The road to a smarter city
While smart city initiatives in the Middle East have largely been driven by government organisations, it is becoming clear that private enterprises have a large role to play in the development of smarter cities
The concept of a smart city is not a new one — governments around the world have for years been seeking to use ubiquitous connectivity, cheap sensors and next-gen IT platforms to improve municipal operations. However, the Middle East seems to have taken the biggest shining to the concept, with Dubai leading the charge to become one of the smartest cities in the world. But what actually constitutes a ‘smart city’, and what are the barriers to becoming one in the Middle East?
According to Gartner, a smart city is an urbanised area where multiple sectors cooperate to achieve sustainable outcomes through analysis of contextual real-time information shared among sector-specific information and operational technology systems.
“The smart city operating governance framework includes smart city sectors, such as buildings, utilities, transportation, public services, education and healthcare, as well as security, economic development and tourism,” explains Biswajeet Mahapatra, research director at Gartner.
“Gartner has a complete ‘hype cycle’, which talks about all the technologies which are required for smart cities. Apart from technologies, it is the government vision, support, availability of resources, vendors, telcos and systems integrator support that are very important. Key components, at a very high level, include the internet of things, renewable energy, digital infrastructure, efficient waste and water management systems, green technology, including green cooling, smart transportation, and smart governance.”
While many of these strategies are being pursued, there is still an understanding from the IT world that technology will play a large role in building these key components. Each piece of the puzzle warrants its own in-depth article, though, from a high level, there are key areas that IT leaders in the Middle East are looking at in order to enable smarter cities. According to Mickael Ghossein, senior vice president for the MENA and Turkey region at Orange Business Services, it all starts with the network infrastructure.
“Telecommunications networks are one of the building blocks for the development of smart digital services. The ecosystem of cities and communities involves network components, data collection, the cloud, user interfaces and relations with residents, as well as city departments,” he says.
“To create a ‘smart city’, several technology building blocks are required, ranging from near-field communications (NFC) through to machine-to-machine (M2M), Wi-Fi and IT integration, as well as supporting telecom services such as 2G and 3G connectivity — for M2M data connections, for example.”
Taj ElKhayat, regional vice president at Riverbed Technology, agrees that the infrastructure needs to be tackled first. He says that there are four key elements that aspiring smart cities need to look at — support from the government, infrastructure, the mindset of citizens, and a well-thought-out, all-encompassing security strategy.
“The first barrier is infrastructure, by which I mean the right connectivity, underground infrastructure, transport, cabling, buildings, and regulations. A city’s transformation into a smart city cannot simply be overnight. So unless infrastructure is holistically prepared right now with this in mind, I don’t believe there is scope for long-term success,” he says.
Cisco’s Rabih Dabboussi, general manager for the UAE, largely agrees that infrastructure is a key concern, though he also says that organisations are eyeing areas further up the stack. He believes that, before long, we will begin seeing interesting applications for smart city-enabling technologies.
“Smart cities are being fuelled by the Internet of Everything (IoE), where technology enables governments to help lower costs, improve productivity, increase revenue, and improve citizen benefits for the public and private sectors through initiatives such as smart buildings, smart gas and water monitoring, smart parking, and smart waste management,” he explains.
“Today, and in the future, smart cities will provide Wi-Fi and fibre-optic networks that will fuel millions of sensors embedded in virtually everything. Open-architecture apps and technology solutions — such as mobility, security, cloud computing, virtualisation, collaboration, and video interaction with the urban landscape — will become mainstream and everyday phenomena.”
Identifying the building blocks of a smart city is one thing, however it is quite another to actually put them to use, and ensure that they all work together. According to Muetassem Raslan, regional sales manager at Ruckus Wireless, planning is the key thing here.
“The Middle East is ready to adopt the concept of smart city, and parts of the Middle East have already started taking measures to accomplish this transition. What remains is mass deployment — in order for that to occur, further planning, project prioritisation and the allocation of valuable resources are critical,” he says.
This is certainly being seen in Dubai, and in other key cities around the world, such as Barcelona. However, while there is plenty of wide-eyed optimism about what can be achieved when cities run smarter, security is becoming a big concern in the development of smart cities. The IT world is all-too-aware of the threats that cyber-criminals pose to their systems. And if city-wide infrastructures are digitised, with smart traffic systems or desalination plants, there is scope for cyber-criminals to wreak major havoc on citizens’ lives.
And the problem isn’t helped by the fact that leading security firms have lambasted some IoT device makers for not making their products secure enough.