The Gulf is, to some extent, playing catch-up with the rest of the world when it comes to introducing smart technology, and using Internet-driven devices and knowhow to create cleaner, smarter, more efficient environments.
Wael Abdel Samad, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai, said this is an advantage.
“Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Riyadh are all in a transitional phase when it comes to incorporating smart technologies within their frameworks,” Samad told Arab News.
“They haven’t achieved what Copenhagen, Barcelona or Seoul have achieved. But they’re in the process of getting there.
“The cities in the Gulf are fairly new so in a way easier to introduce technologies and it’s easier to retrofit some of the existing technologies as opposed to introducing a whole new transportation system in a city like London.
“The GCC has that advantage.”
But while regional capitals have a simpler task in introducing smart technologies, they have been warned that only by understanding the security implications of that now can they avoid problems later.
Vince Warrington has advised governments and large multinationals about cyber security and says that while a future of self-driving cars and a reduced carbon footprint is something to get excited about, one with power failures and leaked data is not.
“Governments need to be aware of the dangers at the start of implementing smart technology — sometimes security comes as an afterthought,” said Warrington, the director of cyber security consultancy Protective Intelligence.
“Security is seen as boring and not adding … value. But everyone needs to be more aware of the cyber threat and governments need to introduce regulation.”
Security failures in smart cities could range from data leaks, such as the one that affected Britain’s National Health Service earlier this year, to self-driving cars crashing in the event of their operating systems being hacked.
For Warrington, the problem is one of letting technology run ahead of both policy and practicality.
“In the aviation industry, there used to be what was known as the tombstone principle, where the industry would only think about how to make flying safer once there had been a crash. Now they are obviously far more proactive, and anticipate everything that could go wrong before it does.
“In smart cities, I think there is still that tombstone mindset. Policymakers need to be sensible and right at the start think about potential threats not after they occur. That is a concern.”
That view is echoed by Samad, who this summer directed a workshop on the future of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) smart cities at Cambridge University.
“When it comes to technology you have to take a risk and at some point implement it,” he said.
“Technology is ahead of policy. For example, the technology is out there. When it comes to autonomous cars Tesla has already done it. But do cities have proper transportation policies and laws in that regard? The answer is no.
“That is always going to be the case. Technology will present something and then policies will have to catch up and government will have to catch up too.”
Samad also warned governments to take stock and decide what they want to get out of smart technology.
“Every city is different. For example, Dubai has its own roadmap to arrive at what their version of a smart city is, which is different to Riyadh. Cities are different and have their own targets,” Samad said.