Face to face: Eng Anwaar Al Shimmari, UAE Ministry of Infrastructure Development
Eng Anwaar Al Shimmari, director of design and chief innovation officer at the UAE’s Ministry of Infrastructure Development, details how innovation-led initiatives are shaping government projects in the country
The incident happened about a decade ago, but Eng Anwaar Al Shimmari has no trouble remembering how disturbed she felt at the time.
“I was shocked because he came from an Arabic country known for having a culture that is more open than ours,” she says, explaining that the ‘he’ in the story was a colleague who, when she received a promotion at work, asked to be transferred.
“I was supposed to be his line manager, but he totally rejected the idea of having a woman as his boss,” she recalls, saying that the man even had no qualms about asking for the transfer in front of her.
“I couldn’t understand or respect his mentality, because I wouldn’t judge or discriminate [against] anyone [based on] race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. A professional environment [requires] professional manners.”
Whether that former colleague ever found himself in a similar situation again is not known, but it is reasonable to believe that he eventually learned the error of his ways, since he apologised to Al Shimmari when they met again, eight years later.
It is a telling anecdote, but not only because it appears to support claims of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. It is also telling because, when asked whether female engineers have difficulty finding their place in the unquestionably male-dominated construction industry, the one story that Al Shimmari can remember with clarity is a decade old.
“Back then, the challenge was being accepted as a line manager. Or [if you were] on site, some would say that a woman engineer doesn’t know the job,” she says. “But this was a long time ago, and it wasn’t a reflection of the industry. It was more of a personal behaviour.”
Emphasising that female empowerment is now “a reality” in the UAE, and even dubbing the phenomenon of having women working in the engineering field “feminising infrastructure”, she continues: “The [factor] behind this success is the support of the UAE leadership. HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has clearly stated that 50% of higher management in any federal entity must be women. This, by itself, is a significant support for women.”
As one of the growing number of women filling top positions in government agencies across the country, Al Shimmari currently wears three hats at the Ministry of Infrastructure Development (MoID): “I’m the director of design, as well as the chief innovation officer. I also [hold] responsibility for artificial intelligence (AI) in the ministry.”
Al Shimmari tells Construction Week that the ministry is working on a number of initiatives, several of which, including artificial intelligence, were launched during this year’s UAE Innovation Month.
“We’ve recently started [implementing] artificial intelligence in the ministry,” she reveals, adding: “We are in the process of developing the first robot engineer in the world.”
“It’s a big challenge, but it’s also a very interesting subject because it [involves] research, engages universities, and [employs] technology. There are companies working really hard to make this happen.”
While she is looking forward to seeing this project develop further, Al Shimmari emphasises that the human aspect of the initiative should not be disregarded.
“AI depends heavily on people,” she explains. “We must feed it with the required information and create a foundation of digital systems, and establish solid processes for re-engineering and portfolio management, governance and compliance, risks, and scenario planning.”
People will not benefit from the initiative if robots are not equipped with the right data, adds Al Shimmari: “Robotics and AI are about processing information, and creating alternatives, variables, scenarios, and ‘foresighting’, [in turn] making the matrix of results and uncertainties less ambiguous. Thus, I believe AI should support our work instead of doing the work [for us].”
In her role as the ministry’s chief innovation officer, Al Shimmari has come to acknowledge what she describes as “the dilemma of technology”, pointing out that many people mistakenly equate innovation with technology.
According to Al Shimmari, innovation is more about processes and how ideas impact work and bring about efficiency in policies and procedures. She adds that when assessing whether an idea can be classed an innovation, three factors must be considered: added value, scale, and influence. “We’re talking here about how it adds value to [an industry or field],” she elaborates. “What is the scale of impact, and what is the level of influence? It is important to highlight how we can quantify innovation [by] establishing percentages or scale.
“For example, if the impact [of an idea or project] is 10%, then it’s only an improvement. If it’s more than 10% and it [meets] the three criteria of scale, influence, and added value, [then] I would call it an innovation.”
Seeking to dispel another myth about innovation, Al Shimmari says that not all seemingly innovative ideas need to be pursued: “Many people [don’t know] when to kill an idea. Many ideas would consume time, effort, and resources, and [...] not lead to [the desired] outcome, so leadership must know when to kill an idea. This is something that is missing in innovation culture and practices.”
Because people tend to take it personally when their ideas are rejected, she says that a “culture of openness and acceptance” must be cultivated, so people understand that not all ideas are worth developing.
“There should be a limit,” she adds. “I have to create a cut-off and kill the project. This is a knowledge that people must have.”
Returning to the topic of innovation versus technology, she notes that the latter is just a tool used to expand the reach of an idea or initiative and make it “scalable”. She adds that because technology “is rigid”, it should only be considered in the later stage of a project, and not during the prototyping or brainstorming stages.
“For example, the initiative of government accelerators is in itself an innovation, because government accelerators ensure that influencers and stakeholders of the initiative are meeting in one place to achieve [a defined goal] in less than 100 days,” says Al Shimmari.
A participant of Dubai’s Future Accelerators Programme, Virgin Hyperloop One also took part in this year’s Innovation Month, during which it launched, for the first time in the world, a prototype of a Hyperloop One passenger pod.
Meanwhile, Hyperloop Transport Technologies, another company looking to revolutionise land travel through the use of a semi-vacuumed tube, is working with the Abu Dhabi government on a feasibility study involving the implementation of the high-speed transport system first conceptualised by Tesla co-founder and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.
“Since Hyperloop is being studied in the UAE, [the ministry] is looking to see how it will work in stage one, and then based on that, it will consider dedicating the right of way and infrastructure,” she says, but notes that its adoption would not be without challenges.
“When it comes to the big metropolitan cities like Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman, they [already] have developed borders. The urban context is already mature, so the need for a scalable transit modal split is crucial to ease mobility and connectivity.”
Whatever mode of travel people use or companies develop, governments will always need to consider the feasibility and impact of the proposed investment.
“Personally, I think we have a beautiful, connected shoreline, and that we have to start developing marine or coastal transportation between the emirates of the UAE,” she reveals.
Shifting her attention from super-fast transport systems to smart cities – another initiative of the UAE government – Al Shimmari explains that smart cities need a foundation that comprises certain “important inputs”: the use of clean technologies, the implementation of Big Data and the Internet of Things, the engagement of both the private and public sectors, and smart governance and compliance.
“These inputs are also the gears that will support the future and the sustainability of infrastructure,” notes Al Shimmari, concluding: “They have a mutually beneficially relationship, [which] can be defined as the loop of city sustainability: no [sustainable] infrastructure without smart cities, and no smart cities without sustainable infrastructure.”