What is the safest city in the world in which to live? According to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, it is Tokyo, also the world’s most populous city. But how has the Unit assessed safety, and on what basis does it make this assessment?

The basis for the assessment

The safety index is based on more than 40 qualitative and quantitative indicators across four categories: digital security, health security, infrastructure safety and personal safety. Each category is covered by three to eight sub-indicators divided between inputs such as policy aims and spend, and outputs such as frequency of accidents involving vehicles.

The index looks at 50 key cities, rather than examining every city in the world. The cities were chosen based on availability of data and also to secure sensible regional representation, so it’s not totally comprehensive, but nonetheless the index gives a reasonable snapshot of the state of security and safety in cities around the world.

Key findings

The report’s key findings make for very interesting reading, both for the cities concerned, and for others looking to learn lessons.

The report makes clear that location is not important in determining safety levels. This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been thinking about cities recently. Instead, wealth and economic prosperity counts for far more. This is in no small part to do with how much cities spend (and can afford to spend) on policing and safety infrastructure such as CCTV and street lighting.

But it may also be a more nebulous issue, about the divide between rich and poor. That’s much harder to manage because it often boils down to issues like self-respect, employment and the like.  Cities like Rio de Janeiro, however, are showing what can be done with focused investment in the right technology, involving slum dwellers in city redevelopment to give them a stronger stake.

Absolute levels of wealth aren’t the only important issue, though. Several cities in similar areas, with similar degrees of economic prosperity, have widely different safety ratings. For example, Abu Dhabi is the safest city in the Middle East region, at position 25 overall. It is 21 places above its regional rival Riyadh, despite both being high income cities. It seems likely that part of the reason at least is about the choices that city leaders make on priorities for spending.

A balance between digital and ‘real world’ security

One of the biggest divides highlighted by the report is the difference between digital and ‘real world’ security. Asian and US cities top the digital security ranking, but are much lower for overall security. European cities, on the other hand, feature highly for physical security, but much lower on digital issues.

The issue is probably a matter of city priorities. European cities, although thriving in business terms, have also built strong reputations as places to visit. City breaks are a huge part of the European tourist industry, and tourists won’t go where they feel unsafe crossing the road. So physical safety infrastructure is a priority there. It may be a generalisation, but many US and Asian cities would not consider themselves tourist destinations, and have instead focused on attracting investment in technological businesses. For that, digital security is key.

The report, however, suggests that the boundaries are blurring: cities need to focus on both. Technology, and particularly data and analytics, are vital in fighting crime and improving urban security. Smarter technology may improve prevention of security threats, but cities around the world are also proving that investment in traditional systems, such as increasing the number of police officers ‘on the beat’, are effective in improving safety. It’s important to have both.

The importance of people

It’s a truism, but cities are all about people. And the reports suggests that perhaps the most important aspect of security is bringing the right people together. Whether that’s within a city, or by drawing on experience from elsewhere, the first step is not technology, but the people who will use it.

People are also key to solving the conundrum that perception does not always equal truth. Only two cities in the world, Zurich and Mexico City, have the same rank overall as they do for citizens’ perceptions of safety. Many US cities are perceived as much less safe than the reality, and reputations take a long time to change. The challenge for city leaders is to ensure that improving safety is reflected in perceptions.

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