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.

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.