Exclusive: Shaping the future of smart cities

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Safder Nazir, Senior Vice President, Digital Industries Strategy, Huawei Middle East explores the future of urban living.

The global economy is at a tipping point as digital technologies continue to be embedded into both working and personal lives at an unprecedented rate. By 2023, digitally transformed enterprises will account for more than half of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP); driven within the Middle East by the rise of a digital-savvy generation, which accounts for 75% of the region’s population and the proliferation of the digital devices. Worldwide, the number of connected devices in 2025 is predicted to reach 100 billion, more than 12 times the number of people at the time.

These shifts in digitalisation have significant implications on the evolution from Smart to Cognitive Cities and the future of national digital transformation through eight significant forces that are shaping the future of urban living.

The rise of the sharing economy

The first of these forces is the sharing economy. This economic model is characterised by peer-to-peer online ecosystems and platforms, including ride-hailing services, vacation rentals and crowd financing. And while this new model is changing the way people consume products and access services, it is also reshaping employment models and industry ecosystems. The sharing economy is expected to flourish in the coming decade. According to multinational professional services network PwC, the revenue share of players in some key sectors of the sharing economy is expected to reach 50% by 2025, up from 5% in 2013.

The rise of the sharing economy has significant implications for national digital transformation and Smart City evolution. While the sharing economy raises several data regulation, privacy and security challenges, it also provides opportunities to solve escalating issues such as traffic congestion, excess capacity and unemployment. Governments pursuing national digital transformation should address the opportunities the sharing economy presents through regulation and policymaking. In addition, they should focus on building digital telecommunications and Information Technology (IT) infrastructure to support the economy’s evolution.

Industry 4.0

In pursuit of improved national productivity and greater economic strength, Middle Eastern governments have long focused on bolstering the competitiveness of their manufacturing sectors. Industry 4.0 led digital transformation of manufacturing consequently takes a prominent place in national development plans across the region.

The transformation will affect the entire manufacturing value chain, from design and production to delivery and customer service. Industry 4.0 will change what a future factory looks like: workers on the shop floor will be equipped with the latest augmented reality tools while the digital twin of the supply chain will provide real-time intelligence. Huawei’s Global Industry Vision for 2025 (GIV@2025) predicts that there will be 103 robots for every 10,000 manufacturing employees by 2025. In other words, it will be commonplace for industrial robots and people to work side-by-side in the factory environment. Technologies such as robotics, intelligent connectivity, industry cloud, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be the cornerstones of this transformation.

AI will penetrate every aspect of life

Future cities are home to ‘intelligent societies’ powered by AI. Huawei forecasts that there will be 40 billion AI-enabled personal smart devices by 2025, of which 90% will have intelligent personal assistants. This prediction has significant implications for the way people live and work, as smart devices will help individuals make better decisions as well as off-load simple, tediously repetitive tasks.

Digital transformation powered by AI, big data analytics, cloud and connectivity will allow governments and businesses to develop a new standard for value creation. Technologies such as AI and Machine Learning (ML) turn data into action and action into value and enable autonomous operations, resilient decision making and optimisation; key focus areas for a digitally-enabled organisation today. While AI presents significant opportunities for Smart Cities and national digital transformation, it also raises ethical issues and increases the potential for misuse, unwarranted surveillance and invasions of privacy.

Digital identities

The year 2020 changed the landscape of enterprise infrastructure, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing workers, customers and business processes to adapt to a new operating model in which remote access, untrusted networks and data security were more profound than ever before. To provide seamless citizen and employee experiences, future cities require new models for managing digital trust. The role of digital identities — for both people and things — will thus become pervasive and underpin many aspects of city transformation. By identifying and authenticating people, software, hardware components and digital services, new capabilities can be rapidly and securely introduced and integrated into ecosystems. This identity-centric approach is one of the most effective ingredients of digital transformation. The interactions between digital identities at scale go far beyond simple user authentication. They build the foundations for strengthening trusted networks, managing risk, safeguarding privacy, enabling security policies and detecting incidents.

Digital twins

Cities are under tremendous pressure to cater to the needs of digital natives. Triggered by the rapid buildup of sensory systems — the network of connected things — and fuelled by data, major cities are going through a period of rapid cognitive city development. Municipal operations teams are creating data models that can visualise a city’s complex operations in real-time, models which are otherwise known as digital twins. These data models are live digital blueprints of physical assets, processes and ecosystems. What differentiates digital twins from traditional visualisations is their dynamism and real-time capabilities.

Digital twins will drastically improve city operations by improving response to emergencies, optimising traffic flows and ensuring efficient energy management. Global market research firm, IDC predicts that 40% of cities will use digital space planning tools — such as digital twins— by 2022. These tools will be used to speed up the socioeconomic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure the safe movement of people, goods and services.

Urban predictive operations

Cities are increasingly focusing on resiliency as a critical aspect. Resiliency, here, refers to a city’s ability to respond to a potentially disruptive event, such as a natural calamity or a pandemic, in a timely and efficient manner. Cities are consequently building ‘urban predictive operations centres’ to elevate their resiliency. These real-time intelligence centres combine data, technology and human expertise shared across various departments, such as police and fire departments, road and transport authorities, hospitals and national security agencies. They convert data into information that various city departments can use to respond quickly and efficiently to emergencies. Such centres harness the power of the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics and intelligence to unearth patterns that are vital in situations such as the outbreak of disease.

Personalised and immersive experiences

This century, customer experience has become the driving force behind economic development and strategic planning, significantly impacting how cities function. The cities of the future will be defined by the engaging and effective citizen experiences they can provide. Extended Reality (XR) is a key technology enabler in this regard, bringing together physical and virtual worlds.

The year 2020 was pivotal in the short history of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies, primarily due to its accelerated use to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns, social distancing measures and similar restrictions on the movement of people and goods have changed how we collaborate, learn, play and consume services. Many cities are experimenting with various XR technology use cases, particularly as XR can bypass restrictions and provide superior citizen experiences across multiple areas, including entertainment, tourism, travel, healthcare, education, city operations and the future of work.

The foundation of the cognitive city

The infrastructure of the city of the future will need to support digital workforces, provide citizens with continuous personalised experiences and enhance the digital economy. Three elements will be critical for such future-ready digital infrastructure: real-time functionality, scalability and security. The various elements of a digital infrastructure need to work in tandem to ensure the smooth functioning of the future city.

Many urban zones in the Middle East are striving to build a futuristic city — a place defined by high-quality and sustainable living standards. Such cities need to serve the next generation digital citizen, who craves continuous personalised experiences, while catering to location-agnostic digital workforces and supporting innovative digital enterprises. Fuelled by data and powered by AI, a new generation of Cognitive Cities will possess real-time awareness and the ability to predict and proactively respond to events.

Safder Nazir


This article was originally published in the March 2021 edition of International Security Journal. Pick up your FREE digital copy here

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