The above image is of Tomorrow City.
5 August 2022
Abdulmajeed Albalawi, smart city programme director at Madinah Regional Authority, explains how the Saudi Arabian city is harnessing innovation to not only solve urban challenges, but promote Madinah’s cultural and historical heritage to citizens and visitors alike.
Madinah is primarily known as a holy city – where do your smart city ambitions intersect with that identity?
Abdulmajeed Albalawi: We’re mainly focused on solving city challenges and improving quality of life for our citizens. In that way, there’s no contradiction between Madinah as a holy city and Madinah as a smart city. We see our smart city strategy as an enabler to meet the needs of the city and its people, and to create positive experiences for those people.
Our aim is to become more holistic and to introduce more tools that will serve our citizens. That extends to the holy elements of the city and people’s lives and will make the city more suitable for those needs.
Our objectives are to improve city life for all citizens and create new jobs and economic opportunities – for example, around start-ups and technology. These are the driving forces behind the projects that Madinah has taken on so far, and as we see it, one influences and helps to solve the other – improving quality of life leads to better opportunities and a better urban economy.
As part of this work, we’ve designed an engine to capture the challenges the city faces so we can more easily connect together the issues and needs with solutions, with a view to meeting our main objectives.
When are some of the primary challenges that Madinah is facing?
AA: We have challenges split into two sections – business and operational. In terms of business challenges, we’re aiming to reduce the unemployment rate in the city through the projects we launch, and improve the digital skills of the workforce as part of that.
On the operational side, we’re looking at how we break down siloes between departments and promote a more open mindset. It’s a clear challenge for a lot of cities that needs to be solved, and for Madinah we want to overcome it to ensure that everyone can work towards our smart city objectives in the right way.
We see our smart city strategy as an enabler to meet the needs of the city and its people, and to create positive experiences for those people
There are other challenges out in the city that we’re facing, too. Madinah’s status as a holy city means a lot of the activity in the city is centred around the Holy Mosque, both for residents and visitors from around the world. As a result, there is a constant flow of people in and around the mosque which we need to manage to cope with crowding in the centre of the city. To deal with this challenge, we have launched an incubator in partnership with universities, experts and start-ups from around the world.
The incubator will be dedicated to solving further urban challenges in Madinah, too, identifying and defining the issues being faced and then engaging in a continuous problem-solving process with experts to overcome them. It’s a unique proposition for the city to work in this way and to have potential solutions being recommended on a continual basis from international experts.
What kind of technology-based solutions is Madinah looking to deploy to solve these challenges to become a smarter city?
AA: Our technology partners are crucial in achieving our goals as a smart city. We’re currently working with FIWARE and using their technology to create our own smart city platform. Madinah is the first middle eastern city to make use of FIWARE’s platform. We chose FIWARE’s open platform because our objectives call for us to view Madinah from a ‘city as a system’ perspective, and to solve problems based on what the system is telling us.
We’re now creating our city as a system via the FIWARE platform, meaning we’re connecting the dots between Madinah’s services, operations and departments, and beginning to break down siloes to identify the right solutions to issues at the right time. We’re collecting data from all over the city and connecting it together to enable data analytics, which will be really important in how we work out the kinds of solutions we require.
The main benefit of breaking down these operational siloes is being able to better define issues and challenges, as we have much more context on the city and its operations as a whole. It’s crucial for Madinah to be able to work in this way, and the challenge with crowds at the holy mosque illustrate why; we need to understand where the problem originates so we can solve it at the source.
Another benefit is that Madinah’s city departments have been able to collaborate more often and more easily. In turn, that has meant we have been able to push towards our primary objectives more collectively.
Outside establishing the smart city platform through FIWARE’s technology, we’re now looking into smart lighting. We see connected streetlighting as the beginning of a nervous system for the city, able to gather data about the city and monitor pedestrian and traffic flow, as well as air quality. We’re also exploring how we can use the same infrastructure to promote messages and information to citizens through digital signage. The streetlights and all associated monitoring will feed back into the smart city platform to give us a more holistic view of the city and how it is operating.
We have recently signed an agreement to build a full-scale digital twin of Madinah using satellite imagery, becoming the first city in the Middle East to do so
Coming back to the crowd challenges around the holy mosque and the central area of the city, we’re also developing a simulator to model those crowds. We’re currently designing the model and later will deploy sensors in the city to gather data to be able to monitor crowds and simulate scenarios. This won’t necessarily be a full digital twin of the mosque, but will be a mirror for the movement within and around it, including parts of the city infrastructure and operations that have an impact on movement and crowding.
We have recently signed an agreement to build a full-scale digital twin of Madinah using satellite imagery, becoming the first city in the Middle East to do so. We’ll use the 3D model digital twin for urban planning, traffic management, crowd management and urban analytics across the entire city, not just the centre and the holy mosque. We anticipate that we’ll have a digital twin of the city in the next three months.
How can innovation help to protect and promote Madinah’s history and culture?
AA: Through all of this smart city work, it’s important that we also look to promote the city’s culture and history, so we’re assessing how we can use technology to bring that history back to life. Here, Madinah is looking to use a combination of augmented reality and digital twin technology to illustrate our history in a more dynamic and modern way, both for the benefit of citizens and visitors.
I think innovation is all about how to open doors to experiences and the city’s unknowns. Technology is a great enabler for Madinah’s heritage and culture and can help to show everyone in the city how its identity has developed to become what it is now. We’re not designing the city around technology, we’re designing it around experiences, and how those experiences can create stories to be shared among people. Madinah’s culture flows through that process and innovation just helps us to draw it out.