THE FUTURE OF THE GULF IS SMART
By Maurizio Geri
Cities are poised to assume important socio-political, strategic and economic roles that compliment nation states as autonomous actors of public policies. Without returning to the age of city-states, and given the rapid pace of urbanisation world-wide, there is a clear trend of cities emerging as central to solving modern challenges, deciding and implementing policies for their constituents and, in this way, raising their economic and political clout. Globalisation may have paved the way, for better or worse, towards a deepening internationalist ethos, but it is the process of urbanisation and the modernisation of urban spaces that have created local communities with global impacts. In parts of the world, the race for city-efficiency and community advancement has also prodded-on unprecedented mobility which, although being tempered by the outbreak of COVID-19 (C-19), is further changing city-scapes. Indeed, a key lesson of C-19 is that localities are front and centre in providing safe, clean and convenient place to live, work and socialise. Isolation would be intolerable and people seek the glint of humanity on terraces, on streets in pharmacies—ready to mingle from behind masks.
While many cities in the so-called global south continue to be plagued with the consequences of uncontrolled urbanisation, a wide spectrum of urban centres have begun to think outside of the box and are in the middle of meta-transitions towards smart cities. This new and innovative approach to urbanisation is meant to enhance life quality through the smart management of resources and the efficient organisation of public and private space, movement and communications via high-tech. In the Arabian Peninsula/Gulf — the main focus of this work — a number of smart cities are sprouting-up and revolutionising how people live in the region and far beyond. This work takes a snapshot of smart cities among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and seeks to explain what factors render them ‘smart’ while analysing the policies that facilitate their management.
Urbanisation has raised the importance of cities in terms of policies related to public goods ranging from the urban setting itself (parks and recreation, the work and living environments, etc), transportation and resource access and distribution (re: water and food) to energy supplies, telecommunication and healthcare provisions. Smart cities will be crucial for sustainable futures and, as some have noted explain, local factors will largely determine the evolution of such urban spaces.
According to the United Nations (UN), 68% of the entire human population will live in cities by 2050 and, in the next three decades, 2.5 billion more people are projected to become urbanised. For this reason, one of the UN’s 18 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focuses entirely on Sustainable cities and communities, which involves modern public transportation, green public spaces, and improving urban planning—in inclusive ways. Even if some cities (like Orlando Florida) are shifting from the term smart city to ‘future-ready city,’ or that the pandemic might shift focus away from ‘smart’ to ‘resilient cities,’ it is accurate to note that smart cities are springing-up everywhere in the world. Indeed, C-19 provided a degree of shock treatment and underlined how important smart cities may be as they increase efficiency in overcoming the challenges associated with the pandemic: more smart working, smart moving and smart communications. This should not imply that smart cities are risk free, as they are not. Smart cities are more vulnerable to cyber security threats and hacking (re: the misuse of cryptocurrencies for example) due to their interconnectivity.
There are many example of cities trying to reduce their carbon footprints, create renewable energy solutions, harness the digital economy, or absorb and protect migrants. The Internet of Things (IoT) is also helping build smarter cities, from transportation to health to communication, all urban sectors are increasingly joining IoT ecosystem. Analysts predict that the investment in smart city solutions is expected to reach US$327 billion by 2025, up from US$96 billion in 2019, and that by 2025 there will be 26 smart cities.
Smart Cities in the Gulf
The Gulf is selected here because it is among the most pioneering regions in the world where smart cities have been prioritised and developed with inputs from governments and the business community. They are set to increase in importance with the projected population growth and rapid urbanisation of the region. This avalanche of smart cities will assist in sustainable development and increase regional soft power — the power of attraction — globally while contributing to cultural modernisation. Importantly, some argue that smart cities in the Gulf are crucial for building social capital and improving governance mechanisms.
One of the first and, arguably, the most recognisable smart cities in the Gulf is Dubai. Since 2013, Dubai initiated a rapid strategy to become a smart city based on a six-point strategy: Transport, Communications, Infrastructure, Electricity, Economic Services and Urban Planning. The 2021 vision focused on six key objectives: smart living (to improve services for future challenges), smart economy (for competitiveness and R&D), smart people (for more educated and empowered residents), smart mobility (to move quickly and safely), smart environment (to reduce pollution for sustainability) and smart government (with digitalisation to reduce government offices). To design the city of the future, the Gulf states are building smart cities from scratch, rather than transforming existing cities. The most prominent, planned, smart cities in the Gulf are: Al Masdar in UAE, Lusail in Qatar, Neom in Saudi Arabia and South Saad Al Abdullah in Kuwait.
Masdar City—(built by Masdar, a UAE renewable energy company) will be among the most sustainable urban communities in the Gulf. It is planned for a relatively small population, around 50,000 people, and its various sustainable projects include: special green building prototypes and renewable energy landmarks such as a solar plant (the largest solar project in the Middle East when launched in 2009) and a wind tower (a modern interpretation of the traditional Arabic wind tower, or barjeel). Besides sustainability, Al Masdar concentrates on R&D, with projects to turn water vapour into drinking water and vertical hydroponic farms. The water and energy demand of the city is 40% lower than the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards and recycling and the reuse of waste material, particularly during the construction, is a standard.
Lusail Smart City—is being constructed on 38 square kms, with four island and nineteen residential and commercial districts, for half a million inhabitant. It will have a high-technology environment with wired and wireless communication networks and a Command & Control Centre (with an Operations and Data unit) to centralise the management and monitoring of smart services. It is also one of the proposed venues for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. This will increase the soft power of Qatar, taking into account not only the innovation of the country and the Gulf region with respect to other parts of the world, but also since post-COVID times will see the glut in travel after prolonged lockdowns.
Neom—was announced in 2017 as a cross border city extending 460 km along the coast of the Red Sea. Some of the most advanced innovations will see robots perform primary urban functions such as security, logistics, home deliveries and caregiving. Part of Neom will be the “Line”, a bold vision of an urbanization based on a 100 miles sustainable, hyper-connected without cars, and AI-enabled communities. This smart “city of cities” should be powered solely by wind and solar power. Furthermore, Neom will operate with partial autonomy from the Saudi Arabian government and will have its own taxation and labour policies and a pseudo-autonomous judicial system. Saudi Arabia aims to complete the first section of NEOM by 2025 with an estimated cost of $500 billion.
South Saad Al Abdullah—the first smart city in Kuwait, was announced in 2017 with many projects by a South Korean consortium to build smart buildings, entertainment and health zones, and a solar farm. Spread over 64 square kms, with more than 30,000 housing units for around 400,000 people. It will be the first city in Middle East to be both eco-friendly and smart.
Finally, various smart city projects are springing up in different sectors in Bahrain, where there is an attempt to develop a national smart city policy initiative.
These cities and city projects are quickly becoming models for other cities around the world, as the planet will need more and more smart cities to fight climate change and the over-consumption of diminishing resources. But what are the factors facilitating their management and what are the best practices required to build these cities? Besides economic investment and political vision, successful transition to smart cities requires good governance or ‘smart governance.’
Smart Governance and the Management of Smart Cities
Smart governance implies smart management of resources and infrastructure, for communication, transportation, residence and employment. But smart governance is also based on the notion of e-governance and the digitalisation of services. E-governance tends to favour a new state–society relationship, relying on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and smart applications to move from a top-down approach of governance to a bottoms-up citizen-centric form of governance. In this sense, citizens are more actively engaged in public services, including evaluating them and indirectly re-designing them based on their usage. Citizens and civil society groups can collaboratively work with institutions to better manage the resources and services, increasing their trust in the governance of their cities and their country.
To some, the most important thing for the management of smart cities is conducive regulatory and policy frameworks that are smart enough to become the base of management. In this sense, support of the political leadership, changing mentalities in the organisational culture of public institutions and a proper legislative framework to legitimise smart government are fundamental. This is a process of citizen empowerment that represent the essence of being innovative, the polis of smart cities, generating positive, inclusive, identities and the power of attraction.
A more active citizenship requires advanced levels of education. This is why the Gulf states are heavily investing in education and prioritise higher education in their national visions such as the Kuwait Vision 2035 “New Kuwait” and the Bahrain Economic Vision 2030 (with great investment in digital empowerment and education for example). Also, as a recent webinar underlined, the institutional dynamics at national level is very important for the support to the smart cities projects, in particular the ability of the government to streamline its decision making and policies output.
National governments remain central in the process of transitioning to smart cities, in the Gulf as elsewhere. But the autonomy of smart cities will be greater in the future, propelling the cities of the future as truly global actors. In an increasingly complex and interconnected world the support of many actors, including smart cities, are needed in order to solve key global challenges. And with the countries of the GCC taking the lead on implementing a vision of smart urbanisation it is clear that the future of the Gulf is, indeed, smart!
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