Smart cities: the fu­ture of ur­ban liv­ing

Dr. Tarig Enaya, SVP En­ter­prise at Saudi Tele­com Com­pany, ex­plains how smart tech­nol­ogy is en­hanc­ing ur­ban life, and shap­ing the cities of the fu­ture

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We are liv­ing through an age of rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion, on a scale not wit­nessed since the first wave of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion in the 18th cen­tury that pro­vided the im­pe­tus for the rapid growth of ur­ban pop­u­la­tion in the 19th cen­tury.

The United Na­tions’ cur­rent es­ti­mates put 55 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in ur­ban ar­eas. Ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist, by 2050 about 64 per cent of the de­vel­op­ing world pop­u­la­tion will dwell in ur­ban ar­eas and 86 per cent of the de­vel­oped world will be ur­banised. Much of this ur­ban­i­sa­tion is ex­pected to hap­pen in Africa and Asia.

What this means is that to­day around 4 bil­lion hu­man be­ings rely on ur­ban in­fra­struc­ture to keep them warm, mo­bile and clean. Tech­nol­ogy helps with this of course: Dig­i­tal sen­sors, smart phones and smart home ap­pli­ances al­low for a new kind of un­der­stand­ing be­tween cit­i­zens and city of­fi­cials.

In this so-called ‘smart city’, in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies (ICT) and the in­ter­net of things (IoT) are used to en­hance city liv­ing. New tech­nol­ogy and data is used for solv­ing the cities’ eco­nomic, so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges. Smart cities are a ma­jor part of achiev­ing the goal set by the United Na­tions of mak­ing ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments “in­clu­sive, safe, re­silient and sus­tain­able”.

Cities across the world are pur­su­ing smart city ini­tia­tives. Tech­nol­ogy in­vest­ment re­lated to smart cities is ex­pected to dou­ble in the next four years glob­ally and reach $158bn by 2022, ac­cord­ing to mar­ket in­tel­li­gence and ad­vi­sory firm IDC. The fig­ure is ex­pected to touch $2.7bn in the Mid­dle East and Africa re­gion, with Dubai and Riyadh lead­ing the way.

Smart cities are an im­por­tant part of Saudi Ara­bia’s Vi­sion 2030, which forms a blue­print for the coun­try’s fu­ture and is driv­ing in­vest­ment in the king­dom. One of the vi­sion’s ma­jor themes is build­ing a ‘vi­brant so­ci­ety with ful­fill­ing lives’, and de­vel­op­ing cities that ‘en­hance the qual­ity for all and meet the needs and re­quire­ments of our cit­i­zens’ is a ma­jor fo­cus area. So much so that one spe­cific goal is to have three Saudi cities be recog­nised in the top-ranked 100 cities in the world by 2030.

In­vest­ments fo­cus on en­hanc­ing ex­ist­ing cities as well as build­ing new cities al­to­gether – be it the on­go­ing Yanbu Smart City and King Ab­dul­lah Eco­nomic City pro­jects, or the planned NEOM City – a $500bn project en­vis­aged as a model for all fu­tur­is­tic cities in the world.


Here are some ex­am­ples of how emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies are mak­ing ur­ban liv­ing eas­ier.

Emer­gency Ser­vices

Many cities in the world are faced with a grow­ing num­ber of nat­u­ral and hu­man­made calami­ties such as floods, fire out­breaks, oil spills, ter­ror at­tacks, and so on. The loss in terms of hu­man life, in­fra­struc­ture, and prop­erty is im­mense, and gov­ern­ments are mostly left un­warned and un­pre­pared to face such sit­u­a­tions.

How­ever, the ad­vent of the In­ter­net of Things (IoT), big data an­a­lyt­ics, mo­bile apps, and cloud is dig­i­tally trans­form­ing emer­gency man­age­ment ser­vices. Early-warn­ing sys­tems which use these tech­nolo­gies al­low city ad­min­is­tra­tors and emer­gency man­age­ment per­son­nel to de­tect and re­spond ef­fec­tively to such dis­as­ters. The sys­tems help city of­fi­cials alert res­i­dents, halt crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture to min­imise im­pact, reroute traf­fic, and de­ploy re­sources as quickly as pos­si­ble.

The IoT-en­abled sen­sors can also pro­vide bet­ter sit­u­a­tional aware­ness which makes the work of fire fighters, paramedics, po­lice, and search and res­cue teams more ef­fec­tive. For ex­am­ple, the sen­sors can pro­vide crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion about the harm­ful chem­i­cal com­po­nents in­volved in fires as well as heat lev­els and pre­dic­tion of fire pat­terns.


A sim­i­lar ad­vance­ment is hap­pen­ing in law en­force­ment as well. The ev­er­in­creas­ing use of sen­sors and cam­eras in pub­lic places is mak­ing polic­ing more data-driven. The fo­cus is on ag­gre­gat­ing dig­i­tal as­sets to op­ti­mise the end-to-end law en­force­ment process from in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and ev­i­dence man­age­ment, to the ju­di­cial process.

This has re­sulted in the emer­gence of a va­ri­ety of real-time cen­ters. The ob­jec­tive of these cen­ters is to in­crease sit­u­a­tional aware­ness, im­prove re­sponse time, bet­ter ev­i­dence col­lec­tion, bet­ter in­for­ma­tion trans­fer be­tween agen­cies, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of pat­terns and pre­ven­tion of crime. These real-time cen­ters use a va­ri­ety of tech­nolo­gies such as video an­a­lyt­ics, mo­bile apps, sen­sors, aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity tools, video walls, ad­vanced an­a­lyt­ics, recog­ni­tion

soft­ware (for fa­cial, li­cense plate, palm, gait etc.), cog­ni­tive sys­tems, and cloud to achieve these ob­jec­tives.

For ex­am­ple, the Dutch Na­tional Po­lice have been test­ing an aug­mented re­al­ity sys­tem that streams body-worn video to sub­ject mat­ter ex­perts lo­cated re­motely. The ex­perts guide re­spond­ing of­fi­cers, who, may be first on the scene, but may not nec­es­sar­ily be the most qual­i­fied to ad­dress the is­sue. The tech­nol­ogy also has ap­pli­ca­tions in crime in­ves­ti­ga­tion train­ing.

By 2020, 15 per cent of large global city and state emer­gency man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions will use a com­bi­na­tion of aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity so­lu­tions to im­prove sit­u­a­tional aware­ness with re­mote in­ci­dent man­age­ment and vir­tual sub­ject mat­ter ex­per­tise, pre­dicts IDC.


The tourism sec­tor is be­com­ing smart through pro­vid­ing in­ter­ac­tive and re­al­time ex­pe­ri­ences to vis­i­tors. One of the best ex­am­ples come from Makkah in Saudi Ara­bia – one of the most vis­ited des­ti­na­tions in the world.

The Min­istry of Hajj and Um­rah’s Manasikana App guides pil­grims through ev­ery step of the jour­ney us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of var­i­ous emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies. As well as pro­vid­ing all nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion in one place, the app uses smart wear­able de­vices to pro­vide real-time track­ing of pil­grims, real-time health mon­i­tor­ing, one-touch ac­cess to emer­gency ser­vices, in­stant trans­la­tion ser­vices, and more. The fu­ture looks even more in­ter­est­ing, as all Hajj pil­grims will re­ceive a pack­age in­clud­ing smart card, ear­phones, and wrist band be­fore they travel to en­able a smooth end-to-end ex­pe­ri­ence. Smart cards will fa­cil­i­tate im­mi­gra­tion con­trol, train travel, and ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion; while wrist­bands and ear­pieces will pro­vide in­for­ma­tion and sup­port ser­vices for pil­grims, in­clud­ing real-time track­ing and trans­la­tion ser­vices.


An­other key fo­cus when it comes to build­ing smarter cities is in­tel­li­gent trans­porta­tion. There are var­i­ous com­po­nents to an in­tel­li­gent trans­porta­tion sys­tem: ad­vanced pub­lic tran­sit, in­tel­li­gent traf­fic man­age­ment, smart park­ing, and con­nected and au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles among them.

Trans­port au­thor­i­ties across the world are us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of smart cards, mo­bile apps, sen­sors, cloud, and an­a­lyt­ics to im­prove jour­ney plan­ning, on­board pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence, safety, cus­tomer in­for­ma­tion col­lec­tion, and fleet and op­er­a­tions man­age­ment.

Park­ing is an­other key chal­lenge that lo­cal au­thor­i­ties need to tackle. Many cities are ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous lev­els of smart park­ing sys­tems rang­ing from guid­ing driv­ers to va­cant spa­ces to au­to­mated vi­o­la­tions de­tec­tion.


Tech­nol­ogy is at the heart of smart cities. How­ever, dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion of the ur­ban ecosys­tem must start with a com­mon vi­sion – iden­ti­fy­ing the core el­e­ments to de­liv­er­ing on that vi­sion, and find­ing the right part­ners for im­ple­ment­ing crit­i­cal use cases.

Smart city ini­tia­tives can­not hap­pen in si­los; they cut across var­i­ous sec­tors and in­volve mul­ti­ple agen­cies. Thus, build­ing an ecosys­tem of part­ners that in­cludes the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors, academia, cit­i­zens, and the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try, forms a crit­i­cal el­e­ment of build­ing a smart city.

Ac­cord­ing to IDC, by 2019 up to 50 per cent of smart city pro­jects glob­ally will be funded via PPPs (pub­licpri­vate part­ner­ships), non-profit ini­tia­tives, or as­so­ci­a­tion through MoUs (mem­o­randa of un­der­stand­ing) be­tween city au­thor­i­ties and tech­nol­ogy providers. These show that new ways to work to­gether be­yond the tra­di­tional pro­cure­ment mod­els will be re­quired to de­sign, de­ploy and man­age the dig­i­tal-en­able­ment of mod­ern cities

Ur­ban­i­sa­tion is a re­al­ity the world is fac­ing, and the sus­tain­abil­ity of our cities is in ques­tion. Gov­ern­ments across the world have re­alised the po­ten­tial of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies in mak­ing cities smarter and liv­able in the mod­ern age.

Or­gan­i­sa­tions should work to­gether on a shared vi­sion to achieve the true po­ten­tial of these tech­nolo­gies in an ur­ban liv­ing con­text.

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