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Smart Cities: The next stage of urbanisation in the UAE

The perception of Smart Cities is changing across the globe, and the Middle East finds itself at the heart of this exciting new dynamic. And while the emergence of such projects will admittedly maintain a steady — rather than explosive — pace (with many being small pilots or proof-of-concepts), 2014 will see more Smart City implementations occurring than in all previous years combined.

A key driver of this activity will come in the form of increased support from international bodies like the World Bank and from central governments in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, the UK, China, and beyond, as well as from increased interest among academic institutions and media outlets.

IDC has identified five crucial focus areas for Smart Cities in the coming year: economic development, sustainability, citizen engagement, ecosystem and partnership development and innovation.

The UAE government will primarily focus on economic development and job creation — but we are now beginning to see a real association between these goals and technological innovation. Deliberations on how to utilise technology to make it easier to live in a city, visit a city, navigate a city, and do business in a city are now central features of discussions between mayors and their advisers across the world.

Smart Cities have their roots in sustainability, and this remains an important driver for such initiatives. Water shortages and climate change mean that energy and water efficiency are pressing issues in the Middle East. And as urban areas contribute to global greenhouse gases, more and more cities are starting to recognise the role they must play in improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. As such, we see sustainability becoming more of a coordinated citywide effort in combination with coherent Smart City strategies.

Citizen engagement is a key theme, and represents the next step in establishing an open and participatory system of government. To this end, Smart Cities are focused on providing greater transparency through the provision of open data and continuous data access, increasing the political clout of citizens by enhancing their ability to use social media and mobile devices at any time and in any place.

Ecosystems and partnerships will see more movement in terms of formalisation and development of networks that enable various partners to work together on Smart City projects. Typically, these are going to include various tech vendors, city departments, colleges and universities, and probably other levels of government beyond the metropolitan level.

The final piece of the jigsaw — innovation — is the fundamental theme that underpins all the others, since Smart Cities inherently seek to solve urban challenges in new ways, by changing business processes, shifting worker and citizen behaviour, and, ultimately, institutionalising the process of innovation.

One of the reasons we are so bullish on this market relates to the announcements and accompanying investments we are seeing in cities around the world, with more and more of them organising initiatives around the Smart City concept. Smart City initiatives have gained momentum in the GCC in recent years, with three countries announcing projects for future Smart Cities: six greenfield economic cities in Saudi Arabia (complemented by efforts to uplift cities such as Mecca toward Smart City status); three projects in Qatar (Lusail’s Smart and Sustainable City, Pearl-Qatar Island, and Energy City Qatar); and two projects in the UAE (Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and Smart City Dubai).

These region-wide Smart City efforts will have a two-pronged focus; first, on raising the standards of existing cities, and second, on greenfield initiatives. Municipalities in the region will start to allocate resources toward the development of Smart City projects that meet the specific needs of their citizens. For example, Dubai is taking a major step toward delivering more green buildings through the Dubai Green Building Code, which is expected to be unveiled soon. This should result in a surge in the use of smart building technologies to reduce carbon footprints.

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has already commenced a five-year project to implement 250,000 smart meters across the emirate. IDC expects the increased focus on these Smart City initiatives to accelerate other Smart City projects across the GCC.

Often, city leaders ask questions such as how their city can become a Smart City and which other cities IDC analysts consider to be ‘Smart’. In response to these questions, IDC Government Insights developed a Smart City Maturity Model that defines the key best practices areas and measures attributes along five stages of maturity to provide a road map for municipalities looking to develop and implement a Smart City strategy.

IDC predicts that in 2014 only 15 per cent of cities in the world are going to be in the second phase of maturity (‘Opportunistic’), and only 5 per cent will be in the third stage (‘Repeatable’). Most cities will be in the first phase (‘Ad Hoc’), which is characterised by business as usual with siloed decision making, unaligned budgets and processes across department, and information and technologies that are not shared or leveraged across the enterprise.

The fourth stage (‘Managed’) requires the implementation of formal systems that enable cities to predict the needs of their residents and businesses and provide preventive services before problems arise. To reach the final ‘Optimized’ stage, meanwhile, entails a long-term transformation process spanning 10—15 years.

Dubai is in a good position to move up the maturity scale given its strong Smart City vision. The city has also recently made a strong push in terms of citizen engagement by providing key services through smartphones and building its partnership ecosystem by working closely with service providers, technology vendors, and ICT leaders.

The columnist is group vice president and regional managing director for the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey at global ICT market intelligence and advisory firm International Data Corporation (IDC).