How GCC’s smart cities will tackle urbanization challenges

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Updated 19 January 2020

How GCC’s smart cities will tackle urbanization challenges

  • Use of data and AI can potentially transform the Arab world’s urban hubs into digitally enabled smart cities
  • Urban connectivity offers numerous benefits, including detailed mapping of behavior, geography and feelings of citizens

ABU DHABI: Use of data and artificial intelligence (AI) will be crucial in the transformation of the Arab world’s major urban hubs into digitally enabled smart cities.

This was the consensus of experts who spoke at the Smart Cities Forum of the World Future Energy Summit, one of the highlights of this year’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week on Jan. 11-18.

Technologically advanced cities are investing in digital tech to help the environment, enhance mobility and improve municipal services. Among the innovations expected to enable the transition are 5G wireless networks and autonomous vehicles.

The Smart Cities Forum addressed the opportunities offered by the fusion of the physical, biological and digital worlds that futurists have termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The 4IR has ushered in an era of disruptive developments that will have socio-economic consequences for the entire world. Unlike during past industrial revolutions, many believe the Arab world cannot afford to be left behind this time around.

The growth of urban areas is especially apparent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where rural living is nearly impossible in arid land that can barely support subsistence agriculture.

In 2017, 17 out of 22 Arab League countries had more than half their populations living in urban areas. With further population increases predicted in MENA countries, experts say implementation of policies designed to reap the benefits of planned urban growth is of the essence.

“In recent research we conducted across the region, covering 22 Arab countries, we are going to see an increase in ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) devices,” said Fadi Salem, director of research and advisory at the Dubai-based Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government.

“In the Arab world alone, there are almost 890 million (IoT) devices and, with that level, there is a massive amount of data being generated.

“That number only covers personal IoT devices connected to the internet used for personal needs. It doesn’t include sensors and actuators installed by governments. So, the actual figure would be even higher.”

Artificial intelligence, in the form of e-passport gates at airports, or driverless modes of public transport, is already being wheeled out as the world enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (AFP)

If one were to include mobile phones, computers, personal devices and smartphones, the figure would be more than 1 billion in the MENA region alone.

Naturally, connectivity on such a scale offers numerous benefits, including detailed mapping of behavior, geography and feelings of citizens. Salem views this both as an opportunity and a concern.

“Cities across the region are in a very good position to take advantage of connectivity hubs, (so they can) tailor their policies to be responsive to the needs of populations,” he said.

Prominent among the Middle East’s cities with a high degree of digitalization of government services is Abu Dhabi, the host of the World Future Energy Summit.

“We consider citizens as inspectors, whose data help us find weak points within the city through our CityGuard app, which allows them to report incidents,” said Khawla Abdulla Al-Fahim, the director of spatial data infrastructure at the Abu Dhabi Digital Authority.

“We can predict future needs based on the data we are getting.”

Some experts who spoke at the forum called for a move towards behavioral analysis and segmentation in cities, citing Amazon as an example.

Amazon changes its product prices more than 2.5 million times a day, despite having access to less data than what a typical city possesses. This way the e-commerce giant ensures that its prices are always competitive and also maximizes its profit.

“We’ve been doing this in companies, and we can take those lessons and apply them to cities,” said Rosi Bremec, vice president for business excellence at Visionect, which designs and develops electronic paper solutions.

“We get data from apps, we study the way our customers react to our changing prices, among other elements, and we call them growth experiments. Cities are already offering open source data to their residents and for companies to create apps with that data,” she said.

“We will be analyzing the behavior of citizens, just like we do for our customers.”


10% - of global population that lived in cities in 1918

55% - currently living in urban areas

68% - predicted to live in urban areas by 2050

$158bn - Projected spending on smart city initiatives worldwide in 2022

Salem pointed out such data had yet to become fully representative of society, with some parts of cities less likely to be connected than others.

“The data we have is, in a way, flawed if we are to use it in framing inclusive policies,” he said.

“It’s a concern that needs to be taken into consideration. We need to understand these gaps and then take measures to overcome the flaws in the data. These are important considerations to be taken.”

Many believe that going forward, AI will enable the resolution of such issues, making the available data usable.

Additionally, AI is expected to lead to more automation in such fields as energy, construction, productivity, health, transport and mobility.

“AI is the brain, helping people do their work,” said Dr. Steve Griffiths, senior vice president of research and development at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

“Robots will be working with people. They will not be a complete replacement for people but an augmentation.

“For instance, in the field of safety we have a project with Burj Khalifa in firefighting, working with a drone that can withstand high wind speeds. No human being can do this task, so you have to have someone working there with a robot.”

Anwaar Al-Shimmari, chief innovation officer and director of design at the UAE’s Ministry of Infrastructure Development, said cities of the future would increasingly be expected to help human inhabitants.

“We have to ensure the machine doesn’t take the decision on our behalf,” she said. “It’s a tool to help us in taking the right direction based on information.”

According to Al-Shimmari, “one of the key aspects to consider is how to deal with this when we can see a lot of changes happen in a very small amount of time.

“We all care about the real physical aspects of AI, but the social and economic aspects must also be understood,” she said.

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.