It’s easy to see why Cisco chose Dubai as the location of its third IoT World Forum, following Chicago and Barcelona in 2014 and 2013 respectively. The city has a goal to be the world’s smartest city by 2020, and is under time pressure to make significant progress towards that goal.
(Interestingly, and rather confusingly Cisco hasn’t managed to establish any exclusivity to the title of IoT World Forum, an event of the same name was organised in late November in London by World Media Online)
Dubai’s smart city goal was set two years ago by Dubai’s ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. And just two days before Cisco’s IoT World Forum rolled into town he issued new laws aimed at accelerating progress towards that goal (Autocracy does have some advantages!)
There is now certainly some urgency towards making Dubai, if not the smartest city in the world, at least a very smart one. Shortly after the goal was announced Dubai was chosen as the host city for the 2020 World Expo by the Bureau International des Expositions, a body of 167 member states that oversees selection and organising of World Expos.
The Wall Street Journal reported: “Dubai Expo 2020 will be a six-month long exhibition of trade, innovation and products from around the world, and a showcase for the United Arab Emirates. It will be held on a giant yet-to-be-built 438-hectare site on the edge of Dubai.”
Hosting World Expo 2020
The Government is aiming for 25 million visitors. The WSJ, in a comment piece “What Does Hosting World Expo 2020 Mean for Dubai?: said: ”[This is] an optimistic figure compared with the 10 million visitors last year, and the 16 million expected in London this year, the leading city worldwide for visitors.”
The author of the WSJ article was far from certain that winning the bid would be a good thing for Dubai, or that Dubai would get value from the a predicted $US7 billion it is expected to spend on infrastructure (a 0.5 percentage point increase in GDP in the years 2016-2019, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch).
The IoT World Forum abounded with statistics on the claimed benefits of IoT and the impressive returns on investment it offers, and there is no doubt that if you can increase efficiency of any multibillion dollar global industry by just one percent, the returns will be significant.
New smart city laws
So clearly for Dubai there is no time to be lost in deciding just how to spend some of those $US7 billion on smart city initiatives. Hence the new laws. According to the press release on Sheikh Mohammed’s website, they aim to “enhance the progress of the Smart City initiative and encourage innovation in this sector by fostering collaboration between the public and private sectors.
The new laws establish the Dubai Smart City Office, provide for the formation of its board and the appointment of a director general. The office is charged with developing policies and strategic plans for information technology and smart government, supervising and providing guidance for the smart transformation process and approving joint initiatives, projects and services to facilitate the process.
The law authorises the office to enter into smart city partnerships with any organisation within and outside the emirate and to propose legislative amendments to encourage and empower public and private sector smart transformation initiatives.
The announcement of the smart city initiative in October 2013 was short on specifics, but it did say: “As a smart city, government departments will be inter-connected to provide faster services and information to all citizens and guests. … The new project to turn Dubai into a smart city will offer connected users up-to-the-minute information on weather, traffic, entertainment, tourism, flights, dining, emergency services and much more. Businessmen and investors will benefit from open access to smart services offered by ports, customs and bourses.”
A true smart city, however, is much more than these and the formation of the Smart City Office, two years down the track, suggests that the Government recognises that separate, independent projects, no matter how useful and beneficial do not a smart city make, and that an overarching strategy that co-ordinates and in some cases interconnects different initiatives is needed.
Dubai’s smart city projects
There were several interesting, and useful specific initiatives on show at the Forum:
– A ruggedised Cisco router installed in police cars aggregates data from numerous systems including body cameras and biosensors worn by police officers, car mounted cameras for number plate recognition;
– Street lighting is controlled to optimise lighting and minimise energy wastage
– Parking sites are monitored and their occupancy made available to drivers;
– Bus shelters provide real time information on bus arrival times and occupancy levels;
– Emirates Airlines is using a range of asset tracking technologies to optimises aircraft maintenance.
All useful projects in their own right, but what did not come across was an overarching vision with any specifics as to what exactly constitutes a smart city. Furthermore, the smart city is only one component of the overarching Dubai 2021 plan, announced in December 2014. How will it fit into this plan?
The issue of the new laws suggests that Dubai is coming to the realisation that a true smart city is greater than the sum of its parts and that, no matter how useful those parts are, they need to be integrated into an overall vision.
The challenges facing Dubai will be faced by every city in the world struggling to be smart. The impending World Expo means it will be facing those challenges sooner than most, and its form of government means it can move swiftly to respond to them, in a co-ordinated fashion. It will likely provide some useful lessons over the next few years.
The author is attending the IoT World Forum as a guest of Cisco