The Middle East is betting big on Smart Cities to solve its most complex challenges

The Gulf region aims to boast a trillion-dollar digital economy by 2025. At the heart of this goal is the realisation of key smart city development dreams held for decades. Can the next three years really bring about the delivery of smart infrastructure, mobility, health, services and government on an unprecedented scale?

While announcements about smart city ambitions never fail to grab headlines and attention, turning this ambition into reality is much harder. This is something that is painted vividly – sometimes proudly, sometimes painfully – across the Middle East’s recent history. 

Regardless, today the region’s attitude towards smart city development is decidedly more focused and goal-oriented than compared to the previous decade. One feature of this renewed focus is the increasing investment. Middle East investments in smart city technologies will reach $2.3bn by the end of 2021. This is against a global backdrop of rising smart city technology spending, which is predicted to reach $135 billion by 2021, up from $80 billion in 2016.

What solutions matter most to would-be smart city inhabitants?

The mass relocation of human population from rural to urban centres is a particularly acute trend in the Middle East; it has witnessed the fastest growing urban populations in the world for the past 50 years. The GCC is expected to rise to a 90% urbanisation by 2050, up from 85% today.

This brings all manner of challenges, principally the need to create liveable cities that provide health, wealth and opportunity for everyone living in them. Specific urban crises range from traffic congestion, to high crime rates, poor air quality and an expanding range of lifestyle-related wellness issues. The pandemic has, unsurprisingly, prompted new thinking on these issues and how to address them as part of a sustainable global recovery. A recent study of 167 cities globally demonstrated the tangible effect that the pandemic is having on future urban planning: 68% of cities are entirely re-thinking their strategy on city zoning and use of space, while 54% plan for a comprehensive overhaul of their city-wide mobility and transportation systems.

As for the thoughts of the people who may soon live in smart cities, in its most recent Building the cities of the future report, Mastercard, Smart Dubai and Expo 2020 Dubai’s survey revealed that the top three expectations of a smart city were, “Environmentally friendly business practices, paperless government services, and fast, affordable, city-wide internet connectivity”.  For two-thirds of respondents, the key measure of successful smart city living was the ability to use their smartphone as an instant and intuitive channel to all city services. Smart city residents want to have the means to engage with transport systems, government services, healthcare institutions, entertainment venues etc in their pocket.

Key Middle East smart city project plans

To deliver this kind of smart city living experience, connectivity is at the heart of the region’s infrastructural upgrade drive. GCC countries routinely rank highly in this regard – in 2019, the UAE was 1st in the region and 4th globally for launching and deploying 5G networks. Connectivity is also a cornerstone of current and future smart city investment plans.

Looking ahead, the following are just a selection of impactive project timelines that highlight the wider regional push to deliver the necessary foundations for the Middle East smart city dream.

Zayed Smart City Project: In 2023, the Abu Dhabi Department of Urban Planning and Municipalities will complete its five-year project, launched in 2018. The Zayed Smart City Project is already a successful vehicle for introducing IoT and other advanced digital technologies to large sections of the capital’s critical infrastructure.

Desert Rose City: Though its progression was postponed due to the global health crisis, the UAE’s newest smart city venture is close to completion. It will initially house 160,000 people in city infrastructure that produces 40% of its own electricity, entirely renewable sources, as well as 40,000 gallons of drinking water a year. 

Dubai Expo: While this is a relatively smaller, and temporary, project rather than a full smart city, the Dubai Expo is an important platform for actively demonstrating what can be achieved. The Expo, which runs from October 2021 to March 2022, will be entirely self-sufficient in its energy needs, and will recycle all its waste from within the Dubai South smart city district. 

The Line: We’ve covered the development of The Line, as part of Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion NEOM regional megaproject, in previous updates. It’s design status as a ‘climate-first’ smart city, with no cars and provision of all necessities within a 5-minute walking distance, directly addresses many of the primary issues associated with traditional city living.

Next-generation solutions will provide better city living for the next generation

The Middle East continues to cultivate its well-deserved reputation as a smart city incubator and a hub of investment and experimentation for the technologies that will power next-gen urban environments. As tech-led solutions for solving specific problems attached to city living, so does the overall vision for smart city development across the region.

With investment on the rise, and timelines on everything from climate change to water and energy security growing short, the realisation of the Middle Eastern smart city dream may be closer than any of us imagine.