The Future of Smart Cities Depends on Integrated Identity

Digital services are already the norm. We no longer think much of checking our bank balance, planning trips and buying goods online – increasingly, we do so on a daily basis, and have been doing so now for a few years.  Many of us still think of smart cities, though, as rather a futuristic concept – one we may see the first green shoots of, with bike sharing schemes here and smart streetlights there, but some way down the road before they have truly ‘arrived’.

The reality is, however, that smart cities are already very much here.  Planning giant ARUP estimates that by just next year, the global market for smart urban systems – transport, energy, sanitation and healthcare – will reach $400 billion.   Some forecasts already indicate that as much as 70% of the world’s population will live in smart cities by 2050 – a truly staggering figure when one compares the promise of smart living on that scale to the enormous disparities in quality of life we see around the world today.

Essential to that eventuality coming to pass, however, is strategic management of digital identity.  In many of the services which can already be provided digitally, the processes required to prove our identity – opening a new bank account, accessing health services, or proving our age – remain frustratingly analogue, requiring physical documents. For the extraordinary potential of smart cities not only to be realised, but managed, digital identity will prove the catalyst.

Healthcare, as ever, provides a key example – where debates rage today over access, this highly contentious policy area could change dramatically over the years ahead. Where much of the difficulty faced today stems from limited access to highly trained healthcare professionals, cities authorities will be able to provide citizens with smart kiosks to dispense medications, take blood or saliva samples, and provide on-the-spot analyses – while freeing up clinicians’ time for the more complex cases which require in-person care.

What this does correspondingly mean however is that, with the rise of the smart cities and the Internet of Things more generally, healthcare will become ever more complex – and it’s already perhaps the most complex policy area there is. Automation could reduce the administrative burden enormously; but, especially in such a sensitive area, people need to be confident not only that they can access these services easily, but that their personal information is appropriately secure and anonymous while doing so. Digital identity must prove simple, seamless and reliably private, or the public appetite for smart services will suffer, and the development of smart cities hindered.

Where the simplicity and ubiquity of digital identity is ensured, existing smart city capabilities can be enhanced further. Car parking is today often conducted via apps rather than staffed booths or pay-and-display machines, which allows considerable savings of time and money. A more integrated approach to digital identity would allow drivers to dispense even with this level of process, simply parking their car in the right spot, and having the appropriate sum debited from their account upon being recognised.

Dubai is already implementing the first phase of a digital identity integration programme, bringing seven different government entities together into its UAEPASS platform – covering water, police, courts, health and more – which means citizens can access all UAE government services via smartphone using a single set of login details.  It is this seamlessness that smart cities need if they are to flourish: without a single way to create an identity scheme, it is difficult for those creating smart cities to plan effectively. Planners are already speaking of the Legible Cities approach, which aims to integrate technology and data to ensure citizens are able to ‘read’ a city as easily as possible, and enjoy its benefits in a seamless and stress-free way as possible – and for that to work, identity must ease their passage across the city, not interrupt it.

Mobile networks are the natural conduit through which this seamless identity provision can be achieved: as the existing and future partners of countless innovations in the smart city landscape, operators have the infrastructure, expertise and relationships in place to act as gatekeepers for the system as a whole. With security credentials unmatched in the tech world, and correspondingly unrivalled trust among customers, the vital user confidence too is in place. The current fragmentary approach to identity serves only to frustrate the development of smart cities, and the more services and innovations we bring online as things stand, the more times and ways we will need to identify ourselves. A unified approach would avoid that needless outcome, and with collaboration across the ecosystem – which the mobile industry is already working hard to convene – it is well within reach.