Dubai is a smart city that connects with people

By March 21, 2019News

A truly smart city is one that lets its citizens come up with a definition of ‘smart’. It is thus, more like a home than a laboratory to its residents. With two thirds of the world’s population expected to be living in cities by 2050, it is time we started taking a more serious look at sustainable living before we run out of space. This is where smart cities come in.

Until a decade ago, the word conjured up images of a dystopian futuristic society where tall sky-high buildings and flying modes of transportation spoke more about the widening gulf of social classes and inequality and less about sustainable spatial living. In reality, quite the opposite is true. Smart cities improve the living standards of its citizens through the use of technology. They have the effect of bridging the digital divide, allowing enterprises to flourish and thrive. In fact, if done right, smart cities do the exact opposite of what was once perceived; they promote inclusion and collaboration between citizens leading to sustainable transformation and collective growth.

In the era of Big Data, knowledge is power. The more information available to the relevant agencies, the better they will be able to analyse changing patterns and trends in real time. This would lead to faster response times and lesser lags and lowering of costs eventually. Through open data, governments can cut costs and increase civic engagement. Through open sharing of data that is easily absorbed and used, governments can increase citizen participation, leading to more innovation by businesses and startups.

Any smart city relies on three essential layers (foundations) upon which its whole façade needs to be raised. The first layer is technology. There needs to be enough users of smartphones to enable a high-speed connection of sensors through which data can flow. After obtaining this raw, unstructured data, there should be a second layer of the right type of applications to translate it into actionable and implementable insights and alerts. The third and final layer relies on the usage of technology by the companies and the public. The success of any application depends on a critical mass of users adopting it and as a result, changing their behaviour. For example, they should encourage people to switch from private to public transport, to reduce water and energy usage. According to estimates, the cities that have successfully adopted smart-mobility applications will be able to reduce commute times by 15 to 20 per cent by 2025.

The success or failure of any smart city initiative depends on whether it is adopted by its dwellers. The essence of a smart city is that it is controlled and run by the public with the government supporting and providing an enabling environment. Dubai has been one of the frontrunners in the sphere of smart city planning. Currently it is ranked at number 40 in the list of most accessible and sustainable smart cities. With more than 93 per cent of UAE’s population living in cities and with Dubai representing one third of the country’s total population, there is much room for improvement. As Dubai grows to accommodate the city’s population increase which is expected to double by 2027, innovative techniques will have to play a huge role.

With the Smart Dubai 2021 roadmap in place, the city is already well on its way towards ushering in a new chapter of transformation using intelligent, personalised and responsive systems. The government has picked the theme of sustainability to guide its long-term vision of being prepared for the future and meeting the needs of the coming generations.

Amongst the green technology initiatives by the government is a plan to move 25 per cent of the city’s transportation into autonomous mode. This driverless transportation is expected to save hundreds of millions of hours spent commuting on an annual basis. Besides helping reduce carbon emissions and lowering transportation costs, these initiatives reflect Dubai’s commitments towards becoming a smart, sustainable and model green economy.

However, there is always room for improvement. Learning from the examples and experiences of other global cities can help Dubai avoid the pitfalls and obstacles that might come in the way. Some concepts to keep in mind for a smart and sustainable city are:

Structure and future proofing: Think of a tall building as a stacked community. There should be room in the infrastructure and design for future configurations and additions.

Multiple ground levels: The ground plan is an essential layer of the city that needs to be replicated at higher floors. In order to restrict horizontal urban sprawl and reduce carbon footprint, multiple ground levels can be replicated in a single building. With parks, streets and other civic functions in the sky, there would be less people on the road, thereby reducing the carbon footprint and the density.

Tropical/perforated city: In order to bring fresh air and nature into densely packed spaces without using mechanical systems, tall buildings can have perforated open spaces in sustainable and imaginative ways.

Natural daylight: The increase in high-rises must not come at the cost of blocking daylight. There should be no dark spots in the city. Light wells/scopes can be strategically placed at vulnerable spots to bring natural daylight into central areas.

Greenery: Noise, glare, dust and heat can be reduced through the extensive use of green living walls which also act as environmental filters. Home owners can also enjoy their own garden plots in the air through this landscaping technique.

Preparing a smart workforce: Any city is as smart as its residents, which is why leading smart cities have recognised the importance of building the capacities of their citizens of all ages with digital skills. Consequently, they have introduced innovative interactive experiences such as hackathons to help communities familiarise themselves with digital tools.

*Blockchain technology: Although still pretty much a new concept, the speed with which blockchain technology is transforming the whole global digital economy is unprecedented. This is a new way that Dubai can look in to integrate block-chain technology in the city services that can boost security and service transparency.

The use of blockchain can vastly improve transactional processes and can be used in self-executing contracts or smart contracts. The technology would speed up the process, remove extraneous steps, protect against fraud and reduce costs. It has proven its effectiveness to be used in a wide array of processes such as billing and transactions processing, handling facilities management, or facilitating smart grid energy sharing.

*Two-way communication channels: At the heart of a smart city is an effective communication channel between the government and the residents of the city. The stronger and responsive these channels are, the better. This concept is also in line with the Dubai Happiness Agenda which is part of the Smart Dubai 2021 strategy.

There is a need to build urban systems for infrastructure, roads, parks and commercial centres. Governments need to consider functionality, liveability and sustainability along with beauty. A smart city must be easy for residents to use and enjoy the facilities.  A strong central infrastructure that is capable of ensuring high level of logistical coherence is a need of the hour for a smart city.

 Habiba Al Mar’ashi, President & CEO, Arabia CSR Network