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Is the Middle East home to tomorrow's smart cities?

Driven by government-led megaproject schemes, the Middle East and Africa is quickly becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing regions for smart city development

Smart city concepts are gaining traction in the Middle East.
Smart city concepts are gaining traction in the Middle East.

A study by Report Buyer states that smart city initiatives are gaining traction in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region due to increasing rates of urbanisation that have been placing pressure on city services. According to the United Nations, the urban population in the region increased from more than 20% in 1960 to about 45% by the end of 2015.

Scarcity of resources and rapidly expanding cities are also pushing governments to implement smart solutions to ensure the sustainability of various city services. Spending on the technologies that enable smart city initiatives is forecast to reach $1.26bn for MEA in 2018, according to the latest insights from International Data Corporation (IDC).

READ: 'Smart traps' set to control pests, rodents in Dubai

Middle Eastern governments recognise the role that smart cities can play in responding to the dramatic population growth they have witnessed in the past few decades, and the region has been upgrading and rolling out new tools, services, and infrastructure to meet its rapidly evolving transportation, water-management, and urban-planning needs.

In Saudi Arabia, smart city projects are gaining momentum, with many being built on greenfield sites. The kingdom has announced plans for a $500bn (SAR1.9tn) mega-city called Neom to be built on the Red Sea. 

The city will be a technology-powered destination that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions to give residents and workers a connected lifestyle previously unavailable in Saudi Arabia. All services and processes in Neom will be 100% automated as it strives to become known as the most efficient destination in the world. In addition, Neom will be subject to the highest sustainability standards, and will complete transactions, procedures, and claims via paperless and electronic means.

In the UAE, Silicon Park is the first smart city project in Dubai, and boasts smart solutions ranging from charging docks located in the park for mobile devices, to smart transport systems such as optimally designed bus shelters that offer free Internet for customers, and smart kiosks that can be used to purchase mobile airtime top-ups and make bill payments. 

The goal is for Silicon Park to play a significant role in the country’s overall economic development going forwards, as well as in leading the development and training of local talent in advanced technology manufacturing modules.

Smart city projects revolve around the main verticals of transportation and mobility, security, environmental and social sustainability, and public services. However, the focus of smart city solutions significantly varies from one city to another in the region. For instance, African cities have been focusing on transportation and utilities, while more affluent countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are focusing on improving the efficiency of public services, and on other aspects of smart cities, including security.

Connectivity is also significant to the implementation of smart city projects. This translates into smart city initiatives having a significant focus on developing fixed and mobile networks. The smart city value chain consists of five levels of increasing involvement and value-add: connectivity services, data management services, service provision platforms, integrated service solutions, and integrated smart city solutions. 

Governments are the primary stakeholder in smart city projects, playing a key role in coordinating and extending funding. Ans without strong government backing and clear strategic plans, successfully implementing smart city initiatives would be 
extremely challenging. 

READ: UAE university unveils AI course for smart city execs

The strategic priorities in MEA that IDC believes will see the most spending in 2018 are sustainable planning and administration, and intelligent transportation. Intelligent traffic and transit, digital permitting, licensing and inspections, and smart cities platforms, will be the region’s largest use cases in terms of spending in 2018, followed by in-car camera systems, smart kiosks, and fixed visual surveillance.

The worldwide market for technologies powering smart cities is expected to grow at a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.6% from 2016 to 2021, IDC said. 

Additionally, MEA is one of the regions that will see the fastest spending growth in the world, with a CAGR of 21.2%, IDC’s report stated.

“[Last year] could be considered as the coming-of-age year for smart cities in the region,” says programme manager at IDC MEA, Jebin George. 

“The concept is being widely discussed and adopted in the region, early success stories are starting to emerge, almost all greenfield developments are incorporating smart technologies by default, and nations are developing a common vision around the smart city concept,” George continues.

“The region is now getting into an exciting phase of the smart city journey, characterised by wider adoption and faster growth.”  

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