Smart societies are becoming a reality

08 December 2014

Cities in the Gulf are realising the benefits of embracing the multitude of technologies that enable smarter and more responsive infrastructure and experiences. Government bodies in the UAE, in particular, are moving from individual initiatives and silo thinking to strategic planning and coordination. In Dubai, for example, there are about 1,000 projects in the smart city programme being managed by an inter-agency government task force. Initiatives include programmes covering smart city mobility, electricity meters in homes and electric vehicle charging points, as well as smart parking and access to government services via smartphone.

We are doing trials of 5G [high-speed broadband] within the UAE; I am not sure how many other countries are doing that

Safder Nazir, Huawei Middle East

Abu Dhabi, too, has set out a three-year roadmap for becoming a smart city, bringing together initiatives that have been undertaken independently. For example, in its smart infrastructure plans it has already introduced a new system for allocating water to areas that need it most by monitoring the emirate’s pumping stations. Water use and efficiency will also be monitored, as will lighting. The emirate has already implemented a smart lighting strategy and is making major progress on its commitment to retrofit all of its public lighting with more energy-efficient LED systems. The measures are between 67 and 80 per cent more energy efficient and are expected to save some AED2bn over 20 years.

Abu Dhabi plans

Other smart initiatives to be coordinated include integrating smart city guidelines into building codes; enabling municipal service enquiries to be made from smartphones; launching an e-library; and introducing interactive maps and smart signage. A Smart City Office will be established within the municipality with the aim of helping Abu Dhabi become one of the top five smart cities in the world.

Ambitious as this sounds, experts say cities in the region have the potential to progress quickly. “There is huge opportunity because a lot of infrastructure is being put in from scratch, so they are potentially able to leapfrog more established cities,” says Lean Doody, associate director at UK consultant Arup and leader of its smart cities work, which focuses on how information communications technology can better enable city operation. She says there is a lot of interest in this area from the region. “We are seeing a lot more demand within the tenders that we get for smart city scopes of work, particularly in masterplans, in very well-written briefs, which suggests well-informed clients in this area.”

We need to be able to give people a secure, safe way to open up their data, while retaining ownership of it

Lean Doody, Arup

Defining a smart city is a project on its own; however, there are some key attributes that all smart cities have, says Doody. “We very much see technology as a tool to deliver experience and services. It is not about becoming a smart city for its own sake; it is about using smart technology to become a better city or a more sustainable city, whatever it is that you want to be.”

Different objectives

For some fast-growing cities, focusing on resource efficiency is vital, whereas others are concerned about climate change implications and are using data to plan more effectively against rising sea levels and changing climate patterns. Others are all about better connectivity, transport and stimulating the economy. Jeddah, for example, is expecting its population to double to more than 6 million inhabitants by 2020. To support this, it is focusing its smart initiatives around interconnectivity in its transport system and encouraging development beyond the current city area. In Qatar, the government is installing superfast fibre-optic broadband in 40,000 homes as it continues in its quest to be a knowledge-led economy.

Evolution of mobile broadband
 Throughput speedTime period
1G14.4kbps (max)1980-1990
2G9.5-14.6kbps1990-2000 (2G); 2001-04 (2.5G)
3G3.1Mbps (peak)2004-05 (3G); 2006-10 (3.5G)
kbps=Kilobits per second; Mbps=Megabits per second; Gbps=Gigabits per second. Sources: International Journal for Technological Research in Engineering; MEED

Whatever the objectives of the city, ‘smartification’ means more data. “Cities that use smart technology are information rich, so you have got devices and capability to collect different types of data and then the interconnectedness to understand patterns and allow better decision making,” says Doody.

The exponential growth in demand for data services is putting pressure on existing telecoms infrastructure, with mobile broadband an essential platform for accessing and sharing information. This, too, is an area where Gulf cities are taking a leading position. “We are doing trials of 5G [high-speed broadband] within the UAE; I am not sure how many other countries are doing that,” says Safder Nazir, regional vice president of smart cities and the internet of things at Huawei Middle East. Working with the UAE telecoms operator Etisalat, the Chinese technology firm conducted a 5G demonstration in Dubai in mid-October, which involved a 115GB per second (GBps) data transmission rate capability. “The difference between 4G and 5G is all about user experience,” says Atif Jamil, director of mobile broadband and smart city solutions at Huawei Middle East. He says the transmission rate of data is greatly enhanced by 4G and then again for 5G. “4G technologies successfully enhance user experience to 100MB per second, whereas when we talk about 5G it is targeting 1GBps.”

Such speeds would improve technologies such as video calls and remote control applications. “People want to do video everywhere,” says Nazir, adding that 5G would also enable precision remote control of equipment such as cranes.

However, developing and enabling 5G will require a massive amount of investment from firms such as Huawei, which is spending $600m on research between 2013 and 2018, and from governments and businesses that must upgrade their networks to support the billions of smart devices that want to use them. Commercial availability of 5G is expected in 2020. In the meantime, much progress is being made on the interim step of 4.5G, which will be ready in 2016.

Nazir points out that in smart cities, being connected is not all about mobile phones; machine-to-machine communication is also an evolving sector, with Etisalat launching its eSIMs (embedded subscription identity modules) to enable this in October.

Huge implications

At a practical level, Nazir says the implications for cities are enormous. A utility, for example, would be able to invite users to be part of an automated demand response programme that would incentivise them to enable devices such as washing machines to be turned off when loading on the system peaks. “This brings together operator capability, the internet of things and the utility to give a real smartness about the city,” says Nazir.

As these smart initiatives are developed, so are standards to support them. At MEED’s Smart Cities conference in September, Hazem Galal, a partner and cities and local government sector global leader at UK consultancy PwC, urged regional governments to get involved with shaping emerging standards on smart cities.

Now it seems his advice may have been heeded. The British Standards Institution (BSI), which has been working on standards for smart cities since 2011, says it has been talking to Dubai-based consultants. “I have been having conversations recently with some organisations based in the Middle East who are very interested to see if the standards that we are developing can be applied to the Dubai context,” says Saviour Alfino, project leader on the smart cities standards work programme at BSI. The work of the organisation on smart cities has been undertaken in collaboration with both local and international stakeholders and will be offered for adoption by international organisations. BSI says it welcomes global input.

“We have options for international organisations and cities to get involved; it can only enhance the standards,” says Alfino. One of its latest guidance documents, PD 8101, on smart city planning guidelines, saw collaboration with the Shanghai Institute of Standardisation, which provided feedback on the development of the guide along with other parties from the UK.

Alfino says the development and implementation of smart city standards can reduce implementation barriers and accelerate progress. “Putting the right standards in place can create an open innovation type of platform, where people and industry can compete and be innovative, but we need common ground to accelerate the smart city market.”

City datasets

Arup’s Doody points to New York’s 311 service as being a good example of how important standards can be when used in the right way. The service provides the public with access to hundreds of city datasets such as restaurant inspections, power use by postal code, wifi hot spots and maps of public parks. “For city governments, to be able to standardise some processes or areas allows them some economies of scale for buying solutions,” she says. “There were some standards put around that 311 service in terms of how it operates and the data that comes out. That then enabled industry, and start-ups in particular, to build products and services that could then support the 311 service.”

For BSI, this is just one of many areas where it is developing standards. When the smart cities advisory group first began consulting with businesses and city leaders two years ago, it identified 27 areas where standards were needed to fill ‘gaps’ in current guidance. After much consideration, the team managed to prioritise this into the eight most-pressing issues. “The kind of standards we need should create the right conditions to enable new business processes, products and services; and we approached this on three levels: strategic, process and technical,” says Alfino.

At a strategic level, for example, the organisation is creating principle-based standards to help city leaders identify targets. At a process level, it is working on performance standards, which could help in the procurement of goods and services, and at a technical level it is working on standards related to interoperability of data, for example establishing systems where data can be shared across cities from a variety of sources.

“Looking at data interoperability is important and we need to be able to give people a secure, safe way to open up their data, while retaining ownership of it. So we need more and better standards around that,” says Doody.

To date, BSI has published several publicly available documents, such as PAS 180, on common terminologies for smart cities, and PAS 8101, setting out how major new residential, retail and business developments can support wider plans of the city to become smarter. PAS 182 covers developing a smart city data concept model to promote data sharing between agencies. An overview of smart cities descriptions and how to communicate the benefits is to be published in December.

“We publish our guides relatively quickly and the advantage is that we can start testing them immediately,” says Alfino. “The feedback we get from the market is invaluable in order to continuously improve the standards.”

In the future, BSI will continue to work on the standards and is also identifying further issues for more detailed standards programmes beyond 2014, addressing specific practical issues and risks that will be encountered in the roll-out of smart city programmes.

“BSI is actively working to align programmes across standards bodies, building on existing knowledge and sharing UK initiatives with other countries to create a global framework for smart cities knowledge,” says Alfino.

Sharing expertise

Building up global knowledge is another feature of smart cities, with the open data philosophies extending to international cooperation between planning bodies, who regularly visit other global cities to share and learn. Companies, too, are facilitating this. Huawei, for example, says its new Smart City Centre of Excellence in Dubai will help bridge the gap between operators and cities and will bring more of its international experiences on projects such as the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, to the Gulf.

Looking ahead, experts say the progress being made in the region is rapid and that the ambitions Dubai and Abu Dhabi have set are reasonable given the investment and commitments being made. “In the next five years there is going to be probably as much change, if not more than there has been in the last five years,” says Nazir.

Of course there will be challenges, from installing infrastructure that can support the growing amount of data to ensuring the information collected is interoperable and accessible. But there are also solutions being developed, and by bringing smart initiatives together and ensuring stakeholder cooperation, cities in the region are already thinking smarter.

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