Saudi Arabia has launched a number of ambitious ‘economic city' projects; Knowledge Economic City (KEC), on the outskirts of Medina, will be home to knowledge-based enterprises. NME spoke to Mohammed Shah, senior technology officer for the project.
NME: What is your overall plan for the KEC project?
The plan is to create a development based around knowledge-based industries (KBIs), such as IT, education, biotechnology, medical industries. Our economic city is focusing on KBIs, whereas other cities are focusing on industries such as petrochemicals. This is probably a leading project in Saudi Arabia. They’ve had smaller projects such as tech parks that they’ve tried to establish in the past, but as an all-embracing knowledge-based area, this is probably the first in the country.
NME: What is the timeline for KEC?
We were formed in June 2006 – the King inaugurated the project at the opening ceremony in June. There will be multiple phases of about three years, with the first to complete around 2010 – the project will last around 12 years in total.
We have a vision of creating a smart city, where anyone can have access to any application at any time, from a single device. Naturally one of the biggest challenges in technology is redundancy – every two years you have to switch everything out. And when you’re planning for so far out into the future, on such a big scale, I really think the real key is going to be openness and flexibility – trying to create that Lego brick base.
Any child, any person, whether they are one or 80 years old, whether they want to build a house, a horse, a cart – they can do it. This is an example of how I want to structure the technical infrastructure – whatever technologies come up that are relevant and beneficial, that we can plug into our infrastructure and it will be flexible and scalable enough to accommodate that.
Because it’s a centre for knowledge-based industries in the region, we will have very demanding and high-profile users that will be in that working environment – the techies of the world. We naturally want to make sure they have as comfortable and as modern technology environment there as possible, to help them with their business and other activities. They can go around the city and have connectivity, have virtual presence in their office, they can have flexibility when operating out of their office – a truly flexible, mobile workplace.
NME: What sort of scale are you looking at with KEC?
The city will have a population of around 150,000 people – it will have something in the region of 25,000 workers, business-type users. There could be another 20,000-25,000 casual home or tourist users on top of that – people staying at hotels, attending conventions, students in the campuses.
You’re looking at a concentrated user base of up to 50,000 people – one of the most concentrated user bases here in the region with such modern technology capabilities.
We’ve not done data volume projections yet – we are deep into doing in-depth studies to identify the segments of users and workers, and then projecting the types of technology they want to use – and we’ll be extrapolating all of those things soon. I think that what’s going to be interesting is we’ll have some updates in three months or six months time, and you’ll see us evolving on that journey.
NME: From a management point of view, how are you handling this project?
We’re starting off with our vision, which is to create a smart city environment for the smart knowledge workers – enforcing total user mobility and accessibility.
In terms of the infrastructure, because we’re looking so far out, it’s a case of having an open enough platform in the infrastructure that we can take the most proven existing technologies of today – such as IP – and leaving that doorway open to plug in and accommodate the emerging technologies of tomorrow easily. We all know in the IT field, this is a big variable.
Last month iPod went iPhone – there’s so many things evolving around us, and such a convergence of different types of technology and media and workplace applications, social and community-based information – everything is gradually coming into one sphere, and most likely one device ultimately.
We want to take existing proven technologies as a base-point, and we want to do as much we can in projecting technologies for 2010 and beyond – the next decade of technology, and try and create an open platform as much as we can, to accommodate those innovations that will come down the road.
Now of course these things are not easy, and there’s a lot of risk involved. The strategy I’m trying to deploy is I’m trying to be very selective in collaborating and working with leading vendors and IT solutions providers that are recognised innovators, and that will be here in the future – organisations like Cisco. I’m establishing close collaboration with Cisco because of their in-depth experience and customer base in IT infrastructure areas. We can take their existing learnings and then peer into the future in terms of R&D and see the anticipated relevant and useable solutions of the future. We’re not talking about a bunch of gadgets – we want to look at things that would really add value to our user community.
NME: Looking at your collaborations, how do you deal with these, and how are you trying to second-guess future technology developments?
First of all, because I’ve been in the region so long, I’ve developed my own personal network of key people in the industry – that’s the first point of collaboration, to have that chemistry with key leaders in the region. I know from a user leadership point of view what people are looking at, from an investment leadership point of view, and from a technology leadership point of view.
The next step is to talk to the regional leaders – it’s a combination of regional as well as international and parent-company involvement that you’ve got to engage. From a regional point of view, I’m in the process of talking to key country managers of these organisations. For example, with Cisco I’m talking to Dr Badr [Al Badr], the country manager for the vendor. I’m talking to him and trying to engage at a regional leadership level some common areas of understanding, and then taking those common areas and threads of understanding and developing it, so we can get the parent organisations involved.
Because we are looking at a lot of R&D anticipation, it is important and natural that those companies’ parent organisations start getting involved, through the support and linkage of the local country managers. Getting all of those elements of a complex relationship aligned and focused is the way we will minimise risk and maximise benefit for our community.
I think more and more in the region we need to see collaboration at a strategic customer planning perspective, and from the strategic vendor delivery perspective – if we can align strategic supply and demand, it will benefit everybody. And it will keep all of our costs down as well, it will smooth that whole process. There is such a growing demand regionally now, with the economic boom we’re beginning to experience, that it’s very important to keep supply and demand in synch, and for everybody to be focused and aligned, so we maximise the hit rate and minimise the cost.
So that’s what I’m doing – it’s a combination of personal networking, and technical insights, and it’s a difficult task.
NME: You’re talking about the vendor and user communities aligning on a strategic level, specifically with reference to Cisco; how do other vendors respond to this approach?
I’m trying to establish a model of collaboration and engagement – this is one of the first examples of that. As I go through the detailed planning phase, I will be approaching selected key long-term technology companies. In a similar way to Cisco, but you have to adapt to the way that enterprises are set up locally and internationally, and the level of value they bring in. For example, Microsoft will bring in value later on in the stream.
At the moment, we’re thinking of how many nodes, what type of topology, what type of connectivity, how on earth are we going to get all these guys to be connected, to be available at any time, any place, any where – this immediately falls on Cisco’s area of expertise. I expect to do it from an infrastructure point of view, from a networking point of view, an application and data-management point of view, a device delivery point of view, some sort of desktop and office automation point of view, and a media and broadcasting or distribution perspective.
It’s going to come in stages of the whole IT jigsaw – I’m trying to take the big pieces of the jigsaw at the moment, and framing those parts first to maximise my value in a limited time. Once I’ve got that framework of the key pieces in place, then I can zoom in and put those smaller and more intricate pieces in place.
It’s also about beginning to educate the vendor community regionally, about a new era we’re moving into, of collaboration, strategic collaboration between major customers and IT solution providers. We’re beginning a new phase – it’s not an RFP and three quotations any more; it’s really bringing in a more mature level, a higher level of relationship management, where we’re beginning to collaborate, to do R&D together. And of course we need to consideration the commercial value and protection of all parties at the same time.
I really feel that we’re opening up a new era in technology in the region, where we’re going to be strategic collaborators. That’s something that people in the region will have to start getting ready for, because what we’re doing will have spin-offs in other countries and other locations – on a different scale, but the principles will be similar. Both sides of the IT community need to get closer together and be more transparent and strategic in their discussions.