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.

Egypt holds full-honors military funeral for Hosni Mubarak

Updated 25 min 19 sec ago

Egypt holds full-honors military funeral for Hosni Mubarak

  • The Republican Guard carried Mubarak’s casket wrapped in the Egyptian flag
  • To the outside world, Mubarak the strongman symbolized so much of Egypt’s modern history

CAIRO: Egypt was holding a full-honors military funeral Wednesday for the country’s former autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, who was for decades the face of stability in the Middle East but who was ousted from power in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that swept much of the region.
A few dozen Mubarak supporters, clad in black and carrying posters of the former president, had gathered since morning hours at a mosque complex in an eastern New Cairo neighborhood, where Mubarak’s body was brought for the funeral service.
The Republican Guard carried Mubarak’s casket wrapped in the Egyptian flag.
The 91-year-old Mubarak died on Tuesday at a Cairo military hospital from heart and kidney complications, according to medical documents obtained by The Associated Press. He was admitted to hospital on Jan. 21 with intestinal obstruction and underwent surgery, after which he was treated in intensive care.
To the outside world, Mubarak the strongman symbolized so much of Egypt’s modern history but his rule of nearly 30 years ended after hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians rallied for 18 days of unprecedented street protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in 2011, forcing him to step down.
Perhaps ironically, Mubarak’s funeral service was held at the Tantawi Mosque in eastern Cairo, named for now retired Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who headed the military council that ran Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster and until the election of Islamist President Muhammed Morsi in 2012.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi attended the service, which was to be followed later in the day by burial at the cemetery in Heliopolis, an upscale Cairo district that was Mubarak’s home for most of his rule and where he lived until his death.
On Tuesday, El-Sisi extended condolences to the former president’s family, including his widow Suzanne and two sons, wealthy businessman Alaa and Mubarak’s one-time heir apparent Gamal.
In a statement, El-Sisi praised Mubarak’s service during the 1973 war with Israel but made no mention of his rule as president of the most populous Arab state. Three days of national mourning were to begin Wednesday, El-Sisi announced.
Pro-government media paid tribute to Mubarak, focusing on his role in the 1973 war with Israel when Mubarak, a pilot by training, commanded Egypt’s air force.
“Through his military and political career, Mubarak made undeniable achievements and sacrifices,” the state-run Al-Aharm newspaper eulogized Mubarak in its editorial Wednesday.
Born in May 1928, Mubarak was vice president on Oct. 6, 1981, when his mentor, President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamic extremists while reviewing a military parade. Seated next to Sadat, Mubarak escaped with a minor hand injury as gunmen sprayed the reviewing stand with bullets. Eight days later, the brawny former air force commander was sworn in as president, promising continuity and order.
Mubarak’s rule was marked by a close alliance with the US in the fight against Islamic militancy and assisting regional peace efforts. Many older Egyptians, who had long considered him invincible, were stunned by the images of Mubarak on a gurney bed being taken to court for sessions of his trial in Cairo following his ouster.
Mubarak’s overthrow plunged Egypt into years of chaos and uncertainty, and set up a power struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood group that he had long outlawed. Some two and a half years after Mubarak’s ouster, El-Sisi led the military overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mursi, and rolled back freedoms gained in the 2011 uprising.
In June 2012, Mubarak and his security chief were sentenced to life in prison for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising. Both appealed the verdict and a higher court later cleared them in 2014.
The following year, Mubarak and his sons were sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges during a retrial. The sons were released in 2015 for time served, while Mubarak walked free in 2017.