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Gulf Cooperation Council smart city initiatives garner momentum

The Middle East is a hotbed for smart city developments, with activities in the region maturing and adapting to what citizens want

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Middle East: CW Middle East: Can Saudi Arabia build the Silicon Valley of the Middle East?

The Middle East is pouring investment into smart cities to enhance government efficiency and citizen services in conjunction with digital transformation initiatives such as Dubai Smart City and UAE Vision 2021, Saudi Vision 2030, Oman Vision 2020 and New Kuwait Vision 2035.

Analyst Gartner said citizen engagement has become critical to the success of smart cities because city-wide initiatives are no longer just about optimised traffic patterns, parking management, efficient lighting and improvements to public works.

“The way forward today is a community-driven, bottom-up approach where citizens are an integral part of designing and developing smart cities, and not a top-down policy with city leaders focusing on technology platforms alone,” said Bettina Tratz-Ryan, research vice-president at Gartner.

To keep pace with the changing needs of citizens and the development of new business, cities are now striving to become not just smart, but also innovative in enhancing human experiences.

Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said there is an increasing drive by businesses and the general public in the Gulf to design more human cities, with less interest in achieving technological prowess for the sake of them.

Ratti said that is the reason the MIT piloted the cloud cast concept in 2017 in Europe, Middle East and Asia.

He added that at the architectural scale through the renovation of the headquarters of the Agnelli Foundation in Turin, Italy, the MIT pioneered a new technology for personalised heating and cooling – a kind of “thermal bubble” that follows individuals inside the building and allows for better comfort and a reduction of energy waste.

“We have sampled not only in Cambridge, Massachusettsm but also in Kuwait City and in South Korea,” he said. “In early September 2018, we will show the result of our research at the architecture biennale in Seoul.”

Ratti said with the interest shown around smart city initiatives across the Middle East and in particular the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in the future, the region will initiate a robust platform to not only monitor changes in collective health, but to understand which chemicals are being released into the water by industries, to monitor security threats.

“In short, we could say we will see more ‘sensible’ cities and less smart or [those with] technology prowess,” he said.

GCC looks towards future

Hasan Zuberi, smart cities consultant Dubai-based Key Options, said Gulf states comprising countries (Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) that are part of the GCC are home to some key smart city projects.

Zuberi said GCC countries are now working smart city initiatives and several governments have relaunched programmes to give a new boost to progress and ensure that the region’s cities can match and even exceed other global cities in the adoption of smart city systems.

Tom Pegrume, vice-president, emerging markets in Europe, Middle East and Africa at Hitachi Data Systems, said the Middle East saw an initial rush of excitement five years ago about smart city initiatives and is now shifting from installing the technology infrastructure to an era of big data analytics, gaining new insights that can enhance operational efficiencies and quality of life across transport, healthcare and energy.

Central to smart city success is for GCC governments to adopt an open data platform, which shares citywide data on a single platform. Governments worldwide, led by Copenhagen in Denmark, have in turn monetised such a platform, with a “City Data Exchange” that charges for organisations and developers to access and use the data.

“The biggest challenge facing Middle East smart city leaders is breaking down barriers to share data between the public, private and academic sectors,” said Pegrume.

“Smart city leaders also need to upskill staff to become data scientists and app developers to analyse city data to drive social innovation and new digital revenue streams.”

Rasheed Al Omari, business solutions strategist, Middle East and North Africa, at VMware, agreed with Pegrume on sharing data and said the first critical step towards shaping a smart city involves the creation of a reliable shared-services platform that aligns all of a city’s services.

“Acting as a foundation, it will connect all of a city’s smart technologies – from electricity grids through to water meters and all other utilities,” he said.

Read more about Middle East smart cities

For example, said Al Omari, VMware AirWatch already works closely with Tel Aviv Municipality in Israel to provide its traffic wardens with an AirWatch-managed Samsung Note 5, essentially providing them with a digital workspace that allows them to work from any location.

“They can use the devices for ticketing by logging tickets and filling reports that include pictures, time and GPS stamps of the parking contraventions, all while on the go,” he said.

“Other cities including the likes of Doha and Kuwait City are also pushing smart city development, with the latter already using technology to improve sustainability, citizen wellbeing and economic development.”

In Saudi Arabia, Orange Business Services is working on a number of major smart city projects. These include the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD), being built by the Al Ra’idah Investment company, which is the largest of four smart cities in Saudi Arabia being built with a collective investment of more than $70bn.

In addition, Orange Business Services recently signed a smart city consulting agreement with Jeddah Economic Company to design ICT infrastructure and smart services for the master developer building Jeddah Tower, which will be 1km tall when complete.

“The implementation of the smart city components is considered as an essential step for delivering an environmentally friendly self-sustainable project. The construction of the infrastructure is going according to the set timeframe along with the supply of utilities,” said Mounib Hammoud, CEO of Jeddah Economic City.

Potential of smart cities

Tarig M Enaya, Saudi Telecom Company’s senior vice-president of enterprise, said there is “huge potential” in the realm of smart cities.

“But expectations for what can be achieved with smart cities have not been structured correctly,” he added. “There is huge potential, but how we address that potential is key to the success of smart cities and the whole realm of the internet of things [IoT] and, more importantly, its transformative impact on our economy and society.” 

A key measure of success for smart cities and IoT will be in whether the customer sees the “real value” of such interconnectivity, said Enaya.

As an example, he pointed to an area in Saudi Arabia’s south which suffers from frequent rainfall. There, he said, sensors – which are connected to a sophisticated environmental analytics system – help predict the risk of floods and give local residents vital time to prepare. “That saves lives. That is value that smart cities bring,” he added.

Bulent Unsal, head of Telco – Middle East and North Africa, at SAP, said the Middle East is at the global forefront of smart cities innovation, with telecoms transformation enabling autonomous vehicles that can transform government, transport and logistics sectors.

“SAP is driving some of the Middle East’s smart cities and smart future of connected vehicles, IoT, cloud and telecommunications through innovative digital marketplaces and partnerships,” said Unsal.

In Oman, Schneider Electric recently partnered with Knowledge Oasis Muscat to launch a showcase smart city innovations that could enable residents and businesses to save time and money on their utilities.

According to Schneider Electric, the initiative is in support of the Oman Vision 2020 nationwide transformation agenda aimed at enabling smart utilities across the Gulf state.

“As Oman’s population and business sector grows, the government needs to ensure safe, reliable, efficient and smart utilities,” said Nasser Al Malki, acting director general, Knowledge Oasis Muscat.

“In partnership with Schneider Electric, we are digitally transforming with IoT solutions that can predict and meet energy demand, and enable people to monitor and optimise their utilities usage in real time.”

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