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Dubai smart city will be the talk of GITEX

Global experts in urban planning and smart technology will discuss the important role Dubai will play in supporting the development of smart cities in the Middle East

As global government and technology experts converge on Dubai for GITEX Technology Week 2016, the city has emerged as one of the few in the Middle East to offer smart city benchmarks.

Smart cities use technology to analyse data sent from sensors over Wi-Fi networks to enhance people’s daily lives and governance. Prominent use cases include solving challenges such as traffic congestion and utilities distribution, and launching mobile government services.

As the world urbanises, the impact of the internet of things (IoT) on smart cities could reach $1.6tn by 2025, including $800bn in transportation and $700bn in healthcare, according to a recent report by research firm the McKinsey Global Institute.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the City of Palo Alto, California, a key speaker at GITEX, said governments and industry first needed to agree on what actually makes a city smart.

He said Dubai’s efforts to develop global benchmarks would help innovators, from Silicon Valley to Dubai to Bangalore, to measure how they are improving people’s lives.

Carlo Ratti, director at the MIT Senseable City Lab, Massachusetts, another key speaker at GITEX, said: “I would like to put forward the necessity of a change of paradigm in how we treat and discuss the smart city.”

Ratti said smart cities had become the buzzword for urban planning in recent years. In fact, the term smart cities had been overused and sometimes abused in recent years, he said. “That is why I prefer to use the term ‘senseable city’ instead – because it puts the human side, instead of the technology side, at the centre.”

Focused on people

The common denominator of all the projects the MIT Senseable City Lab had done was being focused on people, rather than technology, said Ratti. “The fact that our cities are becoming ‘senseable’ is simply the manifestation of a broad technological trend – the internet is entering the spaces we live in, and is becoming the internet of things, impacting our ways to understand, design and, ultimately, live in cities,” he added.

Reichental agreed, pointing out that it was a mistake to think of a smart city as a project. This made it appear like there was one set of objectives and once they had been met, then all was finished, he said. “In my view, the work we do to make our cities better places to live, work, and play in is never done,” he added.

“Therefore, a smart city is never finished. It keeps evolving. The needs of a city like Palo Alto today will be different from its needs 30 years from now. Right now, we are focused on a framework for all our different smart city work. The work we are doing includes moving to renewable energy across the entire city.”

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Reichental said in 2013, the City of Palo Alto was named the number one digital city for its size by the US Center for Digital Government. “Based on our success, we have evolved this vision to focus on using technology more broadly to efficiently serve the constituents of Palo Alto,” he said.

At GITEX 2016, Reichental plans to describe how Palo Alto achieved this success. “I also want to share what didn’t go so well and what we have learned,” he said.

Reichental will use GITEX 2016 to network with others, especially in Dubai, who are driving their smart city strategies and connect with suppliers and innovators who are thinking differently about the future of urban environments.

Since it was relaunched in 2014, Smart Dubai Government has completed the first phase of the city’s transformation and demonstrated its value to the Dubai government. A report published in June 2016 revealed that the department had saved AED4.3bn ($1.1bn) during its 13-year lifetime.

MIT’s Ratti added: “I end up visiting Dubai several times a year and, by now, I know the UAE quite well. I think it is interesting to see how the city has been changing so rapidly, not only from an architectural point of view, where advances are evident, but also from a social and technological point of view.”

Bottom-up dynamic

Ratti said he was an advocate of a bottom-up dynamic, both in city planning and in the implementation of smart cities strategies. “I think governments should encourage primarily citizens to take action,” he said. “If we can develop the right platforms, people can be the ones to transform cities. That isn’t to say governments should take a completely hands-off approach to urban development, though.”

He reiterated that government had an important part to play in supporting academic research and promoting applications in fields that might be less appealing to private capital investors, such as municipal waste or water services.

“The public sector can also play its part by promoting the use of open technology platforms and standards in such projects, which would speed up adoption in cities worldwide,” said Ratti. “But, most importantly, governments should use their funds to develop a bottom-up, innovative ecosystem geared toward smart cities.

“Similar to the system growing under US policymakers, governments, especially in the Middle East, must go beyond supporting traditional incubators by producing and nurturing the regulatory frameworks that allow technology innovation to thrive across the region.”

Energy wasted

Ratti said a huge amount of energy was wasted on heating or cooling empty offices, homes and partially occupied buildings. “So we thought about how to address this asymmetry by synchronising human presence with climate control,” he said. “This is the idea behind our climate mitigation projects, such as CloudCast.

“We have been working to transform these concepts into reality for the renovation of the Agnelli Foundation’s headquarters in Torino. I will be sharing details of some of these projects during the GITEX conference sessions.”

Ratti said the MIT Senseable City Lab had developed a personalised heating, cooling and lighting system that synchronised with the the presence of users. “We equipped a refurbished century-old building with internet of things sensors that monitor different sets of data, including occupancy levels, temperature, carbon dioxide concentration and the status of meeting rooms,” he said.

Responds dynamically

Based on this information, the building management system responds dynamically, adjusting lighting, heating, air-conditioning and room booking in real time. 

Ratti said there was no reason why emerging regions should not become world leaders in developing smart cities. He said something very interesting was developing in the emerging world, where the absence of pre-existing technologies often caused a “leapfrogging” effect.

“Take cellphones,” he said. “When they started, they were the exclusive preserve of the Western upper classes. Fast forward a couple of decades and they have become tremendously widespread across the world, in particular on the African continent, where countries without an existing telecommunications infrastructure are leapfrogging into the future.

“Different parts of Africa are now leading the way in many applications, from mobile banking to the empowerment of farmers with real-time crop information.”

Carlo Ratti and Jonathan Reichental will deliver keynote addresses at the GITEX 2016 conference on 17 and 18 October, respectively.

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