2017 Chicago Forum Workshop

Security: Keeping Global Cities Safe and Sound

We gathered some of the world's preeminent experts on national and global security—including police commissioners, resilience officers, terrorism experts, tech developers, and scientists—to discuss what global cities must do to ensure safety from natural and man-made threats. Five priorities emerged that warrant further exploration and discussion at all levels:

The security challenge for cities encompasses both physical and social infrastructure. Essential urban assets, such as bridges, phone towers, and the electric grid, are often taken for granted—until they fail in the face of a natural or man-made disaster. And the real unwinding of a society occurs when its residents turn on each other.


To examine key elements of keeping global cities safe and sound, a group of leaders—including police commissioners, resilience officers, terrorism experts, tech developers, and scientists—came together in a private workshop at the 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities. The following is the problem statement around which the workshop was framed and a summary of the highlights of their discussion—including the challenges that remain top of mind for the world’s leading experts on this issue.

Problem statement


Global cities face a myriad of real and serious threats ranging from natural and man-made disasters to terrorism, pandemics, and other transnational crimes. National and global security is inextricably tied to getting the security of global cities right. Information technology and broader technological and data application advances are central to both the preventative and responsive measures needed to effectively keep cities safe and sound. 


However, in increasingly interconnected and dense city communities, disruption is easier. Anecdote can trump data, raising fear and the potential for more adverse security outcomes. Security providers and city leadership face urgent and ongoing long-term threats with the need to continue building public trust and avoiding community fragmentation. How can cities act collectively to address these issues?

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Discussion highlights


Resilient infrastructure—both physical and social—is the key to mitigating the threat of natural disasters and containing the impact of terrorism or a cyberattack. But what does that look like in practice?


City security agencies must focus on improving security metrics and measuring systems. It is less costly to prevent disasters than to rebuild after them, but the causal link from policy to prevention is unknown—which makes investments in preventative measures hard to justify under limited budgets. New metrics that demonstrate the value of those expenditures over the long term would allow for better, smarter city investments. New software also exists that will allow leaders to gain a system-level understanding of infrastructure interdependence, including variables outside the city, to account for cascading effects. Leaders can then determine where to make investments to protect the city if one aspect fails, reducing the impact of crises and returning societies to full function as quickly as possible. 

For further discussion:

  • How do we collect those security metrics and determine the return on investment of preventative measures?

  • How can cities use the data to develop and implement solutions?

Leaders across the government must promote social integration of both new and old communities. As the world becomes more globalized, cities must actively work to prevent segregation and alienation in their growing populations. Gangs and terrorist groups alike often recruit among urban populations of underemployed, alienated youth. Terrorism, in particular, has psychologically devastating effects on a society that can be more widespread than its direct destructive capacity. City leaders must take the lead to attack the roots of the problem: immigrants must be fully integrated into the city and the society, and the society must be welcoming of those groups. Additionally, while law enforcement needs to be deeply aware of the problems of radicalized immigrant groups, they must also attend to potential radicalization and nationalist sentiments of the native population to minimize cycles of escalation. 

For further discussion:

  • What types of resources are necessary to ensure social integration?

  • How can cities promote tolerance and respect for diverse populations?

Security leaders should be open to exploring new technologies. Advancements in cybersecurity have dramatically grown in scale and scope, adding a new dimension to urban safety. Beyond reacting and responding to crises, new technologies allow for the “virtualization of information” and the preemption of potential problems through predictive analytics. Cities are currently working to understand the best ways to harness the vast amount of data available to make such programs effective. But these advancements come with new policy challenges as well. Facial recognition software, for example, is controversial, and many feel that accessing the data necessary to have informed systems is an invasion of privacy. Of course, these issues vary from country to country, as some places do not have the same restraints on invasion of privacy. Their experiences—successes and failures—are laboratories for the future of cybersecurity.

For further discussion:

  • How will the investment in new technologies change the way city governments hire and retain cybersecurity and analytics talent?

  • How can cities partner with the private sector to improve cybersecurity?

  • How will cities balance the tensions between individual privacy and collective surveillance and vigilance?

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Governments should share sustainable security practices at all levels. Global city leaders need to recognize that the problems their communities face are often one link in a global chain of related issues. For example, mayors of cities in developing countries face the problems of climate change not simply through greater variability in weather but also in the migration caused by the shrinking supply of arable land. That migration, in turn, prompts the need to integrate new residents and prevent criminals from exploiting them or radicals from recruiting among them. Thus, to be sustainable, security best practices must be shared across the city, national, and international levels—which requires embedding a culture of cooperation at each of these levels. The onus may be on Western cities to take the lead on shifting this paradigm, as the world’s newly emerging megacities are on the front lines of the escalating threats of terrorism, climate change, and rapid urbanization.

For further discussion:

  • What processes, forums, or discussions must take place for the exchange of valuable insights across cities?

  • What are the recommendations for applying best practices in cities with limited resources, often the ones facing the largest threats?

Leaders need to keep the public informed to manage fear. Leaders need to learn lessons from other spheres of public policy, communications, and media relations on how to mitigate public fears. Terrorism, for example, is aimed to create and spread fear among target populations—and that fear is one of the most dangerous aspects of terrorism. Ultimately, it is more effective to inform people than to scare them. That knowledge, spread throughout communities, is a resource for city leaders to keep their citizens safe.

For further discussion:

  • How will the threat of public distrust in the media disrupt the messaging from city leaders?

  • What are the appropriate vehicles of information dissemination?

  • How can city leaders mobilize urban residents to be allies and resources for collecting information and communicating thoughtfully?


Resilience in cities requires both the physical infrastructure in place to prevent and withstand disasters and the social infrastructure to allow communities to integrate and, when necessary, cope. While there is no silver lining to disasters, they do force leaders to confront their society’s weaknesses—and give them opportunities to rebuild better and stronger.

What is your city doing to stay safe and sound? Join the conversation @ChicagoForum.

The 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities was made possible by the following forward-thinking companies: AbbVie, UL, Grant Thornton, Hyatt Hotels Foundation, Motorola Solutions, United Airlines, and USG Corporation.


Save the date, June 6-8, for the 2018 Chicago Forum on Global Cities. Learn more at


Workshop notes drafted by Craig Kafura, Research Associate, Chicago Council on Global Affairs.