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Smart Partnerships: Keeping Cities Safe in the Age of the Internet of Things

Photo: Mariano Mantel / CC2.0

Cities generate over 70% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), while housing 54% percent of the world’s population. As urbanization increases, cities—especially in underdeveloped nations—will face a host of challenges. Information and communications technologies (ICT) provide great opportunities for overcoming these challenges and improving overall economic well-being for city dwellers and workers. Efforts to utilize these resources in urban centers are often referred to as “smart cities” initiatives. Examples of these initiatives include provision of free Internet in public areas, efficient utilization of energy resources via “Green” initiatives, and traffic flow optimization to reduce traffic. While smart cities rely on a host of different technologies, the Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most important. IoT promises a wide range of capacities that can greatly benefit smart cities; however, IoT solutions also carry a number of potentially serious cyber security risks.

To design and sustain safe, secure smart cities and reap the benefits of IoT, we must build and maintain trust between government organizations, commercial companies, and civil society. National governments must take the lead in encouraging public-private partnerships and creating citizen awareness programs. However, national government leadership is not enough: Local and regional governments are foundational for digitally secure, safe cities.

Public-Private Partnership Keys to Success

Our analysis of public-private partnerships has identified four factors that are associated with successful outcomes for smart city initiatives. First, identification of government and industry champions to lead and sustain the alliance between sectors must be a priority. Governmental agencies are well-suited to be convening authorities, while also promulgating standards and policies. Private sector institutions often drive the distribution of financial and human resources—designing, building, and operating smart cities, and therefore leading allocation and application of resources.

Second, all parties must commit to agreed-upon goals. These goals must add value to all members of the partnership, much as Interpol’s Global Complex for Innovation does through its commitment to ongoing campaigns for eliminating botnets. Third, successful smart cities projects must adopt common operating principles. Partnerships must develop and promote common standards for the rapid implementation and scaling of technical solutions, especially in a time of natural or man-made crisis. Finally, partners must work to deliver enduring value to avoid becoming one trick ponies, especially in the face of an ever changing cyber threat. Available resources will fluctuate as membership and members’ priorities evolve, so a partnership needs to plan for its complete lifecycle, including sustainment, from the start.

The Smart Cities USA program is a good example of a public-private partnership focused on the local level. In this case, the city of San Jose, California is partnering with the Intel Corporation, which is headquartered in the area. This collaboration entails the installation of sensors to measure characteristics such as air particulates, noise pollution, and traffic flow. Both the city and company have a stake in the outcome, because the project could have a positive impact on issues like quality of life, safety, and the cost of living in the area. What’s more, the state of California has partnered with another company, IBM, to create a cloud-based platform that will allow local governments and even other states to access IT resources while minimizing upfront capital investment and controlling financial risk. Connecting state- and city-level efforts such as these will yield even greater benefits in the development and deployment of secure smart city projects.

Securing Smart Cities

In addition to public-private partnerships, all smart city projects must incorporate privacy and security policies and principles. However, city managers must go beyond plans, and actively work to develop relationships with key organizations on the topics of security and privacy. For instance, regional and sector-based information sharing and analysis centers could empower computer incident response teams by providing them access to cyber threat information. This type of information sharing could be useful in the case of a cyberattack on critical infrastructure such as an electric grid. In addition, mayors and city managers could develop citizen awareness campaigns focused on the growing digital threat.

It is similarly critical that both government and industry representatives find ways to measure progress towards safe and secure smart cities. Fortunately, there are several efforts underway to address this issue. For example, the United Nations has created the United Smart Cities initiative, which has several aims, one of which is to establish indicators associated with smart city outcomes. At the national level, frameworks like the Cyber Readiness Index can be used to focus on the security aspects of smart city deployments. Combining metrics focused on smart city efficacy and maturity with those that focus on privacy, safety and security will be an important step in helping governments and companies make good decisions around city deployments.

City managers, investors, and other city dwellers need to work together to develop and incentivize effective partnerships for secure economic growth. This work includes identifying both government and industry champions, committing to like goals, adopting common operating principles and focusing on creating enduring value. It is also incumbent on national governments to formulate principles, standards and norms that stimulate development and growth of the IoT by reducing risk. If they are built on a foundation of trust, smart cities have the ability to greatly enhance the quality of life for societies on a local, regional, national, and international level. But they need to get started—the push towards massive urbanization will not wait.

Further reading:

  • For more on this subject, the Smart City Partnerships report examines how IoT might be used to support Smart Cities, explores the cybersecurity risks associated with IoT technologies, and proposes a number of steps that might be taken to address those risks. 


Robert J. Butler is the co-founder and managing director of Cyber Strategies LLC.

Irving Lachow is a Principal Cyber Engineer at MITRE.