Free wifi in public spaces and remotely monitoring utility use are no longer an indicator of an advanced city. Arabian Business looks at how technology is evolving just about every part of daily life – and how the UAE is leading the way.
Cities are getting smarter, but what does that actually mean?
Digitalising government services and automated traffic light systems are barely significant in the grand scheme of ‘smart cities’. The smartest are creating technology to do everything from improving security and remotely monitoring infrastructure, such as power grids, to designing entire cities based on 3D simulations that predict the future and - the assumption is - reduce the likelihood of unexpected problems.
The accepted definition of a ‘smart city’ is one that uses digital technology to improve the lives of its citizens and make everything from transport to health and education not only more efficient but also sustainable.
Simply, it is the way of the future.
“We’ve all been seeing the evolution of a definition of smart cities; a lot of governments have been putting together frameworks, and I think that’s a good and a bad thing,” says Suhail Arfath, the Middle East head of Autodesk Consulting, one of the oldest software companies globally.
“The bad thing is that the definition is still evolving and everyone is trying to ask the same question.
"The good thing is that each government is getting an opportunity to use this framework to…define what is important to them. What is important for the UAE might not be important for the US or an Asian country.”
Dubai is among those governments crafting smart city plans and has boldly declared it will become one of the smartest cities in the world by 2020. The emirate’s unique definition sets residents’ happiness as a key criteria, using the Dubai Happiness Agenda and the Dubai Happiness Index, launched this year, to measure residents' and visitors’ experiences with government services.
The Dubai Government already has saved $1.17bn through shared smart services since 2003, according to a six-month study conducted by an international third party commissioned by Smart Dubai Government (SDG), the technology arm of Smart Dubai, the organisation charged with making Dubai the world's smartest and happiest city.
The findings, released in June, showed the government had saved AED5.6 ($1.52) for every AED1 spent by SDG since its inception. That averaged $97.5m per year over 12 years of SDG services.
The figure has increased in more recent years, reaching an average $9.7m per month in 2015 – the highest cost-to-savings ratio and a 20 percent increase year-on-year, according to the report.
Infrastructure management reaps the most valuable cost-to-savings ratio, saving the government AED5.2 for every AED1 spent on network services, cloud services, data and disaster recovery, and communication support services.
Digital services directly linking citizens and residents with the government – such as the DubaiNow application, MyID and ePay – contributed to another AED443m in savings over 12 years.
“Smart Dubai Government is able to provide 70 percent of a government entity’s department services from day one,” SDG CEO Wesam Lootah said when the report was released.
"Our service portfolio drives significant benefits for the whole government — from increased cap-ex efficiency, to removing redundancies; to reduced carbon footprints resulting from shared services. Smart government services also contribute to increased employee efficiency; improved asset management, and drastically reduced maintenance costs. Through smart technology, we are empowering an agile and connected government to meet the future of Dubai."
The government has applied smart technology to a plethora of areas. Among the more ingenious solutions is a deal announced in August with Swiss secure identification company SICPA to prevent wrongly-labelled halal products from making it to the shelves and five-gallon water bottles from being refilled too many times.
The technology works by allowing customers to scan a product, revealing its origin and certification.
“This is only the beginning,” Dubai Municipality director-general Hussain Nasser Lootah said, announcing the deal.
“The project will continue to monitor halal and other food products in phases within an agreed timeframe.
“Dubai aims to become the smartest city in the world. That is why our teams at our various departments strive hard to add new smart solutions to make Dubai a global model and pioneer in smart and sustainable urban living.”
One of the areas expected to experience a significant impact from new technologies is urban planning. Revolutionary software is helping governments plan better for the future and avoid costly errors.
Autodesk is playing a critical role in this field, providing urban planners with tools that allow them to run simulations based on an intelligent analysis of environmental considerations, future population, traffic flows and other factors.
“You gather data first so you can analyse, simulate and predict the future,” Arfath says, summarising the process.
"3D models allow designers to replicate the future… Then we start producing this data and urban designers, engineers and architects start building what the future is going to look like."
Software such as Autodesk's Recap can turn the captured information into "high visibility digital training models", which can be overlayed with data on population, traffic, etcetera, and then turned into 3D models, which allow real-life analysis.
“Based on these analyses and simulations they’re able to really predict the future," Arfath says. "Unlike the past where it was all manual, they can really predict the future of this urbanisation and the impact of this urbanisation on the city in a digital environment. You get a simulation of the real world but actually in the virtual world.
“It provides them with really critical data that will help them design a better city and better infrastructure for that smart city.”
The impact of such technology is still being determined but will inevitably be substantial. Arfath says if governments start early enough, before committing to a location or design, Autodesk’s software can assure a safely designed urban project.
“I can confidently tell you, if you have the information and the data in advance before you actually pick the site [and] call your design complete, whether the data is current or historic…we can combine all of this [data] and run simulations and analysis to see the behaviour for the next 10, 20, 30 years. That is a great help for everyone because it helps the designer make decisions based on data, not on assumptions or a hypothetical situation,” he says.
“Every designer can assume there’s going to be around 5 billion people living in urban cities, but what does that mean to my cities that I’m trying to make smart?”
The predictive software’s benefits are not limited to governments, according to Arfath. Real estate investors also will soon look to the information before deciding where to buy, he says.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a year or two from now people start asking the question ‘what is the life cycle cost of my apartment before I buy it?’” Arfath says.
“Today you buy it [a property] because of location, access to transport; people will start questioning now, what is the life cycle cost of it, how much carbon dioxide is going to be emitted from my space? These are some of the things that are changing.”
Transport is one of the most pivotal components of urban planning, and is becoming only more important as populations grow and environmental concerns strengthen.
TRL, a former UK government-turned private transport consultancy, is supporting several GCC governments in the implementation of their new transport systems.
TRL Middle East director Akin Adamson says while some of the work is “unglamorous”, such as innovations in asphalt, the implications can be as significant as life-saving by improving road safety.
“We’re seeing a real exploration of technologies that can be used to remotely monitor the state of transport assets, whether it’s [traffic] lights or roads, and sending that information back to [a remote office],” Adamson says.
“You can use that information for big schemes like setting up maintenance schedules, or it could be smaller scale, like switching on street lights when you sense there’s activity in these areas; you can save electricity by putting in smart technology for things like street lighting.”
In fact, anything above the asphalt can be subject to smart technology, from road markings and signage to traffic lights and congestion.
Transport users, too, are already benefiting from on-demand traffic information via smart phones, with apps such as Google maps providing real-time information on congestion and best routes.
“There’s an enormous growth in smart city applications that impact all of these areas,” Adamson says.
“It’s very easy to see how, even relatively speaking, [smart technology] can have a marked difference on people’s lives.”
The GCC is particularly enthusiastic in adopting such technology, he says.
“It would be no surprise to learn that the leading [government] is Dubai, driven by the particular impetus they’ve created there for innovation,” Adamson says. “We’re seeing lots of interest in identifying how to use technology, which technology to select, how to deploy that in a way that benefits the many different levels, whether that’s safety, economy or making Dubai a great place to live, work and visit.”
Adamson says the GCC has several advantages over developed markets, including its economic power and population growth.
“They have access to deep pockets that are required to implement some of those technologies," Adamson says. “Many of the cities in the region are growing rapidly, so they can build smart [infrastructure] upfront, which has huge advantages versus trying to retrofit more established cities.
Arfath agrees that developing countries, including those in the Gulf, are in an advantageous position to reap the most rewards by focusing on smart cities.
“The developed countries have taken the initiative but the emerging countries are seeing the value and need of it,” he says. “Countries like China and India don’t have a choice [other than to develop] but they are really trying hard to make sure they’re building cities that are smart cities.
“In the Middle East, in some cases, we have got what is really a greenfield [site]; we are building cities from scratch. That gives us an opportunity, that gives us an edge to be an example for the rest of the world.
“We have really high-end opportunities here to build from scratch. The kind of projects this region has been experimenting with - the Burj Khalifa, the Kingdom Tower - these projects, which are dream projects for the rest of the world, we have already been a leader on. We don’t hesitate in this part of the world to really be on that edge.
“We have an option here: by 2020 we can really start establishing that lead position across the globe and by 2030 we might be really at the leading edge of it.
“There might be some time when people from the rest of the globe will be asking for expertise from this region to help with some of their complex projects, because the place where they are building the cities and infrastructure in this part of the world [means] they’re really trying hard to find new ways and efficient ways to build the projects on time and with quality, so they’re really squeezing the technology to the most.”
Dubai’s leading role as a smart city already has been recognised by multiple cities that have engaged it to help them build their own dedicated smart city. They include in South Korea, Kerala and Lagos.
With new innovations and ideas cropping up monthly, where will the world be in 10 years’ time, let alone 50 years?