Protect and serve - Issue 169 - Magazine | Monocle

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Protect and serve

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to urban safety. What makes people feel secure and how much personal freedom and privacy they are willing to sacrifice in order to be at ease are culturally specific. For instance, the sight of armed police officers patrolling the streets might be considered more desirable in parts of the US than in more progressive European cities. In some Asian countries, residents happily accept a level of surveillance and facial-recognition technology that many Westerners might deem to be unacceptable.

There are, however, many proven ways to increase safety in our urban environments. After all, who doesn’t want good lighting, managed traffic and clean air? Over the following pages, we profile five companies that are keeping danger at bay with solutions that range from intelligent traffic-light sensors to well-designed, easy-to-install anti-terrorism barriers. Among them is a firm that has developed inconspicuous sensors that give city planners highly accurate, street-by-street information on air quality, making it possible to measure the precise difference that planting a few trees, creating a new park or turning a traffic-clogged street into a pedestrian zone can make.

Many of these innovations would not be possible without new surveillance technology. While this inevitably raises questions of cybersecurity and privacy, cities should not be automatically averse to novel solutions. The risks are often manageable and the benefits can far outweigh them. What these companies also demonstrate is that we can make the places that we live in safer without changing the way that they look. Nobody wants ugly concrete blocks and barbed-wire fences protecting our public squares or floodlights blasting every corner of our cities.

What all of these businesses have in common is that they make it easier for those who run our cities, from police officers to urban planners, to do their job. They might expose some uncomfortable truths, such as potholed roads, unsafe intersections or polluted streets, but, in the right hands, these solutions can pave the way for policies that significantly improve our quality of life – as long as robust checks and balances are in play.

Giving the green light


Most road accidents happen at intersections and, in many cities, fatalities are on the rise. Notraffic has developed a solution that helps traffic to flow more smoothly while protecting pedestrians and cyclists. The company’s smart sensors can be attached to existing traffic lights and control their sequencing according to data on who is nearby. “Traffic-light management hasn’t really changed since the 1940s,” says Notraffic’s ceo and co-founder, Tal Kreisler. “Most are still offline. In Vancouver, we halved the waiting time for pedestrians at intersections.” The technology also helps motorists, who spend less time at automatically triggered red lights. “We managed to cut the number of cars running through them by 70 per cent in a US city.” Reducing idling at intersections where nobody needs to cross means less harmful emissions too.

The devices can be remotely managed to give emergency services the right of way. “Seventy per cent of fatalities in traffic accidents take place in the hour after an incident,” says Kreisler. “Ensuring that patients get to a hospital faster has a big effect.” Notraffic already works with major cities in North America and is poised to launch projects in Europe and Japan.

Shining examples

Tvilight, Netherlands

Good lighting in cities contributes to a sense of security and is well known to help reduce crime. Dutch company Tvilight, which specialises in smart streetlights, has helped places such as Seoul, Beijing, Berlin and Amsterdam to improve their night-time illumination. Its products can be remotely managed, enabling cities to switch off lights where they are not needed to cut energy costs. 


“Almost half of the energy bill in many municipalities comes from just streetlights,” says the company’s founder, Chintan Shah. With its integrated system, Tvilight enables cities to keep areas with higher crime rates well lit, while turning them off in spots where there is nobody around and with a low risk of antisocial or criminal behaviour.

Tvilight also helps cities to build intelligent lighting systems that use motion sensors to create on-demand illumination that follows people around as they move. The company calls this a “safe circle of light”. Sensors are also able to distinguish between pedestrians, cyclists and cars while filtering out “interference factors”, such as small animals or moving branches. “The same motion sensors also collect data on where people are when it’s dark, like heat maps,” says Shah. This feature allows planners in cities such as Helmond in the southern Netherlands to gain valuable information about how to improve their night-time services.

Tvilight’s lighting technology connects to other smart-city solutions through a central management system, enabling cities to change the streetlight colours on routes that emergency vehicles are using to warn other road users of their approach even before they hear the sirens. In the city of Chattogram in Bangladesh, Tvilight has installed a system of ambient sensors that automatically switches streetlights to a brighter level when the visibility is low as a result of heavy monsoon rains; this has helped to reduce the number of accidents.

What’s more, a city administration that uses Tvilight’s lighting system will instantly receive information when a lamp fails. “For example, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia has 500,000 streetlights and some 5,000 need fixing every month,” says Shah. Quick repairs reduce the risk of accidents – so the humble business of maintaining streetlights can be matter of life and death.

Block party

Consel, Switzerland

Terrorist attacks have forced many cities around the world to resort to somewhat drastic measures. Public buildings and squares are often protected by hefty, solid blocks designed to prevent cars from driving into them – think of the black defensive street architecture that’s dotted around central London or the concrete barriers erected in major Italian tourist cities such as Rome and Florence. While such defences might be effective, they make our cities resemble war zones, evoking a sense of danger. Swiss company Consel set out to change the perimeter-protection market with well-designed access barriers. “We work with architects and designers to ensure that our products blend in and look elegant,” sales manager Manuel Benaiges tells monocle.

Consel achieves this in various ways, from an imaginative use of colour to making security devices such as bollards, gates, barriers and road blockers appear less bulky and conspicuous. Instead of relying on standardised production processes, the company’s engineers and designers develop products based on a customer’s specific needs. Its key markets are Germany and Switzerland but also increasingly the US and Singapore.

“The sector is moving towards smarter, more integrated solutions,” says Benaiges. “We can make street furniture such as benches and planters that function as sturdy access-control units. We are also able to integrate sensors that use artificial intelligence into our products that can recognise licence plates and vehicle types.”
A popular Consel innovation is the Armis One, a mobile vehicle barrier that is easy to install and remove, with robust but foldable barrier segments that can be lowered manually to allow free passage in a matter of seconds. Cities such as Zürich have used them to protect public squares during festivals.

Consel shows that safety doesn’t have to come at the cost of liveability and comfort. monocle believes that more companies that work in security sectors such as surveillance and access control should reach out to architects and urban planners to develop solutions that are more harmonious with their surroundings. Security is partly about psychology. If people sense that they are surrounded by cameras and armed guards, they will be reminded of the potential dangers and won’t necessarily feel safer.

All-seeing eyes

Genetec, Canada

Surveillance technology plays an important role in keeping our cities safe from crime and responding to accidents. One company that is helping to transform how the sector works is Canadian business Genetec (which monocle’s sister company Winkreative has worked with). Genetec has built a platform that brings together data from various sources, such as cameras and sensors, in an easy-to-use interface. Its products allow police to patrol the streets virtually and, if an incident occurs, they can quickly review footage of it before they arrive at the scene. In Detroit, this has contributed to a 50 per cent reduction in crime.


Genetec’s clients range from law-enforcement organisations and civic authorities to stadiums and airports. By offering easy access to surveillance information from security cameras, water-level sensors, speed cameras and more, the company helps emergency services to plan their responses and figure out the most efficient routes.
“We can provide authorities with a far more holistic view of what is happening in their cities,” Christian Chenard-Lemire, Genetec’s product group director, tells monocle. “This can be something as simple as rubbish-truck cameras collecting data on potholes. For those solving crime in our cities, this integration of surveillance sources not only brings more data but also helps them to analyse it faster.”

Increased surveillance inevitably raises questions about privacy and data misuse. Chenard-Lemire says that Genetec takes such issues very seriously. “Our mission is to protect liberal democracies,” he says. “That’s why we don’t do business with countries such as China or Saudi Arabia, where our technology might be misused.”

Genetec was the first company in its field to become gdpr compliant in the EU. In addition, the company’s software can automatically obscure faces so that only specific personnel, such as police officers investigating a crime, can access the full visual feed.

Catching air

Breeze Technologies, Germany

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is associated with more than seven million deaths a year. Hamburg-based Breeze Technologies is helping cities to address the issue with its advanced air-quality sensors. These measure all common indicators of urban air quality and can be installed on streetlights and other fixtures to transmit real-time, location-specific data. “Cities traditionally use large monitoring stations to measure a city’s air quality but our sensors offer hyperlocal information at a more reasonable cost,” says Breeze’s ceo, Roberth Heinecke.

There are many benefits to having accurate, street-level pollution information. For example, cities can monitor how changes in urban infrastructure affect air quality and use the data to identify pollution black spots and steer traffic away from them. It also helps cities to combat wildfires as the sensors can pick up approaching flames long before residents can see them. Data about levels of small particles helps people with conditions such as asthma too.

“Our mission is to democratise access to air-quality information,” says Heinecke. As the information is immediately uploaded to the cloud, cities can easily make it publicly available. Citizens can then see where the worst polluters are and organise to protect the air in their neighbourhood. “In some cities where we work, we have witnessed a 70 per cent improvement in air quality,” says Heinecke. 

Clean air is one of the most important elements of a good quality of urban life. After all, what use are attractive streets or parks if people don’t want to spend time outdoors breathing in polluted air?

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