Dubai is transforming itself into a smart city that could be a model for emerging economies.

Rapid urbanization is a significant challenge for global cities like Dubai, whose population will rise by more than 50% in six years – when the total population in the emirate will be 3.4 million residents – most of them living in the urban core. In the whole UAE, city dwellers will account for 86.7% of the country’s population by 2020, up from 84% in 2010, according to a UN report. It’s the same trend globally. According to the World Bank, some 180,000 people are moving to cities every day, so that by 2030, an estimated 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.

The concept of transforming or creating smart cities has been touted for years as one way to manage the cities of tomorrow to ensure that we manage resources, mitigate environmental impact and improve the quality of life of residents.

What Is a ‘Smart City’?

Smart City Council defines it as “one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.”

The EU says “a smart city is a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses.”

Frost and Sullivan identifies eight aspects of a smart city: smart governance, smart energy, smart building, smart mobility, smart infrastructure, smart technology, smart healthcare and smart citizen.

Is Today’s Dubai a Smart City?

Dubai has either completed or is planning many projects that can be described as part of a smart city—such as smart government services, seawater desalination, waste management, intelligent traffic controls, mHealth services, environment-friendly buildings (e.g. rotating skyscrapers with wind turbines that can harness energy for other buildings), and even smart crime fighting and power grid management using Google Glass.

But instead of merely retrofitting traditional infrastructure with digital technologies, Dubai is now creating a smart city from scratch. While Dubai is hardly the first to do a smart city project, it could be a key model for emerging economies who are thinking of building one.

Silicon Park

Dubai is building the Dh1.1 billion, 150,000 square metre Silicon Park, the first smart city in the larger Dubai Silicon Oasis technology park. Slated to be completed by the end of 2017, Silicon Park will feature LEED and UAE standard “green” buildings with solar panels, smart glass panels, and environment-friendly amenities.

According to the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority, Silicon Park will also feature free Wi-Fi and “charging-docks for smart devices on the street to smart pop-up furniture and digital play tables,” as well as “smart robotic technology solutions.” Residents and visitors will use electric vehicles, including rechargeable electric bikes, to get around the complex, which will be embedded with a multitude of sensors for communication, security and transportation purposes.

Ahmed bin Saeed Launches AED 1.1 Billion 'Silicon Park' Project

Source: Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority on YouTube

Smart Habitat

One of the initial projects inside Silicon Park is the Centre of Excellence for Smart Habitat (Cesh). A pilot project, Cesh will monitor environmental patterns and send weather information to Dubai residents. For example, it can send real-time alerts to residents via their mobile phones when a sandstorm is coming and what areas to avoid. 

“We are working to create a centre of excellence for smart habitat to educate people. It will be a platform where we can share knowledge with our partners and create a Dubai model that we can replicate in other areas,” Muammar Al Katheeri, the chairman of DSOA Smart City, said in a report by The National.

Dubai’s Vision

“Dubai has the good seeds to be way up there with competitive smart cities like Singapore and Amsterdam,” said Hazem Galal, a partner in the cities and local government sector at PwC, said in The National article. “It has taken some good steps and initiatives by taking these ideas and testing and prototyping them in a limited environment before taking them to a larger scale.”

Major smart city industry players like IBM and Cisco are bullish about the prospects of Dubai becoming a smart city, partly because it has successfully transformed itself from a small, arid desert Middle Eastern port town to one of the most advanced cities in the world in a span of just one generation—due to strong leadership, abundant funds and openness to technological advancements. While it is a relative latecomer in building smart cities, Dubai has learned from the shortcomings of other smart city projects, and perhaps more importantly, has the commitment and resources to complete this undertaking.

“Dubai has the vision. Many years ago, they decided to have the world’s biggest airline, they ended up having that, they wanted to have number one airport, they have deployed and shown how can you get it done. It is not about smart city it is about what the city can do for its citizens and people in that region,” said Anil Menon, President, Smart+Connected Communities (S+CC), and Deputy Chief Globalisation Officer, at Cisco Systems Inc., said in a Zawya report. Cisco is helping the government in its Dubai Smart City project.

According to ABI Research, approximately $39.5 billion will be spent on smart city technologies in 2016 in more than a hundred smart city projects around the world. Among the most well-known include Santander, Amsterdam, Singapore, Barcelona, Boston, and Masdar City in nearby Abu Dhabi. India recently announced an ambitious program to build 100 smart cities to adjust to urbanization.

Jof Enriquez is a registered nurse, medical writer and healthcare journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @jofenriq.