Living in a digital world
Orange’s Wael Youssef and Booz Allen Hamilton’s Danny Karam discuss the intricacies of smart cities
While some may envision a smart city as being a technological utopia run on never before seen cutting-edge tech, the true definition differs ever so slightly. Integrating multiple forms of information and communication technologies (ICT), a smart city is defined as an urban development that leverages digital technology to better manage its various assets. This can encompass everything from transportation to academic centres, government information systems, healthcare, utilities, waste management and law enforcement.
Leveraging ICT trends such as Big Data and IoT, the smart city concept also focuses on enhancing community services, as well as discovering novel ways of engaging citizens with technology. Ultimately, the goal is to enable a better quality of life.
Operating within this realm in the Middle East is global telecom operator and digital services company, Orange Business Services. Specialised in digital systems integration, the company maintains a workforce of over 2,000 people in the region, and has been connected with a number of high-profile projects, which includes the ICT infrastructure design of Saudi Arabia’s Financial District.
“Orange combines the strength of an operator and the expertise of a specialised digital services company to ensure the successful design, development, implementation and operation of Smart Cities,” comments Wael Youssef, managing consultant, digital strategy and technology advisor, MENA & Turkey, Orange Business Services.
“In the Middle East region we deliver major smart city contracts for government and private bodies and we are already working on some of the most high profile smart projects in development today – including those in Saudi Arabia.”
In terms of its capabilities within the realm of smart technologies, Orange has an extensive portfolio. On the one hand, the company offers advanced ICT tools, such as fiber and 4G, as well as Wi-Fi, in places where it serves as a telecom provider. Additionally, it also delivers services for data centres, Big Data and cloud, citizen app development, city infrastructure management, energy monitoring, public safety, and digital signage, to name a few.
Commenting on the challenges of smart city development in the region, Youssef shares that one of the key issues lies with shared vision. While it varies from country to country, the importance of having a common goal and roadmap, allows initiatives to be prioritised and executed in a timely fashion.
The managing consultant also emphasised the importance of not breaking, “the government vision into silos, which can led to overlapping, uncoordinated and co-directing of projects.”
Another key challenge lies with financing. Smart cities projects often come with a hefty price tag, unfamiliar risks and business models that are not always easy to comprehend. Coupled with a lack of evidence of successful case studies and it becomes a tricky affair to attract the right investors. There is also the issue of time.
“The time frame for smart city projects raises questions for many stakeholders. There’s also a high expectation for cities that smart projects should be able to demonstrate immediate cost savings in the short term,” explains Youssef.
“But the solutions are often still in development and have only been piloted at a small scale, so evidence of the achievement of efficiencies and cost savings are likely to take time,” he adds.
Also facing a similar set of challenges is strategy and technology consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, a reputed name in the MENA market. As one of the oldest consulting companies in the world, the firm provides management and technology consulting and engineering services to both public and private sector clients.
“The biggest challenge in smart cities is that you’re effectively catering to a certain segment of the population, which is highly connected, and there is another segment that is yet to be connected, which is not fully leveraging the full benefits of what a smart city can provide,” explains Danny Karam, vice-president with Booz Allen Hamilton.
While certainly not an issue that is particular to the Middle East alone, there is a need for government to bridge that digital divide, particularly with the blue collar workforce. Despite this divide however, the VP is quick to point out that while governments should incentivise digitisation of the population, to a certain extent, the people are motivated to develop themselves.
“People get excited about getting new technologies, becoming connected and acquiring faster internet connections. This is appearing even with the lowest income segments of the population,” adds Karam.
Working closely with federal and local governments, as well as technology and telecom service providers, Booz Allen Hamilton maintains an extensive MENA operation that covers six countries.
Overseeing the full-value chain on projects related to smart city development, the consultancy’s expertise covers everything from initial concept design, to prototyping of services, as well as devising the partnership strategy. The latter includes identifying the right partners to work with for implementation.
Compared to other smart city developments across the globe, the vice president explains that certain places like Dubai have really focused in creating a clear roadmap to follow.
“In terms of governance, decision making and vision, drive, funding, including the private sector — we are much better, because we are driving this full force. We are thinking about it in the right way, putting the citizen first,” explains Karam.
Additionally, when compared to the success stories of cities like Barcelona and London, the Middle East has focused chiefly developing its smart services. This differs from other markets that begun their smart city development working solely on small neighbourhoods.
Commenting on the road ahead, Karam shares that while progress has been great in Dubai, the concept smart city has not been embraced in same way by other countries in the region. Despite the benefits in creating employment opportunities, diversifying the economy, and reducing the carbon footprint, the Middle East’s private sector remains reluctant to committ.
“Smart cities require a lot of commitment and funding and participation from the private sector, and today in this day and age, these don’t seem to be any privatisation of building smart cities in the region, as there are for other agenda,” he concludes.