How digital technology is transforming Dubai

Image: Keit Trysh

Aisha Bin Bishr
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United Arab Emirates

Cities are complex and dense structures in which the large majority of humans live and work. The pace of urbanization globally has accelerated over recent decades putting pressure on infrastructure, social and economic structures, as well as on the environment.

The compact and constrained nature of cities intrinsically hampers mobility, physical expansion, the availability of resources and provisioning, economic activities planning and interconnectivity, urban planning and last, but not least, the cleanliness of the environment.

The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is no exception when it comes to the challenges posed by urbanization.

Fast growing

The area's population increased more than any other region in the world during the second half of 20th century.

This has presented many challenges, including how we provide adequate housing, healthcare, education, literacy, jobs, infrastructure, and accessible fresh water.

On the other hand, these challenges also presented us with substantial opportunities.

Dubai has succeeded in transforming itself into a global city, and a regional business and tourism hub; this has happened predominantly in the last two decades.

We have established an international reputation as an economic and investment centre. And we have achieved this success by diversifying our economy through vast development in sectors such as tourism, real estate, retail, travel, logistics and finance. Dubai also attracts skilled talent from around the world.

Underlying this economic growth has been our strong and productive government sector, which has embraced regulatory reforms as well as technology and is committed to the world-class digitization of our city.

Tech transformation

Dubai’s technological journey began in 1999 with the announcement of its first ICT strategy, which was followed by the launch of Dubai Internet City, Dubai e-government, Dubai Smart Government and, in 2014, the Smart Dubai initiative.

During the past 20 years, the numerous digital transformation initiatives in our city have driven public acceptance and adoption of ICT in all aspects of life.

Today, Dubai, a city of 2.5 million people and one of seven Emirates in the UAE, has one of the highest levels of ICT adoption in the region, both by the public and government.

We have pioneered an exceptional quality of life and an unmatched business environment.

Happiness goal

His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, has described technology as playing the role of an enabler, rather than a principal goal.

The Smart Dubai initiative fulfils the vision of His Highness, “to make Dubai the happiest city on Earth”.

The impact our city can have on the goal to drive happiness is enormous.

Numerous implementations, ranging from massive Internet of Things (IoT) systems, data analytics, blockchains, hyperloop projects, innovative 3D printing, autonomous vehicles and drones, robotics and artificial intelligence applications, were all developed and trialled as part of our Smart Dubai initiative.

Towards 2021

The aim is to be a successful smart city by harnessing digital innovation in all our endeavours.

To this end, we have recently launched our five-year strategy: Smart Dubai 2021.

We want to take our smart city transformation to a different level, a level at which digital transformation has a significant and positive impact on the city.

Government, businesses, and individuals interact daily as they exchange products, services, ideas and experiences.

Each, then, is a producer, and a consumer. And it is our primary aim to ensure happy city experiences in these exchanges.

Our objective is for residents and visitors to achieve happiness in their daily lives. This is clearly stated in our vision to become the happiest city on Earth. And our Happiness Agenda was formulated for this purpose.

However, we have gone two steps further and identified two more impact areas for our city.

Smart happiness

We asked ourselves what the economic cost would be to achieve happiness

And we devised a strategy whereby we can even achieve financial savings while still delivering happiness to our citizens.

Digital innovation can create efficiencies for us, rather than additional expenditures. So, we have a big opportunity to achieve happiness, while simultaneously achieving tens of billions of UAE dirhams in financial benefits for the public and private sectors.

The third impact area we analysed was the city environment, including our resources and infrastructure.

We asked ourselves what would be the impact on our city environment of our digital transformation efforts.

Can we sustain and enhance our city’s resources and infrastructure to support and sustain our transformation positively, or will we negatively affect the environment?

Again, we have mapped a course in which we will create positive effects on our environment by ensuring clean and sustainable resources and enhanced infrastructures.

Unique opportunity

Our overall strategy, then, entails creating a positive impact for our residents and visitors, financial resources, and our environment.

We believe we have a unique opportunity to harness technology for the city’s transformation and yield this positive triple-bottom line. Our course of action, we believe, will make Dubai unique as a truly smart city.

In order to achieve this, we identified six main areas of action in our Smart Dubai 2021 strategy.

We aim to create:

1. A smart, liveable and resilient digital city

2. Connected, lean government.

3. A globally competitive economy powered by disruptive technologies.

4. An interconnected society with easily accessible social services.

5. Smooth transport provided by autonomous and shared mobility solutions.

6. A clean environment via cutting-edge ICT Innovations.

Smart and resilient

The world is becoming ever more interconnected.

As part of our strategy, we intend to ensure all people and organizations, including businesses, have fast internet connectivity by 2021. This will allow them to easily access our city services.

We also want to make sure people have the trust and confidence in cyberspace t o access city services and conduct transactions online. Therefore, we will take various measures to safeguard sensitive and private information.

The internet revolution started by connecting people; now it can connect almost anything.

Making connections

We intend to connect all our city resources and infrastructures. Water, energy, sewerage, drainage, waste distribution networks, buildings, traffic lights, will all be connected to the internet and monitored in real time as part of our IoT strategy.

This will not only allow our city to provide more reliable and better services, but will also provide efficiencies. For example, outages in water or electricity supplies will be sensed immediately and faster recovery will be possible.

Similarly, leaks in water and electricity networks and their locations will be detected in a much more reliable manner to minimize waste.

City residents will be able to monitor their use of vital resources, such as water and electricity, on the spot, and will be able to make choices to reduce consumption.

In this way, we will empower our city residents and make them conscious consumers.

Urban planning and allocating land, which is a scarce resource in cities, are very important. As a fast-growing city, Dubai needs careful planning to ensure resources and infrastructure are adequate.

We intend to better coordinate and integrate city planning by providing various city authorities with much-needed and timely information to help them plan the future of our city and its expansion in a better and well-coordinated manner.

Climate change

Climate change, as well as man-made and natural disasters, pose challenges for cities globally.

We in Dubai want to make sure we are fully prepared to handle such events.

Again, this requires a collaborative effort between city authorities, residents and communities. Such an approach will enhance our resilience as a city and will improve our response to such incidents and our recovery from them.

Dubai, then, will be a well-connected, well-planned, secure and resilient city, giving its residents and visitors an unmatched urban experience.

Global competitiveness

Dubai has achieved unprecedented economic growth as a regional hub.

It has strong economic sectors and is globally well-integrated as a trade, tourism and finance centre, all thanks to our strong innovation culture and spirit of entrepreneurship.

Our strategy entails harnessing digital transformation to further boost our city's economy and sustain its global competitiveness.

This will allow our private sector to enhance its processes, products and services by capitalizing on digital innovation trends.

Dubai already emphasizes innovation in all its economic and social sectors, but research and development efforts in the city will be boosted further, allowing it to further develop its economic performance and productivity.

We will also make the lives of our city’s entrepreneurs easier through seamless and convenient digital services for starting up businesses. Simplifying regulations, providing easily accessible services and supporting business through incubators and accelerators will further strengthen Dubai’s position as an innovation hub.

We foresee Dubai as a melting pot of talented and skilled people, giving us the best human capital to achieve our aspirations. We will implement targeted programmes to improve the skills of our public and private sector workforce to help them realise their ambitions.

Digital literacy

Dubai is already a highly connected and digitally literate society.

Our residents actively use online services and social media.

We want to provide 90% of the daily life needs of our city residents through digital services in order to ease their lives.

This includes healthcare, education, culture, housing, entertainment, community, and volunteering services, among others.

Our residents should be able to make online appointments for their healthcare needs, obtain results and share these with other healthcare providers easily. We also want them to be able to get prescriptions and medications, all online

Similarly, parents and students should be able to look for education and schooling information online, register and pay for courses, interact with their peers, and look up course curricula.

An Emirati should be able to conduct his or her housing needs through easy-to-use online services, from obtaining land and the completion of a house, right through to moving in

Dubai has a rich, blended culture, bringing together more than 200 nationalities. Cultural events, expositions, and places should provide easy access to online services.

We foresee seamless and efficient social services empowering our city residents and visitors.

Hence, Dubai will have a strong social community, enriched by digital services that enable happy social experiences

Autonomous transport

In our busy daily lives in Dubai, we move around quite often and change locations.

We commute to work, or visit various places daily for social and work-related interactions

Hence, the ease of mobility is vital. So, it is important to maintain free movement in cities and avoid traffic congestion

In Dubai, we want to be at the cutting edge when it comes to mobility and to capitalize on the latest technologies.

We want to embrace autonomous car technology as a transportation alternative to ensure our residents reach their destinations more safely, quickly and happily.

Our autonomous transportation strategy targets 12% of city trips to be through autonomous driverless systems.

And we will continue the provision of shared transportation as an option for city mobility. Services such as Careem and Uber, along with Dubai Taxi, are already popular in Dubai.

We will increase the usage of public transportation to 20% of all journeys by 2021.

Sea, air, and land transportation alternatives will be available to residents, along with timely information for seamless connections between them.

Smart mobility

Smart parking, smart tolls and smart traffic lights, will all contribute to improving mobility in the city and ensure a fast flow of movement.

We are well aware that time is one of our most precious resources; so, we will use leading-edge technologies to ease people’s lives as they move around the city.

We also expect that the digitisation of city services will mean fewer physical trips to get things done. We estimate that 80 million trips in the next five years will be avoided thanks to our smart city efforts.

Reducing traffic and avoiding unnecessary trips will also reduce the stress on our city transportation infrastructure and will allow cost savings in terms of provisioning and maintaining such infrastructure.

ICT and the environment

Our strategy has a strong focus on sustainability.

We want to enable green and inclusive economic and social growth in Dubai.

Clean resources, such as water, air and energy, are essential for our residents to lead healthy and productive lives.

A low-pollution and low-emission environment coupled with clean resources will ensure a sustainable development path for the city.

Dubai has maintained the cleanliness of its water supply and will continue to do so by fully complying with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on water quality.

Air quality will be kept within allowable safety limits through continuous monitoring of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; we will also monitor ambient noise and electromagnetic radiation.

Our carbon abatement strategy (CAS) will reduce GHG emissions by 16% by 2021 through a targeted programme.

As buildings are major contributors to GHG emissions in most cities, Dubai is revising its building regulations and applying modifications to existing buildings to contain these emissions.

The city will use solar power to ensure 7% of its energy needs come from renewable, clean energy by 2021.

Among other action items, power and water tariffs will be adjusted; water recycling and efficient irrigation techniques will be employed.

We will encourage smart financing mechanisms, including public and private sector partnerships, to create clean and environment-friendly solutions for the city.

Hybrid and electric vehicles will be gradually introduced as sustainable transportation alternatives.

Dubai intends to continue along its path of economic and social prosperity while sustaining its resources and maintaining the cleanliness of its environment

Digital government

The government has spearheaded the growth of Dubai into a globally competitive city and we want to maintain our edge by fully embracing technology for the happiness of our people.

As part of our new strategy, we want to make all government interactions seamless and efficient.

More specifically, by 2021, we aim to make all government services and transactions paperless and cashless and without the need for visiting government offices.

We want residents and businesses to be able to access government services and carry out transactions anywhere and at any time through their channel of preference, be it websites, mobile phones or other.

We want to create digital procurement opportunities for SMEs and businesses and allow them to send invoices and receive payments digitally.

Furthermore, we will provide all eligible open and shared city data through our Smart Dubai Platform by 2021.

All these developments will ease people's lives and businesses' interactions with government, saving time and money, and leading to a happy city experience.

Millions of physical visits will be avoided, resulting in a significant reduction of stress on our roads and a reduction of carbon emissions.

Way forward

Our ambitious Smart Dubai 2021 strategy will be implemented by various city entities, both public and private, in alignment with the Smart Dubai Office (SDO).

We will work with various stakeholders in an inclusive and collaborative way to steer our city to the next level by 2021. Smart Dubai Office (SDO) will support this transformation through targeted strategy, policy, technology, and data interventions.

We will work to align initiatives and we will measure progress.

We have also identified 42 strategic and 58 additional KPIs amounting to track our progress and to benchmark it globally.

Our strategic KPIs have well-defined targets, which show our trajectory during our transformation.

Achieving these targets will create the positive triple impact I described earlier.

We are very excited to embark on a five-year journey, jointly with our city partners, and to create real positive impacts for our city.

Challenge and opportunity

Urban challenges in our MENA region are also significant opportunities for our cities.

Technology provides myriad potential solutions that address urban issues in different ways.

We, in Dubai, strongly believe that with the right leadership, planning, and determined execution, our city challenges can be effectively addressed. Our regional cities are in a unique position to embrace technological innovation and the vast potential it offers today.

An inclusive and collaborative approach to ensure the engagement and participation of city stakeholders will be critical for success.The potential benefits and the positive impacts for both the public and the private sectors in the cities in our region are enormous.

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