Exiting Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, an alert chimes on your mobile phone, which is tapped into the citywide high-speed wi-fi network, directing you to the nearest parking space.
Stepping out of the car, which has been registered using an e-government smartphone application, the street lights suddenly switch on after detecting your presence against the fading daylight.
On the verge, the grass is lush and green thanks to in-ground sensors that direct water and nutrients when needed. The rubbish bins are clean, having been emptied as soon as sensors detect they are full.
Heading to a healthcare appointment, again booked via another smartphone app, you arrive on time with traffic conditions from home to the clinic at your fingertips the entire journey.
Welcome to Dubai as a ‘smart city’.
Announced as an official project in October last year, Dubai is one of several Middle Eastern cities surging towards a smarter future, with other notable projects taking place in parts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
According to IBM general manager, Smart Cities, Michael Dixon, smart cities as a concept is about using technology to create “efficient and cost-effective services”.
“The ubiquitous nature of the internet and mobile phones and their application for use in all manner of private services has increased the level of expectation of people, who expect their city activities and the important aspects of their lives to be managed just as effectively,” the New York-based Australian tells Arabian Business during a visit to Dubai.
“People want to see high level of services, economic efficiency, integration between government services, integration between public and private sector and an ability to manage aspects of your life — whether it’s the obligations to government or your participation in a set of community-related activities or whether it’s your use of a consumer-based service.”
However, according to Booz & Company, Dubai’s shift to a digitised city could also yield a potential increase in GDP of $5.5bn within five years, with 27,000 extra jobs created over that time.
IT giant Cisco says the same “principles of openness” that have made the internet a thriving ecosystem for the past 20 years are what will create and grow a networked platform for connecting people with products, services and information.
“The next phase is to take the internet from a platform of connectivity and communication, which was mainly in the form of people connected to e-commerce and other businesses but also connected together, to an era we call ‘the internet of everything (IoE)’,” Cisco managing director UAE Rabih Dabboussi explains.
He says there are about 7-7.5 billion connections to the internet worldwide today made by an estimated 3-3.5 billion people — about half the planet’s population. However, this is expected to grow to some 50 billion connections by 2022, with the bulk of the extra connections to come from machines — everything from big, nuclear and manufacturing plants to tiny sensors implanted in the ground to feed data about soil conditions.
For Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the move to smart cities is aimed at making government services “accessible, quick and efficient” with the public able to deal with departments using their smartphones “any time, any day of the year”.
Dabboussi says in many ways Dubai is already there, with fingerprint and iris scanners at Dubai International Airport, a driverless metro system, electronic toll gates on Sheikh Zayed Road and a state-of-the-art broadband network. It also has e-government smart services for a variety of agencies and parking that can be paid for via mobile phones.
However, it has the capability to improve using some or all of the projects being implemented elsewhere around the world to meet its smart city aims of a “smarter life, smarter economy and smarter tourism”.
In Hamburg, Germany, Cisco — which is involved in 90 smart city projects worldwide — is using Smart+Connected city wi-fi to drive IoE innovations such as traffic congestion management and automated water metering.
In the Born district of Barcelona, Spain, these environmental smart sensors report real-time variables such as temperature, noise, humidity, gas and dust-particle concentration, generating alerts when action is required. Smart parking sensors are also used to help drivers locate available parking spaces via a smartphone app, while sensors in waste containers signal when they are full or are emitting odours above a threshold.
Other innovations include smart street lighting sensors, which can detect and respond to movement from people and animals. In Nice, this is being applied along the 800-yard Boulevard Victor Hugo, a so-called ‘connected boulevard’ where 200 wireless devices and sensors gather data used to monitor traffic, lighting, waste management and the environment.
Dixon says the most successful projects are linked to a “burning issue” such as in the Netherlands where technology is being used for flood mitigation. In Japan the focus is on energy after the closure of several nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima plant meltdown. China is tackling issues around transport and congestion and, increasingly, environmental problems such as air quality, while Africa is interested in food security, he says.
But there is also an increasing global need for cities to adapt. According to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, almost 90 percent of global population growth will be concentrated in cities in the future, along with 80 percent of wealth creation and 60 percent of total energy consumption.
On a global scale, Cisco estimates the “benefit to humanity” of the smart cities change will be around $14.4 trillion of incremental business opportunities and value — roughly the equivalent of adding another US economy to the planet. Frost & Sullivan say the estimated global market potential for smart cities — infrastructure development, technology integration and e-government, energy and security services — could reach $1.5 trillion by 2020.
“Cities today are starting to pick up on that,” Dabboussi says of the potential economic return. “You see very iconic cities now really moving into that path of modernising and then leveraging infrastructure and facilities and intelligence to make themselves more competitive.”
Previously, he explains, it applied to airports, highways and telecom infrastructure. But, the smart cities concept relates to the next level of fostering business opportunities and building a better quality of life for people through technology.
Danny Karam, Booz & Company principal and ICT sector leader in the digital business and technology practice, says the move towards diversifying economies in the Middle East means the business case for smart cities is a positive one. “The constraint in natural resources… the whole direction of moving towards non-oil industry generation is definitely a driver for all city officials in the Middle East and elsewhere to go towards that concept,” he says.
He says there are three key drivers behind the smart cities push — economic, social and sustainability outcomes.
In Dubai’s case, Booz & Company estimates that as well as potential GDP growth, it could also mean a 6.5 percent jump in the Gallup Highway Well Being Index and 5.5 percent rise in the Better Life Index, reflecting a “tremendous improvement in the quality of life of citizens”.
However, with the shift to a digitised economy comes the requirement for a technological capacity to get it there.
Zaher Haydar, the regional manager for system engineering in Turkey, Africa and the Middle East at technology firm EMC, says the two main building blocks required for smart cities are an advanced communications network, including fast broadband connectivity, and adequate data management and analysis.
The latter, he says, is dependent on technology such as cloud computing, which effectively offers third-party data storage for all the so-called big data being generated. He says with global data storage requirements growing by 40 to 50 percent a year, the cloud will be a key enabler of smart cities, as it offers a standardised platform for different city centres and applications to “talk to each other”. It also enables social media growth — something Dixon refers to as the final dimension and critical to the future of smarter cities.
Haydar says the other requirement is a solid analytics capability.
“All this data that is being fed and is being shared between different systems — someone or some application will need to make a decision about this big data,” Hayder explains.
“If we are collecting traffic data from all across the city from all the traffic lights, all this data is sitting somewhere — you need an analytics engine in order to make a decision: if you follow the road this highway will be faster to get to your end point than following the other highway. So, that analytics part... on that massive amount of big data, this is something very critical and this is really what will make smart cities a reality.”
Karam says the challenges for smart city development are mostly “legacy systems” from previous waves of digitisation. Smart cities are effectively the third and latest wave after the introduction of e-government and then making e-government transactional, and require the convergence of existing services that previously operated as “silos” with the addition of a new technology convergence layer, he says.
Providing the legal framework for an “open-data government” is another issue as information such as medical and financial details are shared, while funding smart cities is another challenge as Middle Eastern governments look to manage their budgets efficiently.
However, done well, smarter cities have big bottom-line advantages.
According to several industry reports, the use of desktop connectivity, mobility, wi-fi in the workplace and collaboration tools — meaning people can work together anywhere at any time — can translate to a 25-30 percent efficiency gain in employee productivity.
Further to that, the International Telecommunication Union estimates in a 2012 study on the impact of broadband to the economy that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration leads to 1.38 percent GDP growth in low and middle-income countries, 1.21 percent in high income nations and 0.9-1.5 percent increase in GDP per capita in OECD countries.
The World Economic Forum says just a 10 percent increase in digitisation underpins a 0.75 percent growth in GDP per capita.
Dixon estimates the split in smart cities development is 60-40 in favour of government, with the public sector driving the vision, policy and regulation and private sector delivering in operations.
“The Middle East is interesting, I think it’s only starting to focus on the potential,” he says.
However, both he and Dabboussi say Dubai, which will host the World Expo in 2020, and Doha, which will host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, have added incentive to fast-track their digitisation plans.
Ihab Ghattas, assistant president of IT firm Huawei Middle East, says as a result of Expo 2020 he expects new projects to include expanded e-government citizen portals, safe city solutions for police authorities, a more connected smart transportation system and the adoption of smart grid technology for the utilities sector.
“From a government perspective the goal of a smart city is to integrate all public agencies, systems and infrastructures into one holistic system,” he explains. However, he says the associated infrastructure also helps countries “close the digital divide” by meeting citizens’ expectations for interacting with and accessing government services “at the touch of a button”.
In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Labour has taken this to another level. Last month it ceased seven services at its physical offices, with employment permits, transfers and huroob (employee absence notifications) reports among services now available only online.
Over 16 million electronic transactions have been carried out through the ministry’s website since it was set up in 2011, according to local media, with an estimated 90 percent of its daily work now done online.
Online services are also offered on the Holy City of Makkah Municipality website, which has more than 30 business applications. At the Passport Department in Makkah, more than 2 million people have registered with its electronic service Abshir in the past three years, reducing crowding at passport offices.
“We faced a challenge with updating legacy systems to automated processes, ensuring digital collaboration and enhancing the quality of our services — especially as the city grows and more residents come online,” Ibrahim Abdullah, vice-mayor for IT at the Makkah Municipality, said last year.
This is also the case in Qatar, which in 2003 launched its integrated government services portal, i-Gov, which was later revamped into its Hukoomi-branded portal offering 24-hour access to government services and information in areas such as visas, tenders, education, legal issues, transport and real estate.
According to Booz & Company, Saudi ranks 41st in a United Nations 2012 e-government analysis — up from 70th in 2008. In 2012, the UAE was ranked 28th, up from 32nd, while the other results showed Bahrain in 36th place (42nd previously), Kuwait 63rd (57th), Oman 64th (84th) and Qatar 48th (53rd).
Dabboussi dismisses the suggestion that the extra use of computers will make face-to-face interaction redundant.
“I prefer not to talk about face-to-face versus computer any more,” he says. “The world of bringing people together has now moved more towards the virtual face-to-face, so there’s always going to be the need to interact with each other as humans — we’re not all going to live like robots interacting with machines.”
However, he acknowledges that the notion of “citizen services” continues to move more towards “intelligent interaction”, in which technology plays a role.
Dixon says there is no one city that has everything right, adding “everybody is doing interesting things” and “everybody is doing their little bit”. But, he is emphatic that “the rhetoric is done” and rather than convincing governments to embrace smart cities, the IT world is now working with them on specific challenges.
Dabboussi says there are clear reasons why cities should take the smart cities path.
“Infusing technology into everything we do is going to bring value, is going to open up opportunities and it’s going to make you more competitive,” he says.
“I’m not a predictor of the future but what I would say is cities who do not really start thinking about how they can transform themselves and continue to sharpen their edge around business and life competitiveness, they will lose and lose big, because those other cities are going to build a better, more efficient, more competitive environment for businesses and people to live in and attract people from the other cities who don’t.”For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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