Days of future past

Over the past decade, property developers in the Middle East have been infatuated with the idea of building smart cities. Imthishan Giado investigates the current obstacles to progress in this market.

Tags: Al Futtaim TechnologiesCisco Systems IncorporatedInfrastructureUnited Arab Emirates
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Days of future past In the Middle East, we’re fortunate with the lack of legacy infrastructure, says Salem.
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  July 7, 2010 Network Middle East Logo

Over the past decade, property developers in the Middle East have been infatuated with the idea of building smart cities. Imthishan Giado investigates the current obstacles to progress in this market.

There’s an old trope from the world of science fiction, which states very simply: life imitates art.

In the 1960s for example, writers dreamed of all manner of inventions that seemed extraordinarily farfetched at the time, such as easy video chatting, or computers controlled by voice. Even the very notion of a PC – a device that could receive, store and process information that was smaller than your average living room seemed unlikely.

Scientists found inspiration in these tales of wonder and quickly set to work to build working equivalents. There’s one place, however, where science fiction and science fact is still yet to find an agreeable meeting ground and that’s the idea of the smart city. Again, films like Minority Report have created the idea of a futuristic place dotted with vast swathes of elegant spires that reach for the heavens, where technology is unobtrusive but effectively frees up citizens to be both more productive and recreational. Essentially, it’s a place without boundaries.

And that’s the metaphor which most marketing brochures used to describe the concept when it was introduced to the Middle East. The smart city world is also closely-linked to real estate and as any resident of this region will be aware, that’s a topic that was enormously popular for most of this decade. Saudi Arabia in particular bought heavily into this movement, with the former creating vast cities in the desert devoted to education and R&D. Not to be left behind, the UAE announced it too was creating a city – the Masdar project outside Abu Dhabi which aims to create the region’s first sustainable, zero-carbon development.

Where does technology come into this vision? Quite simply, it’s the glue that holds the bricks and mortar together, from the design and master planning stage to final completion, when the cities are electronically managed for maximum efficiency of both energy and inhabitants. Networking hardware vendor Cisco has been heavily associated with the smart city, particularly in Saudi Arabia where it’s won millions of dollars in contracts to help create these ambitious new projects.

Amr Salem, director, emerging markets for smart and connected communities at the firm explains his vision of what a smart city should be: “A smart city is one where citizens, businesses and government authorities are receiving services beyond the standard triple play services. They’re receiving intelligent services that contribute either to the business processes or the efficiencies or the quality of life. Also in a smart city, the city operator will be running the city at a much lower cost of maintenance and support than a non-smart city.”

When it comes to such a new concept, it’s always good to turn to existing models and see how they can be adopted to the vagaries of this region, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Fortunately, best practice does exist when it comes to building a smart city that makes the best use of connectivity. And it comes from an unlikely source – South Korea. In Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Shah, vice president of technology for infrastructure and services  for the upcoming Madinah Knowledge Economic City, readily admits the debt owed to the Koreans in terms of development.

“It’s best to focus and work with vendors and advisors that have the skills and experience in this emerging area. In terms of smart cities, what we do is look at innovation inside the communities. One of the pioneers globally is really the Koreans. There, they term it as ubiquitous cities – they are international leaders in providing what we in the region call smart city infrastructure. There are some similar places in Europe and China, but predominantly Korea is looked at as a an example of a highly connected environment,” he says.

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