How smart city concepts can be translated into reality

Public-private collaboration is essential to develop tomorrow's cities, experts say

Dubai leads the Middle East's smart city efforts, experts have told Construction Week [representational image of Dubai's skyline].
Dubai leads the Middle East's smart city efforts, experts have told Construction Week [representational image of Dubai's skyline].

Stakeholders will struggle to build tech-driven smart cities that combine civic efficiency with sustainability and technology without tighter collaboration between governments and private enterprise, according to leaders in the construction sector.

Engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald’s managing director in the Middle East, Chris Seymour, told Construction Week that the private sector would “welcome” more participation from the government to set a mandate for smart cities.

Some in the industry have called for more regulation to put this in place, but Seymour does not agree. What many in the industry really want when they talk about the government setting the field of play for tech-driven, date-gathering urban environments is closer collaboration with the private sector, he said.

“Creating government participation so you can truly get that integration [with smart city development]” is what he said he would like to see.

“One of those aspects could be the creation of a city-wide model – there are a number of cities in Europe that have achieved this – and if there is an open-source model of a city then not only would that save a lot of time, because all of the individual consultancies would stop re-surveying exactly the same stretch of the city, but it would mean you have commonality at the starting point.”

Working more closely with the private sector to make sure that individual smart buildings in cities such as Dubai are connected to a wider ecosystem, is another area Seymour said the government could explore. 

Smart buildings that use Internet of Things (IoT) solutions to help operators and building managers look after built assets more efficiently have become increasingly common, but the fact that these buildings are not connected to a broader smart city network prevents a so-called smart city from operating at optimal efficiency.

“A lot of things come back to the talk about smart buildings and the technology around building services. However, that will forever just exist in the individual buildings, and the theory of the smart city is that there is a much more integrated approach,” said Seymour. “We are forever going to be speaking about separate [built assets] unless the government has larger presence in the creation of smart cities. By that, I mean becoming more of a stakeholder in such schemes.”

Masterplanning is another vital area in which collaboration between the public and private sector can be explored. Uptake of new technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented realty and other innovations are permeating a vast majority of industries. Major cities in the Middle East such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and Jeddah are not different. Still, the exponential speed at which technology continues to outpace itself puts pressure on urban planning. Seymour said the majority of companies that Mott MacDonald works with, are concerned about this.

LEADERS UAE 2018: Government mandates needed to build smart cities

“Most of the clients say to us, since masterplanning is such a long-term objective, ‘how can you tell us that what you’re masterplanning now is going to be fit for the future in 10-15 years’ time?’ That is a very realistic challenge and unless you start looking at this from the other way around, in other words, looking at what is going to be, for example, the future of mobility, you will never masterplan effectively. So that’s the way we look at it: looking into the future and asking what is possible and trying to predict what is likely to happen, and only then re-considering the masterplan,” Seymour said.

Seymour is, of course, not alone in calling for greater collaboration with the government around smart cities. Chief executive officer of Aecom Middle East, Hamed Zaghw, told the  recent Construction Week: Leaders in Construction Summit UAE 2018 that cities can mitigate fears of being left behind by the pace of technological change by adopting a strong strategic framework.

“There are multiple ways of looking at smart cities; masterplans are the macro level aspect of this. If you have a framework that is founded on resilience and sustainability, then you have the basis for a masterplan that can survive technological changes. Smart cities are an evolution. If you don’t have the right governing framework, the micro level might be smart, but if you try to integrate it, [it won’t work]. Smart cities are an evolutionary process. Now, we are talking about data and connectivity, and other aspects of sustainability. And if it is founded on the right principles, you can achieve that goal, but if you do not have the overall government framework, it can be somewhat chaotic.”

Gregg Welch, senior vice president at Parsons, a US-headquartered company that focuses on technology-driven solutions for infrastructure, defence, and security, said happiness was the key benchmark to building smarter cities, something that would be helped by technology. (Parsons designed the information and communications technology infrastructure to support Dubai’s flagship smart city project.)

READ: GCC powers tech adoption to build smart cities

“If you look at the Smart Dubai charter, the key [to smart cities] is the happiness of individuals,” he added. “It is fortuitous that as urbanisation across the planet takes place over the next 20 years, the technology that will help cities with that is in sync with being able to deal with large numbers of people.”

As Welch said,  the key benchmark is the happiness of the individual. When you read the text from the Smart Dubai charter, it says a cornerstone of making the city one of the happiest places is by ensuring participation from all residents, visitors, business owners, parents and families. Closer collaboration between the public and private sector must be part of this.

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