The access and use of public spaces by women without risk is a fundamental human right, and yet it remains an elusive one.

For most women, moving around the city at night, or in secluded spaces, is often unsafe, if not downright dangerous.

While no technology in the world can remove the risk completely, this is as much a cultural shift as it is an innovative implementation, there are ways in which the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities can support safety and wellbeing.

As Charlene van Onselen, executive member of the IoT Industry Council of South Africa (IOTIC), points out, it may be the heart of society that keeps women safe, in the end, but sound urban planning, and effective management and policing within a smart city are powerful enablers of security for women.

“The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance is one example of how smart technologies and cities can come together to implement best practices and develop smarter solutions,” she adds. “The Alliance has created a policy roadmap that can be used by policymakers and technology providers to further the objectives of safety, inclusivity, and social impact. The latter three elements make up one of the five core principles of the alliance and are key to building truly smart city solutions.”

The goal of this coalition is aligned with what should be the goals of any smart city development – to embed resilience, safety, security, sustainability, and privacy into the very fabric of the city itself. As women and children are targeted more often than men, particularly in urban environments, any smart city development that considers these factors will immediately be several steps ahead.

Smart city infrastructure can support citizen safety using secure and efficient public transport systems, smart surveillance devices, sensors in the transport systems themselves, and smart streetlights. These will not only add layers of protection but can serve as ways to notify authorities in the event of an emergency.

“Smart lighting will not only help a smart city meet its target objective of environmental sustainability, but it turns on or off automatically,” says van Onselen. “As a result, the lighting will activate when someone is in the vicinity which does offer a measure of safety and protection. There are also lighting systems that have leveraged IoT to create automatic alerts if they detect certain kinds of movement which can be invaluable to security.”

It is not just smart devices and smart systems that can change the face of smart city security for women, there are also gadgets that women can wear that activate in the event of an emergency. Smart jewellery can be used to trace their location using GPS, and some solutions can send out a location alert along with a recording and a photograph. The challenge here is in resourcing and supporting these devices so they are accessible to women across all levels of society.

“Smart devices rely on people to control them, watch for dashboard alerting, and who can get teams on the ground to assist,” says van Onselen. “The time to get people to an emergency situation where a woman is in danger may not be fast enough to protect her, so these factors also need to be considered when developing and planning smart urban environments.”

This means using IoT, technology, sensors, urban design, and utilities as parts of an ecosystem, a holistic environment that keeps every part connected to the other. From the location of public toilets to shadows created by buildings to foliage – multiple factors need to be considered to keep vulnerable citizens safe and to add to their sense of safety.

“It’s important to remember that smart city infrastructure on its own is not enough to keep women safe,” concludes van Onselen. “The socio-economic structures and the culture of people living in the city are the critical success factors. A city doesn’t need to be technologically smart to keep women safe, it must be people smart. However, a city that prioritises the safety of citizens through its services and that focuses on the culture of safety in behaviour and expectations is the definitive smart city of the future.”