Smart Cities: RHUL hosts Inter-CDT Workshop

smart cities

By Marcel Armour 

At the beginning of May, Royal Holloway hosted Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) students from both Oxford and RHUL for our fourth annual workshop which this year was themed around the ‘smart city’. The talks were all hugely enjoyable, and a great opportunity to hear leading academics and industry representatives give their perspectives. On the whole, it was a fantastic event and I particularly enjoyed the chance to meet the students on our sister CDT (the conference dinner was a real highlight!).

In very general terms, a ‘smart city’ is one in which electronic data is used to manage aspects of urban living. At one end of the spectrum, an existing city can install traffic sensors which are used to control traffic lights. At the other end are cities planned from the ground up to function as one integrated urban system controlled through live data. The talks touched on various conceptions of the smart city, looking at both practical design considerations as well as the wider cultural context.

The first day began with some introductory remarks from Oxford’s Andrew Martin, who gave a stark reminder that human progress is not inevitable. Although we like to think of smart cities in utopic terms (perhaps truer of the technologists in the room) we shouldn’t necessarily see technological advancement as synonymous with improvement.

Joe Dauncey from Inmarsat showed us an inspirational vision of how ‘smart cities’ could transform Africa. Inmarsat have commenced a “Smart Cities Education Programme,” collaborating with Rosine Mwiseneza and her team in Rwanda to implement an agricultural irrigation solution using sensors and control systems.

Paolo Cardullo from Maynooth University gave an illuminating talk tracing the history of industrialisation from steam power and mechanisation to cyber-physical systems, IoT and networks (‘Industry 4.0’) and how these phenomena have altered our cities. According to Paolo, neoliberal urbanism posits a model of growth based on market de-regulation and austerity; in the neoliberal framework, cities become entrepreneurial units competing with one another for global trade and the mobile creative elites.

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Paolo Cardullo. Source: Meredydd Williams Twitter.

Sarah Widmer, a PhD student from the University of Neuchâtel, opened the afternoon sessionwith an in-depth case study ofthe data-driven city inpractice by looking at the Foursquare App. Sarah made the point that urban data science is like a microscope for cities: before inventing the microscope, we didn’t have the tools to look at organisms. Sarah’s fascinatingshowed how code (apps, algorithms, etc.) act as geopolitical agents, allocating social or geographical accessto spaces and resources.

Panos Papadimitratos gave a technical talk with practical details on how to realise privacy for emerging large-scale mobile systems, based on his research at KTH Stockholm. His example was driverless cars: there needs to be some communication between cars to ensure safety and perhaps some centralised control re-routing cars to keep traffic flowing smoothly. The scheme he presented ensures privacy by using an electronic ticketing system to allow the cars to authorise pseudonymously.

Day two commenced with a discussion from Matthew Cook from the Open University on how the narrative of the ‘smart city’ has played out in Milton Keynes as a city of experimentation. Matthew questioned what we really mean by ‘smart’: if we simply mean the increased use of technology in the urban sphere, what effect does this have on citizenship and the individual?

Jarmo Eskelinen gave an entertaining presentation explaining the work of Future Cities Catapult, a sort of incubator for academic and commercial collaboration around urban futures. Jarmo also discussed the surveillance opportunities inherent in smart cities, using the case of China’s attitudes to civil liberties. In Shenzhen, for example, facial recognition is used to text “jay walkers” a fine and display their identity on an LED board for all to see.

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Jarmo Eskelinen. Source: RHUL CDT Twitter.

Jonathan Bright of the Oxford Internet Institute made the point that ‘smart cities’ are in some ways already upon us in the form of data produced from citizens and their smartphones. He contrasted Los Angeles, which has installed expensive sensors to sense when street lights are broken, with the Spanish town Jun that runs on Twitter. In Jun, if a light is broken someone will notice and @ the mayor’s office to sort it. A different example could be using the location data from mobile phones to measure traffic across a town: network providers already have this data so all that is needed is to perform some data science.

We all know that devices connected to the internet are vulnerable, and Andy Jones told us the horror story of his experience as the CISO for Maersk when they were taken down by NotPetya. In his talk, Andy described how smart cities amplify and concentrate existing cyber threats and these threats will need serious consideration as smart cities become reality.

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Andy Jones. Source: RHUL CDT Twitter.

Andrew Dwyer gave the final talk, discussing the ways in which cyber security gets mapped and represented and applying this to representations of the smart city. The bright images of the excessively lit smart city versus the dark abyss that lies beyond it leaves us to question who is being left behind within the ever-smarter city.

Keith Martin in his concluding remarks noted that our discussion of ‘smart cities’ really acts as a proxy to talk about the future. This was particularly clear during the hugely enjoyable student debate on whether the benefits of smart cities outweigh the drawbacks for cyber security, which quickly turned into an argument about the political effects of smart cities. Thank you to Ela Berners-Lee, Sean Sirur, Marcel Stolz and Jordy Gennissen for taking part and Andreas Haggman for chairing! Thanks again to all the speakers, as well as Amy Ertan, Rory Hopcraft, Romy Minko and Laura Shipp for organizing. Special thanks to Claire Hudson and the other Royal Holloway staff in facilitating the event.


Marcel has a degree in mathematics and was a teacher for some years before embarking on a PhD. He is part of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security at Royal Holloway and his research interests are in cryptography.

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