smart cities collect so much personal data that local communities must be confident in the IoT ecosystems’ ability to safeguard everyone’s privacy.

Additionally, EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires systems to have privacy built in by design.

An important first step is to encrypt the data from remote smart sensors as it communicates intelligence to and from local government control centers.

High performance, enterprise-standard VPNs can help to preserve the privacy of smart city communications.

With the right VPN strategy in place, smart city IT support operatives can manage the communications security across standard, cloud and mobile network infrastructures remotely and at scale.

In summary, the smart city initiatives of the past decade have achieved some impressive results. In some cases more efficient services delivery is saving public money and others have led to measurable environmental improvements.

However, they have been largely tech-driven and in silos. Not much thought has been given to data privacy.

More recently, especially in Europe, the focus has changed. City officials are opening up data for end users to interact with to drive real-time service improvements and a better quality of life.

VPNs can help preserve the privacy of citizens and communities – putting them in control of who can measure, monitor and profile their data and how.

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