Global Cities Race To Be Smart Hubs - Gulf Business
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Global Cities Race To Be Smart Hubs

Global Cities Race To Be Smart Hubs

As global migration towards cities grows, Dubai and other urban centres are looking to compete on a new frontier of smart technology.


Urbanisation is happening at an unprecedented pace across the world. An estimated 50 per cent of the world’s inhabitants, or 3.6 billion people, now live in cities and this is expected to rise to 60 per cent, or five billion people by 2030, according to management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Cities are now the main source of global economic growth and productivity, according to the firm, while accounting for the most resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Rabih Dabboussi, UAE managing director and general manager of technology firm Cisco, goes further in stressing on the changing global competitive landscape, stating that in the future, economic competitiveness is going to be between cities and not nations.

But the measures of attractiveness of the past are not the battlefront for the cities of the future. Instead, a new race is beginning to bring technology into every aspect of city life. From Dallas to Dubai and São Paolo to Songdo, smart city initiatives are taking off, all aimed at improving efficiency and sustainability.

“Why would I go to Shanghai and not to Dubai? The systems and quality of life in a city are a big part of that decision,” says Mazen Zein, director of business development and strategy at energy management specialist Schneider Electric.

“When you create a smart city you will become more attractive.”


The ultimate goal of a smart city initiative is to “attract business and citizens for a vibrant city economy, ” according to technology research firm IDC, providing a complete integrated view of a city’s systems often with the aim of more cost efficient and sustainable operations.

City leaders are concerned about the need to improve their capabilities across several common service domains, says Ruthbea Clarke, research director, Smart Cities Strategies, IDC Government Insights.

“In terms of city infrastructure, these issues often centre around the provisioning of citizen-centric services, expanding and improving transportation networks, crime reduction, waste and energy resource management, education and health services, as well as in driving economic development, tourism, and job creation.”

Globally, many of the issues smart city initiatives are designed to address are challenges brought about by greater urbanisation, including traffic pollution, resource constraints, water scarcity, sanitation concerns, public safety issues and greater demands on education healthcare and social service institutions.

“The same key questions often arise in cities as diverse as Beijing or Boston, as they consider how to grow and keep pace with technology and the expectations of their citizens and businesses,” says Clarke.

“Indeed, we see a similar drive towards smarter city status by the emirate of Dubai, where for instance, the focus is on ensuring that government services are accessible, quickly and efficiently.”

But the challenges also differ from city to city, with variations in weather and population all considerations, according to Zein.

“The leadership vision, this is something needed in every case, but the approach should be customised for every city,” he says.

Much of the current push in smart city initiatives is being led by technology advancements, which have made the “ideal” environment for smart city solutions, according to IDC. Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimates the market has the potential reach $3.3 trillion by 2025.

However, before they invest in smart solutions, Daboussi advises city leaders to establish both a business case and a business outcome, for their plans to be most effective.

“Let us assume your peer cities are growing their GDPs at four or five per cent, you need to bring sustainable growth if you deploy a smart city solution of maybe two or three per cent higher and you need to continue to drive that growth,” he argues.


Ever looking to position his emirate as a regional leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has approved plans to make Dubai the smartest city in the world in the next three years.

“Our ambition is for this project to touch every individual in our country– every mother in her home, every employee at his work or investor in his project or child in his school or doctor in his clinic. Our goal is a happier life for all and we ask God to help us achieve this,” he declared in March.

A committee led by Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is overseeing the project, which aims to make government services, accessible, quick and efficient through the use of hi-tech smart devices.

Overall, the applications of such a scheme are far reaching. As well as making 1,000 government services more accessible, or smart, in the next three years, 100 initiatives are planned across six focus areas: smart life, smart transportation, smart society, smart economy, smart governance and smart environment.

These include easy access to information and services from government departments, a Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA)-led smart electrical grid to encourage the use of solar energy along with smart metres to rationalise water and energy consumption, as well as Dubai Municipality’s smart parks and beaches, providing information on weather and sea conditions.

Dubai’s Road Transport Authority (RTA) is also spearheading a smart transportation system, using traffic controls and a unified control centre.

But the emirate is far from the first to the table with its smart initiative, with countless others already taking root across the world. In the French city of Nice, for example, a Smart Boulevard is claimed to have reduced congestion by 30 per cent, parking revenue by 35 per cent and lowered air pollution by 25 per cent.

The Songdo International Business District, a purpose-built Smart City near the South Korean capital Seoul, boasts of sensors monitoring temperature, energy use and traffic flow, a water recycling system, and a highly advanced underground waste disposal system.

Amid the current influx of activity experts also warn that the race to be the smartest will not be without its hurdles.

“I’m still a little bit concerned by the speed that we’re moving. I don’t think we understand today the level of complexity that we’re going to face as we introduce this interaction between the different departments and as we link the data together,” says Cisco’s Dabboussi.


For smart cities to achieve their true potential, experts believe the integration of multiple initiatives is required, providing a multiplier benefit as a whole. Yet integrating initiatives together, like those being lead by Dubai’s RTA, Municipality and DEWA, could also prove to be the hardest challenge for smart city projects.

“If you think about it from every other aspect, the more you integrate the data together and the more you link them together the more you benefit and I think this is going to be the challenge initially,” says Dabboussi.

Others hurdles are expected to come from building a consensus and rationalising efforts, according to IDC.

“Our research indicates that the top challenges include building a case to justify investment in projects, finding the right long-term project partners, and developing innovative solutions to long- standing problems,” says IDC’s Clarke.

Schneider Electric is no stranger to the challenges of involving the right partners in smart city projects, having encountered complications in a smart energy project for Abu Dhabi Municipality.

After auditing 70 high-rise buildings in collaboration with the municipality and state energy firm Masdar, Schneider agreed to implement an energy efficiency solution that would connect all the buildings together, collect data and guarantee an energy saving of 26 per cent.

However, this then led to considerations as to who should pay for the project when it would be the citizens enjoying reduced energy bills and the utility provider that would have lower CAPEX and OPEX requirements as a result.

“Here, we found that the main challenge was we started with only the municipality and we didn’t involve all the parties from the beginning. This was a huge difficulty for us to overcome and we are still struggling to overcome it to go and implement it,” says Zein.

Another spectre lurking with the establishment of so many connected sensors and systems through smart solutions is that of cyber attacks.

Researchers at US security consultancy IOActive have already shown that road sensors relaying information to traffic lights can be exploited to turn them from red to green, or keep them a certain colour, with the potential to cause traffic chaos.

In light of such threats, smart city players are scrambling for security solutions, with Cisco’s involving a holistic approach, securing smart city data, physical nodes, sensors and mobile devices with policy based security, according to Dabboussi.

“We’re currently communicating that to all the stakeholders within Dubai and the UAE and we’re working very closely with them to make sure that they have the right strategy around cyber security,” says Dabboussi.

“I agree that there is going to be a big dependency on how introducing technology into every aspect of life in Dubai is going to be looked at.”


If Dubai can overcome these challenges, experts believe its plans will be in good stead, particularly with a centralised government body and emphasis on public-private partnerships in place.

The emirate already has some “interesting pieces of the puzzle upon which to build its smart city initiative,” notes IDC’s Clarke, including investment in biometrics solutions for secure and efficient border clearance, centralised government payments, and a base technology platform for its departments to utilise shared solutions.

“Its cross-border electronic data interchange system is among the best in the world. And it has recently made a strong push to enhancing mobility by rolling out key services through the channel,” she adds.

Others argue that Dubai’s relatively recent emergence could prove advantageous in introducing smart city solutions.

“This is the advantage of Dubai. There is a huge surface area plus a new infrastructure in place, not an ageing one like the big European metropolises,” says Zein, suggesting other cities in the region, including its neighbour Abu Dhabi may wish to learn from Dubai’s implementation.

“Dubai now, to a certain extent, will be the smart city lab. Going together and going in parallel can make sense, but at the same time, it would be sensible if they wait and see what happens in Dubai and learn from what was done,” he says.

And with the right integration in the future, smart cities could also be good news for local businesses.

Through the combination of smart data from the RTA, national airlines and other bodies, Dabboussi sees the potential to guide tourists and customers of a specific demographic to restaurants or businesses that would appeal to them.

“Ultimately, instead of your business growing at 30 per cent, if you link all that value together it could be growing at 130 per cent because you will be actually able to attract more customers to your restaurant and spend money with you,” he explains.


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