This article was originally published in Arab News on 02 October 2022.
In a short time, the smart city has evolved from simple proposals to help municipal leaders operate more efficiently to an overarching vision of what kinds of communities people should live in and how they should live.
The biggest hope that comes with smart city projects is that they will quickly respond to the challenges of greater urbanization with an increased focus on sustainability, energy distribution, mobility, health and security.
As a result, there is momentum around smart cities in the Middle East, with the construction of significant projects such as Saudi Arabia’s NEOM and Egypt’s New Capital City already well underway.
Governments are investing billions, with Saudi Arabia looking at four multibillion-dollar construction contracts simultaneously, including NEOM, AMAALA, Qiddiya and the Red Sea Project.
It does not come as a surprise as the Middle East and North Africa are among the most vulnerable places in the world to climate change, with a significant impact expected on the region’s water supplies and food production systems.
What makes a smart city successful
Among many things, a smart environment can offer an integrated low-carbon transport infrastructure, an internet-connected waste management infrastructure and a flexible platform for any given smart community to improve the quality of life of its residents.
This multidimensional nature of smart city initiatives necessitates all kinds of technological solutions, all needing to be tested by end-users and residents.
In fact, recent case studies highlight the importance of ensuring residents’ feelings of safety and security well before launching any sustainability initiatives. Their quality of life and sense of community is what will ultimately enable the optimization of energy consumption and reduction of carbon emissions.
There is also the criticality of including a user perspective while developing new tools and applications within the context of a new smart city.
Therefore, trust is vital to the success of any smart city. The movement of residents around the smart city will trigger sensors and network devices that will communicate data about their location, habits and activities as users interact with mobile applications and the smart city infrastructure.
Catering for privacy aspects within the smart city seems a significant technological challenge and a prerequisite for designers and system builders.
Another major challenge would be that the development of smart cities can potentially reinforce existing social inequalities and societal bias rather than breaking down these barriers to greater inclusion and integration. Although the smart city of the near future would significantly benefit by seamlessly connecting the material and digital world, there is the risk of disenfranchising sections of the population that either cannot or do not wish to interact with the digital infrastructure. To this day, 2.9 billion people — or around one-third of humanity — remain offline, and many hundreds of millions struggle with expensive, poor-quality access that does little to improve their lives.
Off the beaten track
Very few intelligent cities worldwide are designed and developed from the ground up to be smart. Therefore, giga-projects such as NEOM have the incredible advantage of being built from scratch.
However, to get things right, governments should consider incorporating the concept of smart villages into their strategies. The idea would be for major smart cities to adopt a nearby village or town and test new products and services at a smaller and much faster scale. Although this will require a certain mix of policies, incentives and government programs to push forward, the benefits are clear.
Funding for the Middle East’s large-scale projects remains heavily state-financed. Smart villages can be more attractive for companies to test their offerings for relevance on a small scale. Businesses could then make long-term investments in the communities where their innovations and services are readily adopted.
A smart village benefits the inhabitants, making their life more comfortable and enhancing their opportunities for sustainable growth. Moreover, it helps to build a sense of community and belonging, which can make these regions more autonomous while connecting them to the fabric of the entire nation in more profound ways.
With this approach, rural communities could evolve to be resilient, independent and connected. Smart villages could create an ecosystem for empowerment around them, contributing to the more efficient use of available resources in all neighbouring towns and, ultimately, to the larger-scale intelligent cities.
Smart villages may play a crucial role in accelerating the flow of innovative, technology-based investments to remote areas and creating innovation centres, clusters, and technology parks in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries.