September 15, 2017
New thinking for public safety in a digital world
By: James Slessor

I recently took part in a panel discussion at an EU Forum event that addressed the very broad subject of security in Europe. It was a thought-provoking day, with my panel looking at the changing nature of the threat, the role of digital technologies—and critically the opportunity they present for public safety. We covered a wide range of areas but a few of the key themes were:

It is clear digital disruption is having a large and growing impact on all areas of life. And it’s an impact that will only continue to grow. For public safety, there are three main drivers. The first is the nature of the threats we face today. Some are entirely new. Others are old threats in new forms. They’re compounded by the context of an increasingly borderless physical world and an entirely borderless virtual one.

The second major driver is expectation. Citizens are digitally-savvy; many understand technology better than the public safety agencies. Their expectations of services are fuelled by a highly personalised and always-on digital culture. The Accenture public service citizen pulse survey found that about 7 in 10 agree that public agencies could provide a better customer experience by using the latest technologies.

The final driver is the volume and nature of the data and identifying risk and threat from within this. Already huge, it’s growing all the time as the number of signals and data points continues to expand. For example, Gartner estimates that by 2020 there will 26 billion IoT devices—more than three times the total number of smartphones, tablets and PCs.

The challenges that all this creates for public safety are substantial, of course. But so are the opportunities. To realise them, public safety agencies have to take a new approach that is built around some new ways of thinking,

The first is the way they drive transformation. That means more than just adopting new technologies—focused on improving the core reactive functions of police, although there is still much that can be done here. To really be successful in the digital age it is about increasingly adopting a more preventive model and reshaping process, adopting new technologies and critically reconfiguring the workforce to support this new approach.

The second of these new dimensions is collaboration. Again, this goes beyond traditional approaches of partnerships. What we see in the digital era is the growing importance of ecosystems that bring together new and sometimes unlikely partners who can work creatively together on new solutions.

And finally, there’s the importance of focusing on people. It’s easy to become fixated in technology for its own sake. But the real innovations come from how technology supports and works with people. AI, for example, can open new ways to help the public get the precise kind of support they need as quickly as possible. Analytic and data visualisation can support officers and staff with the right information at the right time, all the time. But to deliver those benefits you need to design solutions with people at the centre.

New digital capabilities and tools offer tremendous advantages in the provision of public safety. But a word of caution is needed too. The digital world is still largely uncharted territory. It needs some new rules and guidelines in order to make sure that citizens continue to place their trust in public safety agencies and these agencies legitimacy is maintained. The speed and power of digital’s development opens extraordinary possibilities. But we always need to balance what we "could" do with what we "should". To create this new means of operating, it’s going to be important for a number of actors to come together. That includes public safety agencies, governments and tech companies too. Here again, collaboration will be key.

Digital is leading us into a new era which has the ability to provide many benefits and securities from a public safety perspective. But we need to be aware that security and public safety in a digital world will require us to think differently, whilst continuing to focus on preserving public trust and confidence.

Let me know what you think.

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