Aileen Allkins, chief revenue officer, Elev8, looks at how to build cybersecurity into the foundations of smart cities.

More and more governments and businesses are looking to transform our urban environments with smart city infrastructure. Just last year, Saudi Arabia made headlines around the globe with its plans to build The Line in Neom, Tabuk Province. Remarkable for its striking appearance built around the concept of the 5-minute city, The Line aims to both demonstrate and facilitate innovation, a core smart city principle.

The cybersecurity risks of smart city infrastructure

Smart city infrastructure relies on the deep integration of technology in all aspects of urban environments. Unfortunately, this also means greater vulnerability to cybersecurity breaches, with any attacks potentially carrying significant consequences for critical infrastructure.

Cyberattacks are not limited to spam emails and stolen data but, particularly in a smart city context, can inflict damage on the physical world. For example, attacks have targeted industrial operating technology for energy, water and transport in countries including Ukraine, Israel, and the US. Digital transformation of an entire city therefore needs to have a robust approach to cyber defence at its core.

Talent as a central pillar of cybersecurity

Cybersecurity best practice is rooted in the traditional principles of prevent, protect, detect and respond. Delivering on these principles requires a talent-driven approach, including a combination of upskilling internal teams and engaging with external experts where required to capitalise on the latest cybersecurity products. For smart cities, the reliance on intelligent devices with an online network connection means digital talent in both the private and public sector is a crucial first line of defence against cyber-attacks.

Over half of employers surveyed by UK think-tank The Learning and Work institute believe their reliance on advanced digital skills will increase in the next five years. Yet across the globe, cybersecurity roles, especially entry to mid-level analyst positions, are proving hard to fill as candidates appear reluctant to take on seemingly more routine work. The world now faces a growing digital skills gap, and one that needs tackling urgently if online defences are to be maintained as digital innovation continues to evolve.

Building a pipeline of digital talent

Organisations often look to automation to plug their digital skills gap, but in most cases, this is only part of the solution and can bring its own risks. For example, automation of certain functions in a smart city environment could lead to costly errors if a false positive security breach notification were to prompt an unnecessary shut down of essential public services. For automation and cybersecurity technology to fulfil its potential, oversight is required from individuals with the right technical abilities. These roles are far from routine – in smart cities, they are critical to the community.

To build a team with the right skills, it can be worth considering whether individuals within existing teams could be pivoted from other roles to cybersecurity functions through re-skilling programmes. With the right training, ambitious administrative professionals, for example, can be upskilled to become cybersecurity analysts or network IT officers.

Building a talent pipeline is a long-term process that requires a long-term mindset. By mapping existing team skillsets against digital transformation objectives, it will be easier to identify digital skills that are missing and to provide targeted upskilling programmes. With cybersecurity central to an effective smart city operation, plugging any skills gaps on this front, especially as the nature of cyberthreats evolve, is crucial.

Cybersecurity at the heart of smart cities

For smart cities to thrive, cybersecurity needs to lie at their core. And at the heart of an effective cybersecurity strategy are individuals who have the digital skills to understand the shifting nature of cyberthreats, devise and implement preventative measures and respond swiftly to any attacks. With skilled cybersecurity specialists on hand, there is every reason to look forward to the innovations and opportunities on offer from smart cities.