From Toronto to Tokyo, the challenges faced by cities today are often remarkably similar: climate change, rising housing costs, traffic, economic polarization, unemployment. To tackle these problems, new technology companies and industries have been sprouting and scaling up with innovative digital solutions like ride sharing and home sharing. Without a doubt, the city of the future must be digital. It must be smart. It must work for everyone.
This is a trend civic leaders everywhere need to embrace wholeheartedly. But building a truly operational smart city is going to take a village, and then some. It won’t happen overnight, but progress is already under way.
As tech broadens its urban footprint, there will be more and more potential for conflict between innovation and citizen priorities like privacy and inclusive growth. Last month, we were reminded of that in Toronto, where planning authorities from three levels of government released a 1,500-page plan by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs meant to pave the way for a futuristic waterfront development. Months in the making, the plan met with considerablyless than universal acclaim.
But whether it’s with Sidewalk or other tech partners, the imperative to resolve these conflicts becomes even stronger for cities like Toronto. If they’re playing this game to win, civic leaders need to minimize the damage and maximize the benefits for the people they represent. They need to develop co-ordinated innovation plans that prioritize transparency, public engagement, data privacy and collaboration.
The Sidewalk Labs plan is full of tech-forward proposals for new transit, green buildings and affordable housing, optimized by sensors, algorithms and mountains of data. But even the best intentions of a business or a city can be misconstrued when leaders fail to be transparent about their plans. Openness and engagement are critical for building legitimacy and social license.
Sidewalk says it consulted 21,000 Toronto citizens while developing its proposal. But somecritics have already complained that the big decisions were made behind closed doors, with too many public platitudes and not enough debate about issues raised by citizens, city staff and the region’s already thriving innovation ecosystem.
In defense of Sidewalk Labs and Alphabet, their roots are in Internet services. They are relative newcomers to the give and take of community consultation. But they are definitely now hearing how citizens would prefer to be engaged and consulted.
As for the public planners, they have a number of excellent examples to draw from. In Barcelona, for example, the city government opened up its data sets to citizens to encourage shared use among private, public and academic sectors. And in Pittsburgh, which has become a hub for the testing of autonomous vehicles, the city provided open forum opportunities for the public to raise questions, concerns and issues directly with civic decision-makers.
Other forward-looking cities, such as San Francisco, Singapore, Helsinki and Glasgow, are already using digital technology and smart sensors to build futuristic urban services that can serve as real-world case studies for Toronto and others. However, to achieve true success, city officials need to earn residents’ trust and confidence that they are following and adapting best practices.
Access to shared data is crucial to informing and improving tech-enabled urban innovation. But it could also fuel a technologically driven move toward surveillance capitalism or a surveillance state – profiteering or big brother instead of trust and security.
The Sidewalk proposal respects the principles of responsible use of data and artificial intelligence. It outlines principles for guiding the smart-city project’s ethical handling of citizen data and secure use of emerging technologies like facial recognition. But these principles aren’t yet accompanied by clear, enforceable standards.
Members of the MaRS Discovery District recently co-authored an open-source report with fellow design and data governance experts, outlining how privacy conflicts could be addressed by an ethical digital trust. A digital trust ought to be transparently governed by independent, representative third-party trustees. Its trustees should be mandated to make data-use decisions in the public interest: how data could be gathered, how anonymity could be ensured, how requests for use should be dealt with.
They come with big questions to be resolved. But if a digital trust were developed for the Sidewalk project, it could be adapted and reused in other cities around the world, as civic leaders everywhere grapple with innovation plans of their own.
The private sector creates jobs and economic growth. Academia and education offers ideas, research and a sustainable flow of tech-savvy workers. The public sector provide policy guidance and accountability. Non-profits mobilize public awareness and surplus capital.
As Toronto is learning, it isn’t always easy to get buy-in, because every player in every sector has its own priorities. But civic leaders should be trying to pull all these innovation levers to overcome urban challenges, because when the mission is right, collaboration creates more than the sum of its parts.
One civic example we like to point to is New York, where the development of the High Line park and the rezoning of the West Chelsea Special District created a “halo effect.” A $260-million investment increased property values, boosted city tax revenues by $900-million and brought four million tourists per year to a formerly underused neighborhood.
A mission-oriented innovation ecosystem connects the dots between entrepreneurs and customers, academia and corporates, capital and talent, policymakers and activists, physical and digital infrastructure – and systems financing models can help us predict and more equitably distribute the returns. Organizations like Civic Capital Lab (disclaimer: a MaRS partner) work to repurpose projects like the High Line into real-life frameworks for other cities and communities.
That kind of planning works because the challenges cities face are so similar. When civic leaders are properly prepared to make the best of modern tech-driven innovation, there’s no problem they can’t overcome.
Saudi Gazette posted an article dated July 9, 2019, on MENA start-up ecosystem on the rise, explaining that it is all “positive news for the continually growing ecosystem with strong growth through a record number of transactions.”
DUBAI — Total funding across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)-based start-ups was up 66% from H1 2018, MAGNiTT, the region’s most powerful startup platform, said in its H1 2019 MENA Venture Investment Report, which provides an in-depth analysis of start-up funding and venture capital across the Middle East and North Africa.
The report highlights positive news for the continually growing ecosystem with strong growth through a record number of transactions.
Philip Bahoshy, MAGNiTT’s founder, said “the MENA region is hitting its inflection point. The acceleration of funding we saw in the latter half of 2018 has continued into 2019.”
Bahoshy noted that “there are many signs of an ever maturing ecosystem. As start-ups grow, we have seen more start-ups raising larger tickets, more exits and a continued interest from International investors in the region, especially from Asia.”
He also pointed to “UBER’s acquisition of CAREEM is another example of a large international player acquiring a local company after Amazon’s acquisition of Souq. This will further act as a catalyst to spur on the regions entrepreneurial environment.”
The report noted that H1 2019 saw 238 investments in MENA-based start-ups, amounting to $471 million of total funding. This is an excellent indicator, a 66% increase in investment dollars compared to H1 2018, in which $283 million was invested.
The number of deals remained healthy at a record high, up 28% compared to H1 2018, showing continued appetite in start-ups from the region at all stages of investment.
Noor Sweid, General Partner of Global Ventures, said “the growth in the start-up and tech ecosystem in the region is phenomenal, and yet, we are just at the beginning of a trajectory that will see technology-driven companies grow significantly and incredibly quickly over the coming years. These numbers illustrate the momentum and successes that the underlying companies and founders are achieving, and the growth in the investment ecosystem and opportunities alongside them.”
The UAE remains the most active startup ecosystem with 26% of all deals and 66% of total funding. Saudi Arabia was one of the fastest growing ecosystems, up 2% from H1 2018 recording 26 investments in H1 2019.
The UAE has maintained its dominance with 26% of all transactions made in to UAE-headquartered start-ups in H1 2019, while it also accounted for 66% of total funding.
Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, explains this by highlighting that “With the vision of our leaders, and a strong strategy in place, the UAE has cemented its position as an ideal destination for startups, founders, creative thinkers, and innovators. We have leveraged that vision, through creating dynamic co-working spaces, agile legislation that supports innovation and attractive visa policies for entrepreneurs and business professionals, and we continue our efforts toward positioning Dubai as a global testbed for cutting-edge technologies.”
However, the landscape continues to evolve. Tunisia was the fastest growing ecosystem in H1 2019 – receiving the 5th highest number of deals at 8% of all deals, up 4% from H1 2018. While Saudi Arabia recorded 2% increase in number of deals, up to 11% of all transactions across the MENA region.
FinTech retained its top spot in H1 2019 and accounted for 17% of all deals. Notable investments include the $8 million in Yallacompare, $6 million in Souqalmal and $4 million in Beehive.
E-commerce still remains prevalent accounting for 12% of all deals, followed Delivery & Transport, which was the third most popular industry in terms total deals in H1 2019, accounting for 8%.
The report furthered said 130 institutions invested in MENA-based start-ups in H1 2019, of which 30% were from outside the region.
500 Startups remained the most active venture capital firm, especially at early stage investments, while Flat6Labs was the most active accelerator program.
Moreover, H1 2019 saw the influx trend of foreign investors continue. The entrance of China’s MSA Capital and Germany’s food conglomerate Henkel, among others, highlighted continued international interest in MENA start-ups. In fact, 30% of all entities that invested in MENA-based start-ups were international investors.
Walid Faza, Partner and Chief Operating Officer of MSA Capital, said: “Chinese models are shaping the consumption habits of emerging market tech consumers and MSA’s deep knowledge in both ecosystems positions us to add a lot of value to companies based in MENA.”
EMPG leads the start-up ecosystem with a $100 million fundraise, followed by Yellow Door Energy and Swvl
EMPG receives the highest amount of funding by a single start-up, raising $100 million in February 2019. Yellow Door Energy ($65M) and Swvl ($42 million) complete the top 3.
In total, the top 10 deals in H1 2019 account for 62% of the total investment amount in H1 2019, down 9% from H1 2019. In terms of exits, H1 2019 has seen 15 start-up exits take place across MENA, an increase of 5 compared to H1 2018.
The largest of these was Careem’’ landmark exit to Uber. Magnus Olsson, Co-Founder, Chief Experience Officer noted “Our $3.1 billion deal with Uber was a hugely significant moment, not just for Careem, but also for the Greater Middle East. It was the largest tech deal this part of the world has ever seen and puts our region’s emerging technology ecosystem on the map of both regional and foreign investors.” On the impact the deal will have across the ecosystem, Olsson noted that “Careem views its colleagues as owners of the business and so we introduced an equity scheme that will now see them financially benefit from the transaction. We hope that the deal will act as a catalyst for the next generation of tech startups in our region.”
The pairing of wind and solar is emerging as a smart strategy to implement renewable energy sources with better economic feasibility.A Fine Couple They Are (Wind and Solar Power) as suggested by Jim Romeo would definitely affect this Energy Transition era if only in terms of duration.
The pairing of wind and solar power is an advantageous complement; the two benefit each other. The synergistic combination is an emerging trend in renewable energy and power generation as costs drop. The pairing of sustainable sources is in early stages, however. And the configuration still has challenges regarding return on investment (ROI), ease of implementation, and storage.
In western Minnesota, a 2-MW wind turbine and 500-kW solar installation—wind-solar hybrid project—is an early entrant to the wind-solar market and one of the first of its kind in the U.S. It was introduced at a cost of about $5 million with high expectations and the goal that Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Pelican Rapids would acquire the power for its 27,000 members.
The pioneering project got a boost amid the lower costs of solar. The power generation from both renewable sources is calculated to provide dividends on its investment.
According to market researcher Global Market Insights, hybrid solar-wind projects are expected to grow by 4% in the U.S. over the next five years to join a $1.5 billion global market. Some attribute the growth to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference objectives, combined with lower costs of development and materials, and a keen interest by many nations to rely more on renewable energy sources. Because wind turbine power and solar both have excess capacity, together they offer far greater possibilities.
Lucrative but Limited
Renewables especially make economic sense in non-urban areas, where costs per kWh are higher, said Mike Voll, principal and sector lead for Smart Technologies at Stantec. “So, rural communities and remote locations, where energy prices often reach $0.40 to $0.45 per kilowatt-hour, actually see an ROI from these projects. When it comes to combining both wind and solar with storage, however, the list of locations is even smaller still. In a perfect world, we’d have a place that has excellent radiance with enough wind and low cloud cover, but the reality is there are very few locations that meet the geographic requirements. So even as the price continues to drop, there will still be significant limitations to pairing solar and wind.”
Despite limitations, renewables can work well in locations where everything clicks. A storage option is an essential component. “Adding energy storage can reduce intermittency of output, reshape the generation profile to match to load, and enable dispatch of the renewable energy to maximize revenue generation through ISO market participation or utility programs,” said Todd Tolliver, senior manager at ICF, a global consulting and technology services company headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.
Tolliver said the economic viability of these systems is constrained by equipment, costs of storage, and limited or irregular revenue streams. But he explained that the most common combination today is solar plus battery storage, thanks to investment tax credit and incentive programs in certain markets that provide clear lower costs and better revenue streams. Still, wind power energy storage has challenges.
In Lebanon, around 350,000 Syrian refugees don’t have access to enough safe and nutritious food. To stem the crisis, the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations introduced an electronic voucher system to distribute food aid. People are given debit cards loaded with “e-vouchers” that they can use in certain shops to buy food.
But we found that Syrian refugees living in rural Lebanon often have to make difficult choices when buying essential items at the expense of food. Their e-vouchers can only be used in exchange for food, not other essentials like nappies.
Refugees have to engage in “grey-area transactions” that work around the e-voucher system, by asking shop owners to sell them the nappies and instead record on the system that they bought food. This places refugees in a vulnerable position – shop owners often charge higher prices for scanning non-food items as food, but refugees have no choice but to depend on shop owners to cooperate.
Collective purchasing allows refugees to pool their cash and e-vouchers so that one person can buy non-food items for another and be repaid with food. This allows people a degree of autonomy – they don’t have to rely on shop owners to allow them to buy non-food items using their vouchers. Instead, the community can manage their resources and needs among themselves.
Unfortunately, the e-voucher system prevents refugees from buying goods in bulk. Shop owners are advised by the WFP that purchases by refugees should be typical of buying food for a family. If refugees want to buy enough rice for their community and benefit from a wholesale discount, then the shop owner can refuse the transaction. This makes collective purchasing – something refugees often prefer to do when they have cash available – more difficult.
The WFP is currently piloting blockchain technology to replace this e-voucher system in Jordan and Pakistan. This is an exciting opportunity to alleviate these problems and help to empower both refugees and the shop owners, but only if the refugees themselves are involved.
Food aid designed by refugees
Rather than using a debit card, under this new system refugees would have a digital wallet that is similar to a bank account that you can access online. And instead of it being hosted by a bank, it’s part of the blockchain.
A blockchain is a shared log of transactions, with each user being able to track how much money and goods have been exchanged. This is constantly updated as transactions of food aid and money transfers are agreed between the customer and the shop owner. Each transaction forms a block of new information. The digital ledger is an expanding chain of interconnected blocks of information – hence the name, blockchain.
The WFP is using blockchain technology to cut costs on currency exchange and bank transfers. But the blockchain still allows transactions between refugees and shop owners in the same manner as the e-voucher system. If this new and innovative technology mimics the model that came before, the restrictions on what refugees can do will continue and blockchain will mimic paternalistic aid models that focus on efficiently distributing aid, rather than empowering refugees to leverage their own ways of coping with food insecurity. But if aid is designed with input from refugee communities, the technology could give Syrian people in Lebanon more agency when buying the essentials they need to live.
Blockchain can write smart contracts, which would allow people to buy items together. These are agreements whose terms are automatically enforced by an algorithm. Smart contracts act like a lock box with two keys that can be used to open it, one key is given for each party involved in the contract.
When the smart contract is created, both parties set the conditions that need to be met for them to be able to use the keys to open the lock box. Both keys need to be used for the lock box to open and for the money to transfer to complete the transaction. Before this can happen, both parties must agree that the conditions of the contract have been met. With this, refugee communities can negotiate collective purchases with shop owners and hold them accountable to the agreements they make.
Negotiating the terms of the smart contract means that refugees have more of a say over what they consider to be a fair deal. Once the smart contract is in place, the agreed sum of money for the purchase will be placed in a digital wallet – the lock box – that is bound by the terms of the smart contract. The value of items purchased by refugees is deducted once they’ve verified their identity with a retina scan, but the money will only be released to the shop owner if the refugees verify that they received the items.
We saw how these smart contracts could rebalance the power disparity between refugees and shop owners. Including refugees in the design process of humanitarian technologies and aid models can ensure they incorporate the values and practices of the people they’re supposed to help. Future innovations must be rooted in the daily lives of refugee communities. These technologies can empower people and make a real difference to their lives, but only if they’re allowed to design how they work.
How Saudi Arabia and Iran could make peace and bring stability to the Middle East, if it were up to them only, would not be an impossibility as clearly demonstrated here bySamira Nasirzadeh, Lancaster University and Eyad Alrefai, Lancaster University. It would in our opinion, be made even more reachable if both countries manage to transition off their hydrocarbon-based economies and into more diversified ones.
Saudi and Iran: how our two countries could make peace and bring stability to the Middle East
Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have rarely been worse, regarding the attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman – for which both sides blame each other. Nevertheless, in the history of relations between the two countries, there have been regular shifts between tension and rapprochement – and things can change for the better once again.
As an Iranian and a Saudi, working as research fellows for peace studies, we believe it is time that our two countries seek to manage the conflict, improve their dialogue and begin the peacebuilding process. And we are hopeful that this could happen.
But how? Peace cannot be achieved overnight; it requires a range of factors to strengthen diplomatic ties and decrease the level of enmity between the two states. First, we suggest both states’ politicians soften the language in their speeches, altering the hostile rhetoric to a more moderate one. This would open new paths towards a direct and constructive dialogue, reducing the tensions that are affecting the two countries, the region and, potentially, the world.
Direct dialogue between the two regional actors could launch negotiations that may lead to more stability in the region. The existing regional turmoil has had a detrimental impact on relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. The [Yemen war], which has caused a [dramatic humanitarian crisis], remains one of the main areas of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it also offers ground for talks between the two states.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran agree that the conflicts in Yemen and Syria can only be ended through the implementation of political, rather than military, solutions. If Saudi Arabia and Iran can take steps toward political compromises in Syria and Yemen, this subsequently will reflect positively on the trust building process.
While Saudi Arabia relies on its strategic Western allies and its ever-increasing military expenditure, Iran, which has been isolated by the US, prefers a more regional approach. Indeed, Saudi Arabia may have to ignore US protests to sit down at the negotiating table with Iran.
But the will for closer ties is, perhaps, there. Indeed, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared on March 13, 2018:
We believe that security of our neighbours is our security and stability within our neighbourhood is our stability. I hope they [Saudi Arabia] have the same feeling and I hope that they come to talks with us for resolving these problems. There is no reason for hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, we tell the Saudis that you cannot provide security from outside of the region.
Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, also recently stated in an interview that his country “does not want war with Iran, but will not tolerate what it considers hostile Iranian activity in the Middle East”.
Suspicions clearly remain, but such pronouncements could be viewed as a pause in hostilities, a turning point that could bring both sides closer together to resolve tensions.
There are also domestic reasons for a reduction in tensions, with both states building strategic plans for the future. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious socioeconomic plan to diversify the country’s economy by curbing its historic dependency on oil and challenging conservative social constructs and norms by unshackling society from some past constraints. In a state where most of the population is under the age of 30, Vision 2030 serves as a mega project that will lead the country to modernise economically and socially.
The same goes for Iran. The country has adopted a promising strategic plan called the 20-Year National Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran which has social, economic, and political objectives. But to be successfully implemented, both countries’ strategies will need stable societies and vibrant economies which cannot be attained in a hostile neighbourhood. Integration and cooperation will be essential.
Diplomacy is the solution
It is evident that Saudi Arabia and Iran will benefit more from direct dialogue than hostile rhetoric. Through discussing and working together on domestic, regional and international issues, it is in the interests of both states – and the wider region – to reduce conflict and increase cooperation through diplomatic ties.
The gradual shift from hostile to inclusive rhetoric by politicians is a helpful first step, but it is also necessary for Saudi and Iran to take practical action in their bilateral relationship.
It is expected for states to compete in their sphere of influence, but pragmatism must prevail if both countries want to put an end to their conflicts in the region.
On the road from Wadi Rum to Petra in Jordan, where signs point to the Sheikh Zayed solar complex, wind turbines turn languidly in a steady breeze. At Petra, even Bedouin encampments have solar panels and many homes in Amman use solar tubes to heat water. The UAE made headlines with its world-record solar installations, but in all the Middle East, the impact of the renewable revolution is most visible in the Jordanian landscape.
By last year, the Hashemite kingdom had installed 285 megawatts of wind and 771MW of solar power, a significant chunk of its total generation of about 4 gigawatts. By 2021, it wants to have 2.7GW of renewable capacity. Over the next decade, Jordan’s efforts could really take off – providing half of all electricity output, in our analysis at Qamar Energy. It is only a small market, but it is an important trailblazer for the region’s aspirations in renewables.
Jordan’s success has been built on good resources, solid policy and the imperatives of an energy crisis. Like most Middle East countries, the kingdom has abundant sunny desert land and, similar to Egypt and northern Saudi Arabia, it’s also quite windy in places.
The country started early on encouraging renewables with the Tafila wind farm, a joint venture with Masdar, built in 2015. It offers investors a reasonable return and gives smaller users such as hospitals and universities the chance to build solar panels on vacant land and transmit the power through a grid.
The biggest impetus to alternative energy was the cut-off from Egyptian gas supplies following the 2011 revolution, because of repeated militant attacks on the Sinai pipeline. Jordan’s budget deficit widened because the country, which imports more than 90 per cent of its energy needs and has historically financed its deficits through grants and soft loans, had to burn expensive oil for electricity. Jordan, which already hosted thousands of Iraqi refugees, had to accommodate an increasing power demand due to an influx of 1.3 million Syrians escaping the conflict in their country.
In response, the kingdom opened a liquefied natural gas import terminal at Aqaba, and negotiated supplies from the American company Noble, which produces from offshore Israel. Jordan has large resources of oil shale, effectively an immature form of petroleum source rocks, which can be cooked into oil. A Chinese-led consortium is developing a power plant based on burning this dirty material.
Jordan’s success has been built on good resources, solid policy and the imperatives of an energy crisis.
Efforts to construct a nuclear power plant have been hampered by a lack of cooling water, public opposition and the high costs of financing. Instead, Amman may opt for smaller, modular nuclear reactors that could be fabricated off-site.
To cover the higher costs of fuel, energy subsidies had to be cut back, putting a heavy burden on citizens at a time of sharp economic slowdown. But this had the positive effect of making individual rooftop solar installations attractive for small businesses and householders.
Local Jordanian companies, such as Kawar Energy and Shamsuna Power, along with Dubai-based companies including Yellow Door Energy, have created viable businesses and high-skilled employment. By the early 2020s, Jordan will have the Middle East’s lowest carbon output electricity grid, despite the carbon-heavy oil shale facility.
Success will soon bring its own challenges. Renewable output will exceed total demand at times, while the country still needs to provide for high-consumption and night-time periods. Hydropower, which could be used to store excess renewables, is minimal in the desert country.
The Red-Dead Sea project is intended to bring water to the Dead Sea, which is fast drying up due to climate change and the overuse of the Jordan River. On the way, the water would generate power for desalination. But the expensive venture faces environmental concerns and political hurdles in co-operating with Israel.
Philadelphia Solar, a local company, has announced plans for a solar plant with battery storage. Concentrated solar thermal plants (CSP), like the one under construction in Dubai, can save the Sun’s heat to generate power overnight. These do not seem to be part of Jordan’s plans yet, but the country has excellent conditions for CSP.
Electricity interconnections with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the West Bank are also underway, which could boost the resilience and renewable share of the whole area’s power grid. It could also send power to help rebuild war-torn Syria.
Jordan’s consumers will have to consider the benefits from the country’s renewable expansion, particularly industries which have complained of high electricity prices. Prices are high during peak demand hours, but this scheme will have to become more flexible to lower prices when there is an excess of solar.
Jordan’s small market and head start in renewable energy means it will reach these hurdles to solar deployment probably before any other country in the region. Its success in devising policies to continue attracting capital, boosting its renewable generation, local employment and electricity exports, while reducing consumer bills, will be an important signal for its neighbours.
This is particularly true for countries in the Arabian Gulf – whose utility companies are thinking about how to overcome similar barriers to their bold renewable plans. Such complementary resources and opportunities open the space for co-operation between these two regional allies.
Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.