James Merrick for West Midlands

Securing the UK's emerging smart cities

UK councils have a huge opportunity to improve services through the use of smart city technologies - but they must avoid the cyber security risks, says the government's digital minister

Emerging technologies are changing the way we think about our cities. From ultrafast 5G and gigabit broadband to internet of things (IoT) devices and sensors, digital innovation is sparking a revolution in urban design and planning across the UK.

New “connected places” - such as those envisioned by Sunderland’s Smart City plan and Newcastle’s digital programme - are springing up using internet-connected infrastructure and devices to make communities and services more efficient, safer and environmentally friendly. They can range from entire smart cities to contained locations such as parks or ports and they are not just found in urban areas either.

To make sure the UK is at the forefront of these life-changing improvements the government is funding a number of initiatives.

In the West Midlands, we have established the UK’s first urban-wide 5G testbed which includes the country’s first smart tram transmitting real-time analytics and CCTV footage direct to a control centre for safer and smoother journeys.

In Manchester, one of our trials is using 5G sensors for AI-controlled traffic junctions which test how to prioritise different modes of transport to reduce journey times, cut pollution and protect cyclists and pedestrians.

Seizing opportunities

Part of the work we are doing is making sure we understand the extent to which these technologies are being used and how they and the data they generate is managed. This will allow us to seize all the potential opportunities but also to put checks and balances in place to mitigate any potential risks.

Recognising that many different groups have a stake in this - in areas as diverse as automated transport, clean energy and data storage - today (7 May 2021) I announced a new group which will work to help inform our plans.

The group will be chaired by the Connected Places Catapult - the UK’s innovation accelerator for cities, transport, and places - and will include a wealth of experience and perspectives from local, industry and academic leaders.

It will meet virtually every eight weeks and will provide insight on the challenges and strategic issues relating to the security of connected places and identify examples of good practice at home and abroad.

Securing connected systems

Connected systems offer major advantages but they can also be attractive targets for malicious actors looking to exploit or disrupt the critical functions they carry out and break into their treasure troves of data.

Collectively, we need to address proactively these cyber security issues to future-proof the places that we live and work in.

Only by collaborating with those at the vanguard of their fields, as well as councils at the coalface deploying these technologies, can we have confidence in harnessing the potential of this infrastructure in a secure and sustainable way.

The National Cyber Security Centre has today published the principles of good practice for the cyber security of connected places to help local authorities understand, design and manage the risks involved.

The principles explain how connected places can be designed to protect data, be resilient, scalable, less exposed to risk and supported by sufficient network monitoring. They also outline how system privileges and access, supply chains, and incidents should be managed.

The aim is to help designers, owners and managers of systems to have the tools they need to make well-informed cyber security choices. I urge local leaders and smart city designers to follow the guidance.

The digital infrastructure revolution will help us build back better and safer from the pandemic and if we make sure we have the right security in place, it will bring the immense benefits of technology to people up and down the country.

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