How surveillance technology can help cities achieve their sustainability goals

Andreas Göransson

Sustainability is an objective high on everyone’s agenda. In every nation across the globe, we all have a responsibility and role to play in building a more sustainable future.

Cities have a disproportionate impact on the environment, and therefore have a greater role to play in meeting sustainability objectives. We have for a long time seen an increasing trend in urbanization and this brings challenges in the work towards sustainability.

68% of the world’s population is expected to be living in a city by 2050, and while cities only cover 2% of the earth’s surface, they consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

City authorities are faced with a number of regulations, policies and expectations from both organizations and citizens. The pandemic has affected the way people want to live and what they value. Cleanliness, open spaces and green areas have disrupted the traditional city planning.

But while the challenges are significant, there’s evidence that city authorities are taking their responsibility seriously.

The UN Sustainability Development Goals: a framework for cities

An important framework for cities large and small has been provided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Created in 2015 and designed to be achieved by 2030, the SDGs are 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”.

The SDGs cover many areas – from alleviating poverty to sustainable industry; from reducing pollution of the oceans to clean energy production. While Goal 11 is specifically focused on making “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, there are aspects of many of the other goals which also have relevance to urban centres.

The adoption of the SDGs by the world’s cities is in no doubt. Recent research by ESI ThoughtLab, which surveyed administrators in 167 cities around the world, found that almost 8 out of 10 cities (78%) have fully incorporated the UN’s SDG framework into their city plans. Evidence also suggests that the recent pandemic has added further urgency to meeting the SDGs.

The same research highlighted how effective use technology and data is seen as foundational to achieving the SDGs. The research found that the cities making best progress towards the SDGs were also leaders in using technology, data, and partnerships to achieve their social, environmental, and economic goals. Today, the largest investments are being made in cloud (87% of cities), mobile (85%), IoT (81%), biometrics (72%), and AI (66%). These are what we call smart cities.

The link between technology, data and sustainability is clear.

From video surveillance to actionable data

sustainability goalsSustainability has always been a priority for Axis within our own business, but of course we also want to support our customers in achieving their own sustainability goals. As video surveillance technology has been transformed, we’re in a better position to do so today than ever before.

Video surveillance has played a central role in the liveability of cities for many years of course, particularly in keeping citizens safe and secure. The increasing sophistication of video surveillance technology – particularly related to video analytics and the ability to link data from sensors of multiple types, including video cameras – means that it can support a number of the challenges facing cities and specifically the SDGs smart cities are looking to accomplish.

Three of the fundamental areas that cities are focused on and which directly relate to a number of SDGs are the environment, mobility and public safety. And far from being independent of each other, these factors are very much interlinked. Again, this reinforces the critical need to break down silos and enable data sharing across the city and, as stated in SDG 17, partnerships are the main enabler of success in sustainability targets.

The environment as a measure of sustainability

Monitoring of environmental factors is essential in smart city sustainability and ensuring the health and well-being of citizens. Part of the strength of the SDGs is the level of detail defined within them.

Take for instance one part of Goal 11 mentioned above, Target 11.6, which sets the objective: “By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management”.

The detail does not stop there. Indicators related to this target are specified as the proportion of total municipal waste collected and managed in controlled facilities, and the annual mean levels of fine particulate matter in the air of cities. It’s this level of evaluation which will result in achievement of the goals making a real difference, and the use of technology is central to this.

poor air qualityPoor air quality (and also noise pollution) are closely linked to serious health issues. Highly sensitive environmental sensors – such as those measuring air quality – used alongside video surveillance give city authorities early warning of issues, visual verification and the ability to take correct actions.

Over time, data can be analyzed and used to plan longer-term initiatives to reduce the impact of pollution and noise, as well as being the foundation for open and transparent communication with a city’s citizens. Video surveillance can also show that waste is being collected and managed in accordance with the SDGs, as well as monitoring for and deterring illegal dumping (including disposal of waste into the oceans, as covered by Target 14.1), vandalism and even littering, all of which have a negative impact on a city’s environment.

The SDGs are, in part, a reaction to the environmental damage that has taken place over recent centuries of the industrial age one result of which is, of course, climate change. The world as a whole is experiencing severe weather conditions on a more frequent basis, which have the potential to disrupt urban infrastructure, the provision of critical services and with that risk harm to citizens. Again, the SDGs focus specifically on this through Target 11.5: “Reduce the adverse effects of natural disasters” with indicators related to the loss of human life and disruption to critical infrastructure.

Environmental and weather monitoring sensors give city authorities the time to prepare for severe weather, video surveillance can monitor both the weather conditions and movement of a city’s population, and connected technology such as audio can be used to relay live and pre-recorded warnings and instructions to keep people safe. In the aftermath of natural disasters, video surveillance can also be of great help with rescue and relief operations.

Sustainable mobility and transportation

sustainablel mobilityEnabling citizens to move around freely and easily is also a fundamental part of a city’s liveability and is covered by Target 11.2 in the SDGs through: “Affordable and sustainable public transport systems”. It is critical that transportation within cities has as minimal negative impact on the environment as possible (and directly relates to our earlier points around air quality and noise pollution).

Video surveillance helps ensure the safety of citizens and personnel on public transportation, and also monitors road traffic, altering operators to incidents which can cause traffic – and therefore pollution – to quickly build up. Within SDG 3, “Good Health and Well-Being”, a specific Target relates to the reduction of road injuries and deaths. Again, video surveillance utilizing traffic incident analytics is of huge benefit in the effective and safe management of urban traffic, whether public or private.

Increasingly, data from environmental sensors and video surveillance cameras is being used as a proactive tool in planning and managing transportation infrastructure to reduce its environmental impact. Data from video surveillance can also be used to assist citizen mobility, for instance directing drivers quickly and efficiently to available parking spots or electric vehicle recharging stations.

Public safety in cities

“Making people feel safe” is a goal for every city, and is covered in part in the SDGs under Target 11.7: “Provide access to safe and inclusive green and public spaces”. It’s also one of the fundamental roles that video surveillance plays across the whole city.

It remains a sad truth that the density of population in urban centres means that they are places that can both attract criminal activity and where incidents and emergencies can quickly become a serious risk to large numbers of people. SDG 16, “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions”, covers a number of relevant areas in detail, with specific targets focused on reducing violence and combating organized crime.

While these are perhaps seen as a more ‘traditional’ place where video surveillance in used, the advances in technology mean that its support is increasingly intelligent, accurate and allows for greater proactivity, rather than simply post-incident investigation.

public safetyRather than rely purely on manual monitoring, increasingly intelligent video analytics can monitor multiple video streams, spotting anomalies, unusual patterns, specific objects or suspicious behavior and quickly bring an operator’s attention to the scene. Intervention can then be triggered through emergency services, or via audio speakers on site, either warning criminals that they’re being watched, or offering assistance, advice and guidance to people at the scene.

Such rapid reaction can stop a crime before it committed, prevent the escalation of an incident, evacuate a specific area or provide direct assistance before emergency services arrives.

Prevention of specific crimes also directly supports other SDGs and targets. For instance, Target 3.5 is focused on the prevention of drug and substance abuse, which can obviously be supported through prevention of organized crime in drug dealing.

The SDGs move beyond crime prevention, however, with further opportunities for video surveillance to play a role. Again, within SDG 16 – which talks of “strong institutions”, Target 16.3 measures the promotion of the rule of law, and ensuring equal access to justice for all. Ensuring the authenticity and allowing the use of evidence from video surveillance and body worn cameras is central to a fair and equal justice system.

Continually exploring opportunities to support sustainability

While the examples in this post are just a few examples of where video surveillance and other sensors can directly support the achievement of the SDGs, along with the recent research undertaken by ESI ThoughtLab (the full findings of which can be found in this ebook) it’s clear that technology and data are central to success. If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that the pace of technological advancement is extraordinary.

Indeed, it is not only about how video surveillance, analytics and other network technologies are used to directly support the work towards SDGs in cities. Innovations in these technologies – specifically related to energy, resource and material consumption – mean that selecting the right products can also contribute to SDGs such as numbers 9 (energy consumption) and 7 (sustainable industry, innovation and infrastructure).

Almost every decision a city authority makes should be seen through the lens of its contribution towards (or against) the SDGs. The combination of the commitment from city authorities and innovations in technology – including from Axis and its partners – give us cause for optimism.

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