The bedrock of ‘Smart Dubai’, the government’s agenda to make Dubai the smartest and happiest city in the world, is technology and data.

Since 2014, the government has undertaken ambitious information and communication technology (ICT) integration programmes that aim to transform the way residents and visitors experience the city.

In line with the UAE Vision 2021 and the blueprint of Smart Dubai 2021, the city will likely be powered by blockchain by 2020, go paperless by 2021, and welcome 25 million visitors by 2025, becoming the most visited city in the world.

Dubai will also host one of the most iconic events in the world, Expo 2020, which will showcase some of the biggest technological achievements, particularly the UAE’s innovations in various fields, through its sub-themes of opportunity, mobility and sustainability.

Each of these sub-themes is powered by technology in some form or another, and millions of visitors will be able to enjoy digitally driven experiences at the event. For example, Cisco has been appointed the digital network partner for Expo 2020, to enable a ‘smart site’ with connected devices and applications. This includes dynamic signage and high-definition digital content and video, to connect with visitors using interactive experiences.

Tech investment

Both the public and private sectors have made significant investments to fulfill the UAE’s long-term goals. Substantial investment has come from foreign companies keen to invest in smart technologies.

Between 2015 and 2018, Dubai secured a total of $21.6bn in foreign direct investment for artificial intelligence and robotics, among the highest in the world.

To suggest that the leadership is deeply invested in the digital transformation of the country is a considerable understatement. The UAE’s passion in this area is perhaps the single most important factor galvanising and accelerating the UAE’s economic and social success.

Yet the pace of digital transformation in the UAE demands certain shifts in order to maintain the momentum of change.

It has already been established that data is the foundation of Dubai’s strategy to create the smartest city in the world. A recent report, ‘Decentralised Data for Dubai’ by the Smart Dubai office, specifically explores the role of data and the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the making of a smart city.

The report notes that to fully benefit from the potential that data offers, current data warehouses should be augmented with technologies that promote the free flow of data between entities, to ensure improved transparency and collaboration.

Developing infrastructure

Separately, the need to ensure data quality, data security and privacy, and above all, the correct use of data, comes with its own set of challenges and will require significant infrastructure investment. Yet recognising the potential of harnessing the prospective treasure trove of data, the Smart Dubai office is set to launch a decentralised data sandbox that will allow innovators to operate in a prototyping environment to find, gather, organise and derive insights from Dubai’s public data pool.

Another challenge is cloud computing. Certain data still cannot be hosted by centres located outside the borders of the UAE, due to the data sovereignty laws in the country. This significantly inhibits cloud service adoption here, as many advanced data applications still depend on public or private cloud infrastructure physically located in Europe or the US.

At this stage, the options available for companies are to bear the risk of hosting data in centres outside the country, or hope for cloud service providers to build public cloud infrastructure in the UAE.

Tech giants Microsoft and Oracle have an advantage here, as they set up their first Middle East data centres in the UAE, offering cloud services and bolstering the country’s digital transformation efforts. Amazon Web Services is expected to follow, with plans to establish several regional data centres.

With the global public cloud market expected to surpass $206bn in 2019, adoption by the Middle East’s ICT professionals could give a further fillip to the market.

Ongoing investment in digital infrastructure is also likely to have an impact on the workforce of the future. The UAE, with its agile workforce, is better poised to adapt to the evolving business environment and adopt intelligent automation, artificial intelligence and autonomous travel than many developed economies.

This can be attributed to the large expat working population of the UAE, where new skills and talent are constantly being acquired and the transitioning or retraining of existing skills is easier to achieve than in other markets.

The smart cities of the future will be powered not only by digital infrastructure, but also by updated traditional functions such as human resources, ICT and finance, and by the reskilling of the people behind these core services.

smart dubai author kpmgAbout the author

Matin Jouzdani is associate partner, data and analytics, at KPMG Lower Gulf