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Smart Dubai 2021 - Harnessing technology to build a model city in the desert

While Dubai once pursued its vision through magnificent real estate, today it is harnessing technology to drive a pioneering investment programme designed to make it a Middle Eastern technology hub and transform the lives of 3.1 million citizens. This city is nothing if not ambitious.




Dubai not only has the world’s tallest building, it is also assembling the world’s largest solar park and is investing substantially in creating a state-of-the-art city through technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, blockchain, autonomous vehicles and drones, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) applications. Digital technology lies at the heart of ‘Smart Dubai 2021’, Dubai’s future city initiative.

In the run-up to 2021, the year of Dubai’s golden jubilee, the government aims to improve residents’ lives and bolster its position as a model global city by hardwiring technology into  its fabric, adding to its status as a leader for smartphone usage. Highlighting the importance of technology, His Highness Sheikh Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, has described technology as enabling his vision, noting that technology development is not an end in itself. Evidence suggests that the large-scale application of new technology can yield major socioeconomic benefits. High rates of digitisation can lead to not just higher economic growth but also social inclusion and poverty reduction, access to quality healthcare and education, and lower CO2 emissions, according to the McKinsey report ‘Digital Middle East: Transforming the region into a leading digital economy’.


Urban challenges in our Middle East and North Africa region are also significant opportunities for our cities.

Dr Aisha Bin Bishr

The overall strategic intention is to make Dubai a happy place. “The Smart Dubai initiative fulfils the vision of His Highness ‘to make Dubai the happiest city on Earth’”, wrote Dr Aisha Bin Bishr, Director General of the Smart Dubai Office, in a 2017 article published by the World Economic Forum.

A grand ambition

Dubai’s large-scale future city programme is in character. It is no accident that Dubai hosts the Arab world’s most important financial centre, the world’s busiest international airport and is the fourth most-visited city. Without the oil riches of its neighbours, Dubai has long sought to differentiate itself in other ways.

Today’s Smart Dubai 2021 technology initiative is just the latest and most large-scale. It continues a journey that began in 1999, when the government announced the first information and communication technologies (ICT) strategy. This was followed by the launch of Dubai Internet City, Dubai e-government, Dubai Smart Government and, in 2014, the Smart Dubai initiative. And government has not been alone on this journey; it has been accompanied by business.

A technology leader

The results speak for themselves. While Dubai ranks 99th globally in the 2019’s Cities in Motion Index, compiled by Spain’s IESE Business School, it is fifth in the technology dimension. It is also number one for technology in the Middle East. IESE describes technology as “an aspect of society that improves the present quality of life and its level of development. In addition, technological development is a dimension that allows cities to be sustainable over time, and to maintain or extend the competitive advantages of their production system and the quality of employment.” The high consumer uptake of digital technology in Dubai is not unique in the Middle East’s Gulf region. While the United Arab Emirates – where Dubai is one of seven emirates – ranks second globally for mobile broadband subscriptions, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017–2018, its neighbours Bahrain and Qatar rank one and seven respectively. More unusual is the high level of digitisation by both business and government, which sets Dubai apart in the region, according to McKinsey.

Smart Dubai 2021

Looking forward over the three years to 2021, technology is key to all six of Smart Dubai 2021’s strategic objectives. By leveraging the potential of new technology, Dubai aims to create a smart digital city, connected government, an interconnected society with easy access to social services, smooth transport backed by autonomous and shared mobility, a clean environment, and a competitive economy powered by disruptive technologies.

As a first step, creating a smart digital city requires all people and organisations, including businesses, to have fast internet connectivity. To this end, free high-speed Wi-Fi will be provided across the emirate. Measures are also being taken to protect sensitive and private information in cyberspace.

Turning to the strategic goal of having a connected government, every part of the city’s infrastructure will need to be connected to the internet. Water, energy, sewage, drainage, waste distribution, buildings and traffic lights will all be monitored through IoT platforms. This will foster more reliable and efficient services. It will also minimise waste through the timely detection of leaks in water and electricity networks, as well as allowing citizens to monitor their energy and water consumption.

In a related field, 90 per cent of citizens’ daily services will be delivered digitally. These include: healthcare, education, culture, housing, entertainment, community services and volunteering.

Ambitions for improving transport in the emirate’s congested streets range from autonomous car technology and shared trips through to smart parking, smart tolls and smart traffic lights. The digitisation of public services alone is likely to reduce the trips to run errands. More futuristically, the ‘Volocopter’, the world’s first fully electric autonomous air taxi, made its maiden flight over a Dubai beach in 2017.

When it comes to cleaning up the environment, the city has many goals. It has targeted reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 16 per cent by 2021 through a range of measures. Among them, solar power is being harnessed to increase the proportion of energy from renewable sources to seven per cent, thanks to the new 77 km2 solar park.

Finally, the city is leveraging digital technology to improve the competitiveness of its already fastgrowing economy. It plans to boost research and development, enhance digital services and introduce training programmes to improve digital skills.

Technology for the common good

So, will Dubai achieve its ambitions for 2021 through the application of new technology? Dr Bin Bishr from the Smart Dubai Office clearly thinks so: “Urban challenges in our Middle East and North Africa region are also significant opportunities for our cities,” she writes. “Technology provides myriad potential solutions that address urban issues in different ways.” Her office has devised 100 different benchmarks, going by the technical jargon of key performance indicators that will be used to judge progress. But ultimately, the success of this broad programme will be evident for all to see in the growth of the economy and health of society.

When twinned with the enthusiasm for smartphones among Dubai’s residents, the city’s drive to harness technology for the common good may well turn it into a model future city. From data analytics to blockchain and AI, technology is replacing bricks and mortar as the foundation for the emirate’s vision.

Future cities

Over the next 20 years, more than 2 billion people will migrate to cities. With the growing number of urban dwellers come many challenges: congestion, pollution and a shortage of housing and recreation options, to name a few. So how will our transportation infrastructures keep up? Where will everybody live? Will there be enough jobs for everyone? In our ‘Future Cities’ series, we explore what type of innovations are helping cities to become more sustainable – and liveable.

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