Monthly Archives: March 2014

Safer Cities – open data, cyber insurance, new currencies

Safer Cities – People, Security, Technology
Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli
CityForum –
Monday, 10 March 2014
One Whitehall Place, London SW1

As a student of international economics, I’ve been asked to provide some comments today on Safer Cities. In 1800, only three percent of the global population lived in cities and only one city, London, had more than a million people. In 2008 more than 50% of the world lived in cities and there were well over 300 cities with a population over one million people. Despite working with many cities on things such as the Global Financial Centres Index or futures work on drone delivery strategies or new currencies, I’ve never claimed to be a City guru. However, you don’t need a guru – the question “what makes a great economic city” has a simple one word answer – Trade.


Cities reduce the degrees of separation. People come to cities to trade. What makes cities strong is the free flow of goods, capital, services, labour, and intellectual property. Gross World Product is about $50 trillion, and trade is over $25 trillion. In fact, 25% to 40% of trade is non-monetary, so global trade is not far off Global World Product, though this is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison. Now, can you name my economic hero of the 20th century? He transformed the UK road network, destroyed the northern ports, and devastated east London. He was of Scottish descent. Several cities such as Oakland, California or Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia sprang from nowhere due to him. His innovation created London’s Tilbury port. He is of course Malcom McLean, father of the shipping container.

The biggest gains for peoples of the world have been through free trade. When major eastern economies embraced free trade, almost two billion people were lifted out of poverty. The biggest innovation of the 20th century that contributed to reducing poverty was probably also the sea container.

So let’s look at security. One of my favourite Benjamin Franklin quotes is: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. Franklin meant, of course, that even seemingly minor or transient curbs on freedom should not be tolerated. American representative democracy required a compact with markets that did give up some essential liberties to regulators in order to purchase a little temporary safety. Madison notes in The Federalist Papers, “The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.” I think Madison underestimated the apprehensions.

We have to get the relationship between commerce and our security services right. So what are my thoughts on safer cities? One of my big cyber security fears is hacking those same sea container stacking systems on the docks and randomly shuffling them. We might slowly starve and riot, unable to get at the scrambled stacks with food inside. I want to talk about non-physical trade, so I’ll point out that the biggest shift in trade today also involves containerisation – the data packets transmitted and swapped over the internet. I shall provide three points for discussion on weightless, online trading – open data, cyber insurance, and the changing nature of money.

First, I wonder, with the Lord Mayor Alderman Fiona Woolf CBE, if how we gather and exchange data might define a city. Perhaps, our new city wall is a data wall. Our new reservoir is our data store. Perhaps on entry to a city we contract to provide movement information from our smart phones to help transport planning – a mobile app passport. If I get planning permission to build a block of flats, must I provide ways of sharing energy, occupancy, or waste information with the city, which it anonymises, stores, and then shares more widely. I can link up with neighbours to consider new power or water treatment plants because I have the data on local consumers, their needs, their usage patterns. There are liberty and security issues, certainly, but more open data could transform London and other cities. We’ve seen this locally in minor ways with transport apps. We’ve seen this globally in major ways with GPS or weather data. Perhaps we should be freer with Land Registry data. Perhaps utilities should have sharing obligations in exchange for their quasi-monopolies. Perhaps cities should have open source blockchains of recorded trades within their walls. A safer, wealth producing City has to reset a number of boundaries, to build new city walls around reservoirs of data, keeping out the highwaymen of the internet. I might go further and muse on how fundamental reform of patents and copyright might help trade in data by lowering trade conflict, but due to time shall move on.

Second, we have to make data trade and cyber issues commercially ‘normal’. The state of commercial normalcy for most risks, think fire, theft, flood, for a business is that – after a business has done all the right things – it can then buy insurance. Why don’t we have a Cyber Re (or extend the existing Pool Re for terrorism insurance) where government becomes a partner to the insurance industry funding the extreme losses of cyber-crime, learning how to talk to industry in commercial terms? With reinsurance, normal insurers write cyber policies which help spread information and best practice. A Cyber Re helps promote a stronger ICT security industry and a more promising national location for ICT business. Cyber Re would provide proof that ICT security technology works, in financial terms. Normalcy is more than just cyber. I’d include working visas & immigration, regulation, and taxation in commercial normalcy. Given the number of financial scandals over the internet, such as FX, the regulators are unintelligent but they are not inexpensive. Retroactive or ‘shakedown’ taxation is equally reprehensible. Perhaps I might mischievously suggest that Starbucks be reported to the US authorities for paying £20 million to HMRC recently. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 “was enacted for the purpose of making it unlawful for certain classes of persons and entities to make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business.” [US Department of Justice website] Reducing trade frictions generated by immigration, regulation, and taxation, which are security-related, e.g. Anti-Money Laundering, will help cities flourish economically. Security has a cost, but efficient security pays. But I’ll move on.

Third, money is traded online via data packets. And the nature of money is changing. Bitcoin has the headlines. Bitcoin’s essential innovation was a public blockchain, which eliminates the need for a central bank by making the entire network the record of transactions. From several possible choices of currency architecture, Bitcoin chose to set a maximum fixed supply of 21 million coins. This fixed supply means that Bitcoin is possibly best compared with gold. Gold is also an element with a fixed earthly supply. Imagine Bitcoin as a virtual element. We know what the supply is. We know where most of it is, and can mine a bit more. However, it is not money. It is a virtual element, weightless. Only a community can decide whether to use it to trade. So far, many of the allegations for or against Bitcoin focus on what type of community is perceived to be using it to trade debts – a Silk Road of illegal transactions, quixotic libertarians damning profligate governments, new age gold bugs, or hard-pressed traders in a tight credit environment.

Many people dismiss cryptocurrencies out of hand, forgetting that in times of economic turmoil and tight credit alternative currencies flourish. Well over 400 currencies sprang up in the USA in the 1930’s to fill credit gaps. The eighty year old Swiss WIR is a government-sanctioned trade currency still providing useful credit to a quarter of Swiss businesses counter-cyclically to the Swiss Franc. Bitcoin may fail, but it is already economically important. A quick insanity check – the five year old Bitcoin has a market capitalisation today of several billion dollars, albeit fluctuating wildly, with about the same market capitalisation as the two century old London Stock Exchange Group.

In summary, successful, safe cities are safer places to trade. We need to understand that data containerisation, the internet packet, is transforming them. We need to provide more smoothly swapped open data, normalise cyber risk, and embrace the innovation cryptocurrencies provide. Thank you.