Innovating in Urban Security – by Paul Ekblom, University College, London –

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Why should we innovate in urban security? What, indeed, is innovation and how does Efus view it? How can we support it? These are the topics that are being covered in Efus’ working group on Innovation & Security. It was established in the wake of the Medi@4sec project on the use of information technologies, and held a session on the occasion of Efus’ General Assembly meeting in Augsburg (Germany), in June. Paul Ekblom, visiting professor at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, University College London, gave an overview of the field, which he summarised here.


> Why innovate?

Why should we innovate in urban security? The reasons are many:

  • Current solutions to crime may be inefficient or too expensive, may not work, and may have adverse side effects, for example on privacy or aesthetics.
  • Cookbook replication of success stories doesn’t work. Crime prevention needs attuning to context, which has diverse dimensions. So every replication involves the intelligent process of innovation, feedback and adjustment.
  • New crime problems emerge, and also new constraints, possibilities or contexts. For example, a funding source dries up, priorities alter, or a law or a policy changes the operating environment of the police, local government, a social organisation or a private company.
  • New opportunities for improving safety and quality of life arise, often through new technology.
  • Adaptive criminals may misuse new technology (such as drones) or use social engineering (trickery) to overcome existing security measures – meaning that what used to work in preventing crime, works no longer. Effectiveness is often time-limited.
  • In extreme cases, arms races between criminals and security (whether in terror attacks, for example, or credit card fraud) mean we must develop and disseminate the capacity to out-innovate adaptive offenders.
  • Finally, we must bear in mind the special challenges and opportunities of ICT – this provides major accelerants of innovation in both crime and security, and gives both criminals and the security side alike a huge ability to scale up their operations at little extra cost.

> What is innovation in urban security?

What do we mean by innovation and related concepts? A UK government report offered this definition: Creativity is the generation of new ideas. Innovation is the successful exploitation of new ideas – creativity deployed to a specific purpose. Creativity becomes innovation through design, which shapes novel ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. It’s worth noting that these definitions apply equally to everyday social and commercial life, the security world or the actions of criminals.

From an Efus perspective, innovations are new ways to solve problems – or to exploit (and even create) opportunities to enhance security and quality of life. The urban security problems/opportunities in question can be anything from local to global, but with local impact; and familiar, changing or entirely novel. The innovations can range from minor quantitative adjustments to urban living to fundamental qualitative reform. The capacity to innovate in timely, appropriate and creative ways confers increased resilience and adaptability over how we do things now, and how we will need to do things in the future.

Efus considers these characteristics of innovations are particularly important:

  • Originality and improvement: if the changes introduced substantially differ from the previous state of affairs, and have not merely been copied from elsewhere, they are original. But a response that is original can only be considered innovative if it improves and adds value in a given location.
  • Relevance: an innovative initiative must address the needs and opportunities of individuals, families, communities or enterprises in a given social context, whether the innovation is undertaken in response to current circumstances or to anticipated changes.
  • Measurability, plausibility and transferability: an innovative initiative must be built on evidence, and should be plausible in both theoretical and practical terms. Safety audits in particular allow us to design forward-thinking measures based on past experiences.
  • Co-production: an innovative initiative should be developed with the participation and cooperation of relevant stakeholders, including users and others most affected. This serves to exploit valuable experience and local knowledge, and to boost people’s commitment once the initiative has been implemented.

> Innovation as a process

Innovation should be seen not just as an outcome, but also as a process. The capacity to innovate in timely, appropriate and creative ways, helps us address local needs, exploit local resources and opportunities, and respect local and national constraints – or preferably find creative and acceptable ways to overcome them.

Innovative initiatives must go through a multi-stage development process:

  • Research and understanding security challenges and stakeholder requirements
  • Defining, ideating and designing, including experimentation, pilot testing and improvement
  • Dissemination
  • Evaluation

See the ‘Double Diamond’ model of design and innovation here.

To support these tasks, two more ways of doing innovation are vital. First, those who implement an initiative must put indicators in place to ensure it is measurable. Second, what was done must be described systematically in detail so the knowledge of practice can be consolidated, transferred and when replicated, intelligently customised to other sites and contexts, including internationally. Frameworks for capturing and sharing innovative practice in this way include the 5Is (Intelligence, Intervention, Implementation, Involvement, Impact) and the Security Function Framework (Purposes; Security niche – a secure product, a security product, a securing product; Mechanism – how it works; and Technicality – how it is constructed and operated in practice) [Ekblom, P. (2012) ‘The Security Function Framework’ in P. Ekblom (ed), Design Against Crime: Crime Proofing Everyday Objects. Crime Prevention Studies 27. Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner.]. Originally developed for product design this has been extended to wider security initiatives such as the planning of districts, and see the example at the end of this article.


> Innovation and Anticipation 

When is it best to innovate? On the one hand, we can try to spot and quickly react to emergent problems, such as a new fraud technique, new online hate speech, terrorist attack techniques. In which case, we need an information system to collect, interpret and share information about trending incidents and modus operandi. On the other hand, we can try to anticipate upcoming problems and develop solutions ready for when these are needed. Both reaction and anticipation have different strengths and weaknesses.

Anticipation is particularly important where there is a long development period before the innovation (such as a hack-resistant autonomous vehicle) comes into production and use; or when time is needed to debate and resolve ethical issues, for example with intrusive surveillance techniques. Failure to anticipate leads to ‘crime harvests’, where a product (such as a mobile phone) is put on the market without any thought of security at the design stage, leading to a rush to steal it, a heavy burden on victims and the police and then hasty and often clumsy retrofit security measures.

Anticipation takes several forms, of which two can be mentioned here.

  • Crime Risk Assessments can be undertaken at the planning and design stages of new products, new places, new services. They seek to anticipate what crimes are likely to befall the new item, and whether the nature and level of security that is planned to be incorporated is appropriate and proportionate to the nature and level of risk to which it may be exposed. This is established practice in some cities, for example Greater Manchester in the UK. Crime Impact Assessments by contrast look at whether some new development can ‘export’ crime, for example where a new entertainment centre generates noise and litter for residents.
  • Horizon-scanning/ foresight exercises are broader in scope and have been quite widely applied to a range of social and practical issues (e.g. effects of climate change or ageing population) in governmental, private and third sectors. See for example this EU site. In the security field they look ahead over various timescales to develop a picture of how political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental changes, combined with adaptive, enterprising and networked offenders, may change the crimes we have to tackle. They use a wide range of techniques to give a degree of structure and rigour to what remains an uncertain future, to give time to debate important issues (such as the impact of new technologies on privacy) and to develop solutions ready for when they are needed. Some examples of horizon-scanning can be found in the work of the Dawes Centre for Future Crime at University College London.

> How important are human/ social factors in innovation?

Even the most technological of innovations has human and social dimensions which can cause it to succeed or fail. With CCTV, for example, someone must monitor the screens and make decisions, and initiate action: here, performance factors e.g. fatigue and attention span are vital. And with door locking systems on public housing, different individuals, organisations or companies must specify, buy, fit, operate and maintain them. But technology apart, there is an emerging field of practice known as social innovation. The EU defines it as follows: ‘New ideas that meet social needs, create social relationships and form new collaborations. These innovations can be products, services or models addressing unmet needs more effectively.’ In practice, most innovations will be a mix of social, material and cyber technology.


> Project in Kvadraturen district, Oslo – combining technological and social innovation in urban security

This was a location in an older district of Oslo, near the waterfront. It was under-used, with concern about security playing a part. A group of designers, planners, researchers and a street furniture company, Norfax, got together and after some deliberation, contributed to improving the area by developing and deploying the ‘eBenk’ (e-bench). Describing it using a variant of the Security Function Framework, this aimed to increase links between people and area, generating vibrant, connected, safe and people-centred street experiences (purpose), as a ‘securing product’ (niche – its crime purpose was secondary to being a seat), working via mechanisms ranging from informal surveillance to placemaking. Technically, this was achieved by offering multiple sitting positions, free on-street wifi, free charging for mobile devices, ambient lighting and an electricity point to supply public activities.

In a pilot test, number of users and uses per hour increased between 150-250%. The design and development process is described in Willcocks et al. (2018). [Willcocks, M., Ekblom, P. and Thorpe, A. (2019). ‘Less crime, more vibrancy, by design’.  In R. Armitage and P. Ekblom (Eds.) Rebuilding Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design: Strengthening the Links with Crime Science. Milton Park: Taylor and Francis. 216-245.]