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’s status as a holy city means a lot of the activity in the city is centred around the Holy Mosque
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.
The smart city strategy seeks to improve city life for all citizens and create new jobs and economic opportunities
There’s no contradiction between Madinah as a holy city and Madinah as a smart city, said Abdulmajeed Albalawi
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.
Saudi crown prince unveils design for NEOM’s futuristic, smart linear city ‘The Line’
The city’s design will be completely digitised and the construction will be industrialised by significantly advancing construction technologies and manufacturing processes
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and chairman of the NEOM board of directors Mohammed bin Salman has announced the designs of ‘The Line’, a 170 kilometres long smart linear city.
According to the crown prince, the designs of The Line will embody how urban communities will be in the future in an environment free from roads, cars and emissions. The city will run on 100 percent renewable energy and will prioritise people’s health and well-being over transportation and infrastructure as in traditional cities. It will also put nature ahead of development and will contribute to preserving 95 percent of NEOM’s land.
Last year, the crown prince launched the initial idea and vision of the city that redefines the concept of urban development and what cities of the future should look like.
“We cannot ignore the livability and environmental crises facing our world’s cities, and NEOM is at the forefront of delivering new and imaginative solutions to address these issues. NEOM is leading a team of the brightest minds in architecture, engineering and construction to make the idea of building upwards a reality,” said the crown prince.
He added, “NEOM will be a place for all people from across the globe to make their mark on the world in creative and innovative ways. NEOM remains one of the most important projects of Saudi Vision 2030, and our commitment to delivering The Line on behalf of the nation remains resolute.”
The city’s design will be completely digitised, and the construction industrialised to a large degree by significantly advancing construction technologies and manufacturing processes.
The Line, which is only 200 metres wide, 170 kilometres long and 500 metres above sea level, will eventually accommodate 9 million residents and will be built on a footprint of 34 square kilometres, reducing the infrastructure footprint of the city.
Further into The Line’s design, NEOM revealed that the city will be designed with the concept referred to as Zero Gravity Urbanism in mind. The idea of layering city functions vertically while giving people the possibility of moving seamlessly in three dimensions (up, down or across) to access them. Unlike cities with just tall buildings, this concept layers public parks and pedestrian areas, schools, homes and places for work, so that one can move effortlessly to reach all daily needs within five minutes.
The Line will also have an outer mirror façade, allowing it to blend with nature, while the interior will be built to create extraordinary experiences for people living within the city.
(The image above is of Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)
Today, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) have become big business. Throughout the 2020s, Harvard Business Review estimates that these technologies will add $13 trillion to the global economy, impacting virtually every sector in the process.
One of the biggest drivers of the value-add provided by AI/ML will come from smart cities: cities that leverage enhancements in such technologies to deliver improved services for citizens. Smart cities promise to provide data-driven decisions for essential public services like sanitation, transportation, and communications. In this way, they can help improve the quality of life for both the general public and public sector employees, while also reducing environmental footprints and providing more efficient and more cost-effective public services.
Whether it be improved traffic flow, better waste collection practices, video surveillance, or maintenance schedules for infrastructure – the smart city represents a cleaner, safer, and more affordable future for our urban centers. But realizing these benefits will require us to redefine our approach towards networking, data storage, and the systems underpinning and connecting both. To capitalize on the smart city paradigm, we’ll need to adopt a new and dynamic approach to computing and storage.
Providing bottomless storage for the urban environment
In practice, the smart city will require the use of vast arrays of interconnected devices, whether it be sensors, networked vehicles, and machinery for service delivery. These will all generate an ever-growing quantity and variety of data that must be processed and stored, and made accessible to the rest of the smart city’s network for both ongoing tasks and city-wide analytics. While a smart city may not need access to all the relevant data at once, there’s always the possibility of historic data needing to be accessed on recall to help train and calibrate ML models or perform detailed analytics.
All of this means that a more traditional system architecture that processes data through a central enterprise data center – whether it be on-premise or cloud – can’t meet the scaling or performance requirements of the smart city.
This is because, given its geographic removal from the places where data is generated and used, a centralized store can’t be counted on to provide the rapid and reliable service that’s needed for smart city analytics or delivery. Ultimately, the smart city will demand a decentralized approach to data storage. Such a decentralized approach will enable data from devices, sensors, and applications that serve the smart city to be analyzed and processed locally before being transferred to an enterprise data center or the cloud, reducing latency and response times.
To achieve the cost-effectiveness needed when operating at the scale of data variety and volume expected of a smart city, they’ll need access to “bottomless clouds”: storage arrangements where prices per terabyte are so low that development and IT teams won’t need to worry about the costs of provisioning for smart city infrastructure. This gives teams the ability to store all the data they need without the stress of draining their budget, or having to arbitrarily reduce the data pool they’ll be able to draw from for smart city applications or analytics.
Freeing up resources for the smart city with IaaS
Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) is based around a simple principle: users should only pay for the resources they actually use. When it comes to computing and storage resources, this is going to be essential to economically deliver on the vision of the smart city, given the ever-expanding need for provisioning while also keeping down costs within the public sector.
For the smart city in particular, IaaS offers managed, on-demand, and secure edge computing and storage services. IaaS will furnish cities with the components needed to deliver on their vision – whether it be storage, virtualization environments, or network structures. Through being able to scale up provisioning based on current demand while also removing the procurement and administrative burden of handling the actual hardware to a specialist third party, smart cities can benefit from economies of scale that have underpinned much of the cloud computing revolution over the past decade.
In fact, IaaS may be the only way to go, when it comes to ensuring that the data of the smart city is stored and delivered in a reliable way. While handling infrastructure in-house may be tempting from a security perspective, market competition between IaaS providers incentivizes better service provision from all angles, whether customer experience, reliability and redundancy, or the latest standards in security.
Delivering the smart city is a 21st century necessity
The world’s top cities are already transforming to keep up with ever-expanding populations and in turn their ever-expanding needs. Before we know it, various sectors of urban life will have to be connected through intelligent technology to optimize the use of shared resources – not because we want to, but because we need to.
Whether it be a question of social justice, fiscal prudence, or environmental conscience, intelligently allocating and using the resources of the city is the big question facing our urban centers in this century. But the smart city can only be delivered through a smart approach to data handling and storage. Optimizing a city’s cloud infrastructure and guaranteeing cost-effective and quality provisioning through IaaS will be essential to delivering on the promise of the smart city, and thus meet some of our time’ most pressing challenges.
David Friend is the co-founder and CEO of Wasabi Technologies, a revolutionary cloud storage company. David’s first company, ARP Instruments developed synthesizers used by Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and even helped Steven Spielberg communicate with aliens providing that legendary five-note communication in Close Encounters of the ThirdKind. Friend founded or co-founded five other companies: Computer Pictures Corporation – an early player in computer graphics, Pilot Software – a company that pioneered multidimensional databases for crunching large amounts of customer data, Faxnet – which became the world’s largest provider of fax-to-email services, Sonexis – a VoIP conferencing company, and immediately prior to Wasabi, what is now one of the world’s leading cloud backup companies, Carbonite. David is a respected philanthropist and is on the board of Berklee College of Music, where there is a concert hall named in his honor, serves as president of the board of Boston Baroque, an orchestra and chorus that has received 7 Grammy nominations. An avid mineral and gem collector he donated Friend Gem and Mineral Hall at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. David graduated from Yale and attended the Princeton University Graduate School of Engineering where he was a David Sarnoff Fellow.
In the MENA region through the years, wealth has always been absent and this for millennia especially in the Gulf area. Nowadays, images of gold buildings, fantastic motorways, and all the most expensive things in life have become commonly known and used. In the Gulf, however, one thing comes to most people’s minds first. It is oil. Dubai, Doha and Riyadh are among the top 5 in MENA ranking would not be a surprise since this region rich with its rich oil reserves and supply of that oil is one reason and a good one for those cities in this area have earned a spot on the list of the world’s wealthiest nations. Now turning that wealth into smart cities could be considered to be some achievement.
The above image is for illustration and is of Doha, Qatar.
Dubai, Doha and Riyadh among top 5 in MENA ranking
Dubai continues to lead the region in Kearney’s Global Cities report climbing four places in the global ranking, while Doha experienced the most dramatic jump globally, placing it third regionally, while Riyadh ranks fifth in Mena.
Riyadh also leads in Human Capital dimension in the GCC, highlighting its ongoing efforts in attracting international talent and large foreign-born population, according to the 11th edition of the report, which offers key insights into how Covid-19 and the resulting pandemic containment measures have impacted the level of global engagement of 156 cities around the world.
Comprising of Global Cities Index (GCI) and Global Cities Outlook (GCO), the report measures how globally engaged cities are across five dimensions: business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement as part of the GCI. GCO, which is a forward-looking evaluation based on 13 indicators, assesses how the same cities are creating conditions for their future status as global hubs.
Global Cities Index
Dubai retains its top spot in the Index for the region, and is also ranked fourth globally in Cultural Experience, reflecting the city’s relatively early reopening to international travellers, bolstered by strict testing requirements, a rapid rollout of vaccines and Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing.
Doha saw the largest jump of any city on this year’s Global Cities Index, rising 15 places following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Qatar and its neighbouring countries, highlighting the importance of fostering regional relationships in addition to global ones.
Cairo ranked fourth in the Mena region, followed by Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s capital city leads in Human Capital in the GCC, where its strengths in attracting international talent and large foreign-born population contribute to the strong showing. This is in line with the country’s increased emphasis on strengthening citizens’ capabilities to compete globally, in support of the realization of several strategic objectives set out in the Saudi Vision 2030.
Overall, 21 cities in the Mena region rose six or more positions in the GCI ranking compared to last year. Istanbul climbed seven spots, with the city’s efforts to become a global travel hub proving their worth. Addis Ababa moved up eight places, propelled by Ethiopia’s development investments that have supported rapid economic growth.
Global Cities Outlook
In terms of outlook, Abu Dhabi ranks fourth globally, a testament to the city’s continued focus on providing accessible, high-quality healthcare and a commitment to reducing its environmental impact, which is core to the personal well-being dimension. Dubai and Abu Dhabi co-lead in the outlook for infrastructure, an illustration of the UAE’s commitment to a future of sustainable and resilient economic growth.
Antoine Nasr, Partner, Government Practice Leader, Kearney Middle East, said: “In Mena, GCC economies, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are poised to lead regional recovery supported by accelerated efforts of their governments across the five main dimensions of the report. What’s also noteworthy is Doha has recorded the biggest gain globally for any city, a result of the compounded benefits of their strengthened economy and the newly restored regional ties. This reflects the importance of a balance between self-sufficiency and global connectivity.”
Five strategic imperatives for city leaders
The report highlights five strategic imperatives for city leaders along with a range of ways in which cities around the world can address the challenges they share:
• Win in the competition for global talent: with human capital as the driving force behind economic activity, cities that adapt to the new priorities of prospective residents, with a renewed emphasis on urban livability and economic opportunity, will be those that emerge on top • Embrace the rapidly growing digital economy: while it threatens to contribute to an emptying of cities and relocation of business headquarters, cities that harness the benefits of the global digital economy to drive differentiated competitive advantage will accelerate economic growth • Ensure economic resilience by balancing global and local resources: with the fragility of the global trade system exposed during the early months of the pandemic, cities that recalibrate and balance relationships at global, regional, and local levels will be most resilient to future disruptions • Adapt in the face of climate change: as climate change accelerates, and in the absence of unified global leadership on the topic, cities must lead the way in driving toward sustainability around the world • Invest in individual and community well-being: in recovering from the collective scars of the pandemic, cities that focus their investments on advancing the well-being of their populations will be those that create an environment in which innovation can thrive
“Though they were initially hit hardest by Covid-19, our 2021 report shows that the leading global cities have once again proven their resilience and adaptive capacity. Their broad diversity of strengths positioned them for a quicker rebound that, with leadership focus and clarity of direction, can transition into leadership of a long-term, global recovery,” concluded Rudolph Lohmeyer, Partner, National Transformations Institute, Kearney Middle East.
Construction Week of September 8, 2021, shows us how the “new normal” brings digital transformation in the built environment in an article by Mina Vucic. It is no more than a step however small but lucrative and most importantly in the right direction. Here is how it is.
How the “new normal” brings digital transformation in the built environmentan article
Asite speaks on changing the ways in which cities operate by “using technology to enhance collaboration through data sharing”.
Middle East cities have been leading the way in smart city development, acting as pioneers in implementing innovative, sustainable, and integrated solutions to become greener, more efficient, and better places to live.
Disruption and innovation have changed the way specialists think and operate across sectors, particularly in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed most industries out of their comfort zone and into digitally-enabled environments.
Doughty said that in order to effectively drive the digital transformation of cities, the industry should focus on enhancing the precision of structural data.
He added: “The number one method we should be prioritising in order to achieve our goals at corporate, governmental, and global levels is using technology to enhance collaboration through data sharing.”
Some of the examples Doughty shared in the real world include COVID-19 track and trace systems, satellite-based navigation, social media in smart cities, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and most importantly off-site construction and BIM.
Placing his focus on the modern construction methods Doughty emphasised: “In order to retrofit and repurpose the assets we must focus on creating energy-efficient buildings, decarbonise the built environment, and improve digital infrastructure’s operational efficiency.”
According to Asite’s CEO, one of the key methods to achieve those goals is to drive the circular economy, designing out pollution, keeping materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Doughty added: “We must emphasise the use of digital technologies on smart buildings, embedding sensors, gathering data, and analysing the information received to make informed decisions.”
Although the pandemic has challenged the traditional methods of construction, many organisations are now adopting BIM in the industry, providing a platform of know-how that can be built on for future technologies and more sustainable cities.
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