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We need digital identity to unlock the potential of smart cities

Without digital identity, the great potential of smart cities will be squandered, says Thomas Bostrøm Jørgensen, AllClear ID.

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The technology that makes the smart city possible is already here. Many cities enjoy ubiquitous connectivity, some provide free Wi-Fi and others are looking forward to upcoming 5G rollouts.

 

Traffic is increasingly controlled automatically using sensors to maximise traffic flow or minimise pollution. Solar-powered connected bins are growing in popularity, making it possible to increase efficiency by only emptying them when necessary. Meanwhile, smart meters will help detect water leaks and give citizens an insight into what they are using.

 

But cities are about more than transport and utilities. Cities should, after all, be designed with the people who live in them in mind. They should be, to misquote Le Corbusier, “machines for living in”.

 

Covering a city with sensors and connectivity is not enough on its own to make it smart.

 

Covering a city with sensors and connectivity is not enough on its own to make it smart — it will make it smarter, but applications will be limited. Digital identity could, however, unlock the full potential of smart cities.

 

What digital identity brings to the smart city


Many of the services we use in everyday life are digital — checking our bank balance, buying goods, making travel arrangements and more are all done online and on mobile. But when it comes to proving our identity, things become frustratingly analogue.

 

Banks require us to present identity in person before we can open an account. Age-restricted activities and destinations, such as bars, need a physical form of ID to prove someone’s age. Health providers often need ID or a specific card to prove eligibility for services, and so on.

 

A big part of the future of the smart city is eGovernment. For many, the conversation here begins and ends with online voting, but there are many other ways that governments can provide connected public services, and digital identity will be crucial.

 

For example, it’s vital that local governments communicate with citizens, but mail services are costly and slow, and email is untrusted, with messages likely to be lost in junk folders or among unread marketing spam.

 

A secure digital channel, however, would allow two-way communication and could be accessed using digital identity, giving citizens access to vital information when needed, and making applications for government services far easier.

 

There are also applications where the connected nature of a smart city plays a major part. Car parking increasingly uses apps rather than manned booths or pay-and-display machines, but sensors would be able to combine with digital identity to create a seamless service. The driver could simply park where they need to and have the right money debited from their bank account — even if the car was shared among multiple drivers or part of a carpooling scheme.

 

Healthcare is another use case where digital identity and smart city technology combine to create a better user and provider experience.

 

Healthcare is another use case where digital identity and smart city technology combine to create a better user and provider experience. Authorised medical practitioners can access detailed medical records when appropriate, while patients can be tracked around the hospital to make sure they are where they need to be and are given the right treatment at the right time.

 

Healthcare is an increasingly admin-heavy area, especially when the right to access services needs to be managed — any way to reduce that burden is welcome. Digital identity and IoT means creating a level of automation that these services desperately need.

 

Digital identity would also be incredibly useful in managing the IoT devices that are already mainstream. Users need to assert ownership of their devices, such as smart switches and thermostats, so that only they can adjust them.

 

The current model of doing this is too often built on the assumption that data flows to the manufacturer and the device is managed through the manufacturer’s portal and app.

 

This means that with multiple connected devices, every service has its own username and password, creating an identity management nightmare. A single digital identity solves this growing problem.

 

Digital identity will connect citizens to the smart city, making it an Internet of Things and People.

 

The Internet of Things promises a future where everyday objects are smart, but ultimately, it’s not just things that need to be smart, but people as well. Digital identity will connect citizens to the smart city, making it an Internet of Things and People.

 

The state of digital identity


The connectivity to create smart cities may already be here, but what about digital identity? Is this technology progressing at the rate needed to unlock the potential within smart cities?

 

Unfortunately, it’s a mixed report card — with the main comment “could do better”.

 

In Europe, while there is an agreed standard in eIDAS (‘electronic identification and trust services), movement has been slow apart from in specific countries, such as Norway and Belgium. The UK’s Gov.Verify initiative has stalled, shuffled between departments as the government looks to the private sector to take over.

 

India’s Aadhar scheme has been controversial from the start, with its security and mandatory nature called into question. And Estonia, heralded by many as the poster child for eGovernment, had to find an urgent fix when its cards were found to have a security flaw.

 

Estonia, heralded by many as the poster child for eGovernment, had to find an urgent fix when its cards were found to have a security flaw.

 

Security will, by necessity, be a big part of any successful digital identity scheme. Smart cities mean more and higher-value transactions are conducted digitally. Security is on a par with user convenience when it comes to driving adoption — any security issues will severely hamper smart city initiatives.

 

The result is a patchwork of mixed success, false starts, and — in some cases — seemingly zero effort made towards making digital identity a reality. In some countries, it has been the private sector that’s driven the creation of a scheme, and in others the government has stepped in.

 

With no single way to create a digital identity scheme, it makes it tricky for those creating smart city infrastructure to plan for the future.

 

One potential provider of digital identity could be the city itself. While national governments struggle to create a scheme, cities can step in, as Barcelona has done with its Mobile ID service.

 

But whoever provides it, a trusted digital identity is needed, and advocates of the smart city must also advocate for digital identity. Without it, the great potential of smart cities will be squandered.

 

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