City services enabled widescale smart transformation

NXN creates smart services to support government entities and municipalities as they join drive for digital city transformation

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City services enabled widescale smart transformation Atallah: City transformation requires all government entities to develop smart operations. (ITP Images)
By  Mark Sutton Published  April 27, 2017

Smart city projects can deliver billion dollar savings and double-digit cuts in expenditure, according to research carried out by smart city consultant and service provider NXN. A typical city in the GCC can save over one billion dollars from properly executed smart city projects, said Ghazi Atallah, CEO of NXN, formerly nexGen Group.

“At the central level, we have quantified the benefits of transformation, and we have identified many areas. Taking the city as a whole, depending on city size, we are talking about billions in savings, at least 30-40% savings within the overall ICT spend of the city, when the transformation is done in the right way,” he said.

“On an initiative level, if you look at energy, we are seeing a 20-25% reduction of energy spend — if you look at the energy bill of the whole city, those are some serious figures. The level of efficiency achieved was quite surprising. We expected to have a very efficient environment, but we didn’t expect it to have that level of efficiency.”

The company has rebranded in part as it has expanded its remit to include managed services. NXN recently signed a strategic agreement with telco group Zain to deliver a range of smart services, and more services are being added to the portfolio, in addition to the existing close strategic engagements in Dubai, Riyadh and Kuwait City.

With the NXN smart city platform established in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the company is able to offer a range of smart city and smart district services in related verticals including energy, security, utilities, facilities and city data services. The platform enables NXN to work with customers, whether they are city-wide government or specific departments and authorities, entities such as utilities, or real estate developers, to integrate the relevant infrastructure and assets of the customer with the platform and manage the service on their behalf. By using open standards, the NXN platform can connect to any existing technology the user has already deployed.

“As an organisation we have extended our ability beyond consulting and engineering, to actually delivering smart city services, so we can help cities transform a lot easier,” Atallah said. “We have set up our own platform in the UAE, Saudi Arabic and Kuwait, and the platform has the ability to manage IoT, big data, digital identity security, all the aspects that you need of a central platform that allows you to deliver smart city services. We have done 80% of the work on behalf of our customers by creating this platform.

“We are able to offer that on an OPEX basis, on a monthly or quarterly subscription, and we are able to deliver it in a time-to-market that is much better than a traditional systems integration, CAPEX-based model. That is a big advantage to our customers,” he added.

Across the GCC and wider Middle East, NXN believes there is huge potential for the services-based approach, as more cities set targets for smart projects and digital transformation. The ‘as-a-service’ model is especially useful where government entities and organisations need to raise their own systems maturity to a level to participate with a city-level smart project.

“You can’t have a central capability, that is quite advanced, while the entities and departments themselves are not ready to participate in the transformation of the city,” Atallah explained. “We see the trend of cities or government launching initiatives centrally, but then the entities are following suite and working on their own transformation as well. This is where we can come in with our platform and help them.”

In a typical engagement, NXN will work with a government entity in three of four areas, Atallah said. One is data readiness, where NXN will assist with preparing data, identifying, cataloguing and classifying data sets, as well as managing data governance and meta data. NXN will also work on technology capability, to identify the resources available in house, including skills, and also on business processes and whether there is any need for process change.

In terms of skills for smart cities, it is a new area for both public and private sector, he added, so NXN will work with clients on workshops for skills development on the key areas of data management and data governance, and will also help organisations to identify the skills sets they require, and to put people and teams in place to manage those requirements.

Getting the data layer right is one of the most important parts of the service integration, forming the basis of future deployments. Once the data has been defined and organised properly, a standards-based approach means that APIs will ensure that new applications and functionality can be rolled out easily.

With standards and protocols in smart city solutions such as IoT still emerging, the flexibility of data-layer integration is important, Atallah said: “We focus our integration capability on the data layer, and that makes it extremely easy in future to be able to add on more services. We don’t worry too much about connectivity standards or whatever IoT standards are available.”

Another vital area where NXN places a lot of focus is cybersecurity. NXN typically will have in-depth discussions with customers, looking at their information architecture, and ensuring strong security across all layers of the platform, he added.

Flexibility and open standards mean that organisations today can start their smart city initiatives, and be confident that they can add into city-wide or country level transformation projects in future, Atallah noted, although there is a need for strong centralised co-ordination and drive to lead city-wide initiatives in future. Government entities are developing these programs and identifying the requirements for governing bodies and personnel, and appointing people to roles such as city data officer or city transformation officer.

The early adopters in smart city in the region will soon be joined by more cities as digital transformation takes off, Atallah said, and the opportunity is cascading from regional to smaller cities and to municipal authorities and government departments alike.

“This digital transformation is just starting now, driven by lighthouse examples like Dubai and Riyadh. I would say every city in the next twelve to eighteen months will have plans coming up for transformation,” he said. “As soon as you start working on transformation of the city, there is a central government requirement, and then there is also a requirement for every entity, every department, every ministry to transform itself as well. The opportunity to work with the cities is as big as the number of entities and departments that each city has.”

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