Smart Cities in the Middle East: happiness is the truth
Geoff Moore, Chief Technology Officer, Red Solutions FZ-LLC
It seems as though Pharrell Williams was right…and he didn’t even know he was singing about Smart Cities!
To be honest I get a little agitated when normally-respectable organisations start performing metaphorical back-flips in an attempt to grab a share of the next big thing. That’s how it looks in Dubai right now with the feeding frenzy that’s developing around the bid to become the smartest city in the world by 2017 – and as quite often happens in this part of the world, people are being forgotten in the rush to deploy gimmicks.
But let’s rewind for a moment and get back to one of the many elephants that are currently sitting in the middle of the carpet. Whenever I get into a conversation on this topic, the same somewhat cynically posed question invariably comes up – “so what is a Smart City, anyway?” I choose to avoid providing an answer these days and instead direct people towards Google, because the Internet is really good at coming up with answers to this type of question, in much the same way that you can look up recipes for pancakes but won’t ever get an idea of what they actually taste like.
Setting aside the Smart City and Safe City labels for a moment, I hope that most people would agree that above all we should aspire to be happy. Happiness (for the majority of us) derives from an absence of problems, and the problems that occur in a typical city seem to derive from things not happening when they’re supposed to.
I wake up when I’m supposed to, I get to work when I’m supposed to, my salary lands in my bank when it’s supposed to, the emergency services turn up to my accident when they’re supposed to and a policeman miraculously appears out of nowhere to apprehend the thief before he can steal my wallet. If I lived in a city where all of these things (and obviously a whole lot more) happen with a consistency and reliability that allow me to stop worrying about them, then I think it’s clear that I am going to be happy and would enjoy living in that city. I do not care about the underlying mechanisms that make things happen. Perhaps there’s an army of well-trained and well-managed individuals working hard behind the scenes to craft this utopian reality for me, or maybe a band of faceless robot overlords are just following some sophisticated computer programme.
It makes no difference which of these might be true to my level of happiness – and although technology (and in particular information management and communications technology) could provide a useful set of tools with which to get the job done, there’s no real reason why all of this couldn’t be achieved without technology, just so long as we had an enough properly equipped people, all diligently following a well-defined plan.
I would argue that a city like this is not smart or safe, it’s just responsive, and that’s what makes people happy. Safety, security, efficiency and quality of life all stem from responsiveness and the ability of the city to deliver what you want, when, where, how and why you want it.
Now, if we were to take a Google’s-eye view at the smart-city question, it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t make a very a direct link between the smartness and the technology, and I guess that’s not surprising, seeing as most of the people banging hardest on the smart city drum are product vendors. But how realistic is it to expect that we’re going to be able to achieve the grand technology-based vision quickly, particularly in the Middle East?
The Internet of Things is an inevitability. There’s hardly a thing you can’t buy these days that isn’t available with a network port or wireless connectivity of one sort or another, and with this level of connectedness on a shared medium, it would be almost rude not to take advantage of the opportunity to integrate. It’s another example of the democratisation of technology, where open standards and mass-market ubiquity will result in development of smarter tech by the masses if big business doesn’t step in quickly enough to close all of the voids.
However, an Internet of Absolutely Everything is perhaps a slightly different proposition here. For a start we have the issue of legacy equipment and the increasingly large installed base of sub-standard and un-integrate-able components. Whilst the region is still relatively young there is also a lot of equipment installed here, and a lot of it was bought on the basis of its cost rather than its performance. It may not be ideal, but it is what we have, and with the constant burden of expansion and upgrade caused by local legislation, end-users do not have the spare cash available to upgrade or replace. We’re not just talking about migrating a poor IP based system to a better platform, there are plenty of poor analogue systems out there too, where the cost of establishing a network infrastructure needs to be borne as well as making the leap across the digital divide. And more of these are installed every day…
Secondly, local legislation has resulted in Chinese walls being established around every security function, with no opportunity for interconnection or integration outside of the security domain. So even if an end-user has invested in the very latest of technologies with the intention of creating a smart-village inside their own virtual community, the law says no, and can close down a business that fails to comply.
There are some rumblings that this will change in order that the policy of secrecy does not stand in the way of smart-city aspirations, but there’s still a lot to do to ensure the security of the end result (particularly considering the usual reliance on mobility, wireless communications infrastructure, data centres and analytics in a smart solution).
In order to make a city that people feel is responsive we need to achieve an appropriate balance of people and technology, operating in accordance with a well-structured set of processes. Without a real emphasis on training and process, we’re unlikely to get something that ticks all the boxes, and with legacy systems still in place and legislation only beginning to evolve it seems likely that the result will be something a little more lightweight in the short to medium term. Perhaps if the necessary controls were established to allow a relaxation of data sharing restrictions we might be able to remove more of the human element from the equation through automation, but this is going to need an investment in the right kind of infrastructure today – what we call Able Infrastructure – adaptable, scalable, upgradeable and available – without which the lifetime support costs of sustained responsiveness with ever-evolving technologies will be too high.
This isn’t likely to be the way the larger vendors pushing end-to-end solutions would like it. Smart City software companies whose businesses are built on big data or associative information models have no part to play in this space right now, but will need to have the infrastructure in place to support their offerings further down the road when they’re allowed in – but how do we ensure that the long-term infrastructure needs of future Responsive Cities are built into today’s procurement plans?
This is one of the many real challenges we’re facing over coming years – achieving a Responsive City happiness index whilst living in the Smartest City in the world.