How will smart cities benefit society?

Louise Collins, UAE Country Director, Project & Development Services, at JLL MENA, explains the role that smart cities will play in the GCC and wider Middle East

The Middle East is experiencing rapid growth and unprecedented transformation. By harnessing the power of new technologies, governments across the region are looking to diversify economies to meet ambitious growth and sustainability targets.

The aspiration is certainly there: the UAE has pledged to double its GDP by 2031. But there is an increasing appreciation of the role smart cities will need to play in the revolution of socio-economic life across the Middle East.

Understanding smart cities

Smart cities leverage technology to collect and analyse vast swathes of data relevant to the running of modern urban areas. They make use of layers of data on a central platform, with the information available to all who need it. 

This information can then be deployed to manage city space, public resources, and community services in a much more efficient way. By combining the power of technology with the intelligent use of data at the level of individual buildings – to monitor factors such as occupancy, location, and weather conditions through Internet of Things (IoT) sensors – building management systems can improve energy efficiency by up to 40 per cent. They can also reduce reactive maintenance efforts by 40 per cent in less than a year, resulting in huge savings in operational costs for energy and human capital.

Utilising data analytics and machine learning technologies to implement such efficient design and operational models at mass across cities could radically reduce our energy needs. 70 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions come from cities. Moving to a future where urban spaces are designed more efficiently, from the ground up, could play a vital role in meeting ambitious emissions targets.

Furthermore, both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are currently exploring ways to integrate sustainable technologies into city infrastructures, as part of their aim to achieve at least a 50 per cent energy usage saving. A villa in Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, the Middle East’s first smart city project, uses around 72 per cent less energy and 35 per cent less water than a comparable villa elsewhere in the city.

As well as efficiency, another big outcome of technology is transparency. Knowledge gleaned from the analysis of data gives all stakeholders the power to make informed choices, and gives citizens the power to hold decision-makers accountable.

In Saudi Arabia, the AlNama smart city has committed to become a zero-carbon community. Because transparency and data are at the heart of smart cities, all parties will be able to ensure that these sustainability targets are met.

The intelligent utilisation of data can help city authorities to save money, reduce energy consumption, and improve the living standards and wellbeing of their citizens.

How smart cities work in practice

When it comes to the building of properties, for example, a developer could check to see if their planned site is in the ideal location, or if there is a more pressing demand for buildings elsewhere.

The platform would tell them whether the roads surrounding the site could cope with the increased traffic. The building itself could also be optimised to ensure maximum levels of occupancy within the space, with shared facilities such as lifts programmed in a way that reduces their energy consumption, without compromising the residents’ living standards.

Buildings such as Opus in Dubai have already been built with façade and materials that integrate climate controls, energy efficiency features, as well as highly advanced safety features. Partly because of such initiatives, in 2019, Dubai became the first city in the Arab world and the MENA region to receive the platinum rating in the LEED for Cities certification. This highlights how smart cities must be a crucial element of sustainability projects.

In a smart city, public services would also make use of all the data and insights available. Rather than following a predetermined schedule, trains could operate at higher or lower frequencies depending on the demand at any given time. The RTA Dubai Sky Pod is currently at the prototype stage, demonstrating the immense potential that innovative technologies have when it comes to creating smarter, automated and more efficient public services.

Smart traffic management could monitor vehicle flows and optimise how traffic lights work, in such a way that reduces congestion. These are just some of the ways that smart cities will dramatically change urban life for the better.

Additional benefits of smart cities 

Furthermore, because smart cities are focused on efficient energy use, they will also play an integral role in the region’s efforts to tackle climate change. Countries across the Middle East, including the UAE and Oman, have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Others, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have a 2060 target.

Succeeding in this task requires a radical rethink of how societies and economies are organised across verticals. Smart cities meet this need by giving leaders and citizens the information they need to make more sustainable choices. Indeed, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it is estimated that leveraging the power of smart technologies could allow the cities to save six million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

While societies globally are set to benefit from the social and economic improvements offered by smart cities, the Middle East especially could yield profound benefits from adopting this model.

After all, this technology has come at a time when the various jurisdictions across the Middle East are aligning in order to achieve shared goals. Throughout the region, there is an ever-stronger understanding that collaborative efforts – on regulation, governance, sustainability and more – are necessary if the full potential of the region is to be harnessed.

That means sharing data, minimising waste and duplication, and cooperating on technological advances, including the development of smart cities.

Striding towards a smarter future

Thanks to the progress that has been made in recent years, Dubai is already classified as a smart city. Partly because of this, Dubai ranked as the top transparency improver in JLL’s Real Estate Transparency Index in 2022 – a testament to the fact that better technology leads to better transparency, and ultimately better outcomes for citizens.

While progress has clearly been made, both Dubai and the wider world is still at an early stage of the smart cities journey. The technology required to analyse data and optimise decision-making already exists, thanks to the huge strides made in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, renewable energy and more.

There is, however, still a long way to go in the optimisation journey, a journey that will evolve over the next decade as we take the potential of technology and data to the next level.

More countries across the region now need to leverage this technology to ensure their citizens can also reap the benefits of this revolution in urban life.