How does surveillance help make a smarter, safer city?

Andrea Sorri

What is a Smart City?

There are many different ways to answer the question “what is a smart city”, as there are a lot of potential factors that can make a city “smart”. However, there is no universally accepted definition of a smart city; it varies between cities and countries, depending on their level of development, willingness to change and reform, resources and aspirations of the city residents.

You could say that the common factor between every smart city project in the world is in their ultimate goal: to improve quality of life, or livability, for their citizens.

In this post you’ll learn about:

  • The crucial role of data aggregation in building a smart city;
  • How surveillance systems can help cities become smarter;
  • The six key benefits of smart city projects.

Data is the driver behind a Smart City

Any smart city has a fundamental need for aggregated data to be able to operate, since the “smart” aspect relies on linking a vast amount of information from various sources, and then making sense of it. For example, visual and audio insights can be collected by devices like network cameras, which can then be paired with specialized sensors that measure environmental conditions such as air quality, temperature and humidity, water quality, and noise levels, to name a few.

However, one of the major challenges of building a smart city is to bring this data together, since it often requires breaking down the silos between different city departments. There may be hundreds of cameras for traffic, hundreds for city surveillance, and hundreds within public transport, with very limited cooperation between them. The more silos you can connect, the smarter the city, because you are working with precise, granular insights.

In addition to city departments, the networks of local private businesses can also be integrated. This results in a public-private partnership that ensures the highest level of protection for a city and its citizens. There are already some very successful use cases proving the importance of collaboration between the public and private sector, for example the initiative “Operation Shield” ran in the City of Atlanta.

Universities can also turn into a key factor for the development of innovative projects and improvement in the quality of life, with students offering their own ideas, and working on them to contribute in making cities smarter.

Collaboration and commitment from all parties is key to protect smart cities from cyberattacks. Devices that are connected to a network and collect the data can inevitably create new cyber vulnerabilities, which means cities have the responsibility to prepare their networks to protect themselves from cyber risks, by establishing and enforcing security policies across the whole network.

How Smart Cities work

The overall aim of a smart city project is to improve the quality of life for its inhabitants. That can be done on many different fronts, and each intervention can tackle one or more of them. Below are six key benefits that drive smart cities forward, and how they can be achieved with the help of a network of cameras and sensors.

Efficiency of services

This is about optimizing the use of public resources and providing a high level of citizen services. It can range from shortening incident response times, to improving the management of public venues, like a stadium.

The sheer number of people a stadium can host can puts tremendous pressure on its personnel, who need to make sure fans can move in the venue easily, but who also have to keep in mind public safety.

Network cameras equipped with video analytics software can aid in two ways: making it easier to spot potential dangers and recognize false alarms, and enhancing the experience of the public attending the event. For example, you can detect when a queue is forming at the entry points and act immediately to regulate the flow of people.


Smart cities use surveillance systems to improve traffic management, making the streets safer and more efficient for every user. Video surveillance, coupled with video analytics, is a key tool in monitoring road networks, intersections and critical infrastructure such as tunnels and bridges. It provides a real-time view of traffic flow and incidents – including accidents, queues and slow-moving traffic – that might disrupt free-flowing movement on the road.

By training cameras to recognize these events through deep learning, traffic authorities are automatically notified. This enables them to act quickly and appropriately to solve the problem, by sending aid to the accident area, or planning alternative routes for the other vehicles.

Smart city initiatives are also improving public transport. From mobility as a service (MaaS) to autonomous vehicles, cities are increasingly using sensors and cameras to optimize buses, underground subways and trains.  Looking at the Axis and UITP “International Trends in Video Surveillance: Public transport gets smarter” report, cameras and sensors can help public transport:

  • Monitor the conditions of tracks and tunnels, so damaged components can be identified and repaired more quickly;
  • Improve driving assistance, for example by connecting the automatic breaking system with radar to make it more efficient;
  • Assess driver performance and improve passenger services by analyzing vehicle and passenger data.


Smart cities strive to reduce pollution, tackling the global climate crisis, and protecting the health of their citizens. In order to effectively deal with pollution, there is an increasing demand for technologies that help city authorities gain a better understanding of the link between crowded city streets and air quality.

As previously mentioned, in some cities, network cameras are already used as intelligent sensors to collect real-time data about traffic, including vehicle counting, information on deviations or roadworks, and accidents. This means that cities can improve their traffic flow control and limit the levels of pollution released in the air.

Information from traffic monitoring can then be combined with data from weather stations. These measurements of air quality can be used by a benchmark and assessed to measure the real impact of sustainability initiatives taken by the city.

Economic growth

If reducing pollution and accidents weren’t already enough, another reason to invest in smart cities is that they greatly reduce the hidden costs of running a city. The information collected through cameras and sensors can help optimize public resources and develop a preventative strategy that reduces costs in the long term, freeing up new funds which can be used to improve the city.

For example, when a traffic light stays green for two minutes without a single car passing, but in the street nearby drivers are spending three hours a day in avoidable traffic, there is an invisible financial loss. When there are cameras and sensors in place, the city can be informed about it and solve the issue, diverting vehicles to avoid congestions.

Safety and security

Crime prevention and response is one of the key drivers when implementing a smart city project, aiding authorities with real-time surveillance that can spot potential incidents and manage them as they happen.

The city of Detroit, for example, managed to reduce crime by 50% thanks to Project Green Light, a smart initiative that uses public and private cameras to identify crimes around town. The network of cameras has two functions: they provide critical evidence for investigations and discourage potential criminals from committing crimes, as every camera involved in the project has a green identification light.

The fire department can also benefit from the use of security networks. Smart cities can adopt sensors that make easier to spot a fire in development, and automatically notify fire fighters. Cameras also become a useful forensic tool for crime investigation in the event a fire was started intentionally.

Finally, surveillance cameras can have a crucial role also in preventing railway suicides. One of the major problems faced when tackling the suicide issue is being able to identify suicidal behavior. Studies suggest that individuals who take their own lives on rail networks are often seen acting ‘strangely’ in advance. This is, of course, difficult to qualify, but could be identified by actions such as loitering in high-risk areas, or other platform locations where commuters do not typically stand. And cameras can be trained to recognize this.

City reputation

Smart cities projects are gaining traction globally, drawing new stakeholders and their funds to urban areas implementing these initiatives. As well as new resources, smart cities can expect their image to improve, as the public starts perceiving them as safer, more sustainable and easier to live in.

A smart city will also attract talent that wants to get involved in its projects, which can gain them the reputation of being technologically advanced and open for future opportunities.

An ongoing project

Smart cities don’t develop overnight. It can take years and plenty resources just to break down data silos, finally accessing the kind of granular insights every smart city project relies on.

If you are interested in learning more of the development of smart cities, have a look at the rest of the

Smart City content on our blog