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Future-Ready Infrastructure: Building the Foundation for the Next Generation of Smart Cities


Urbanization is accelerating across the globe, with an increasing number of people living and working in cities. Indeed, 2009 was the first point in history where the number of people living in cities surpassed the rural population. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of Middle Easterners already live in urban areas — well above the world average of 56% — and the United Nations estimates that this figure will rise to 80% in the region by 2050. In an effort to match this trend, governments in the Middle East have adopted various policies ranging from greenfield developments touted as future cities (such as NEOM in Saudi Arabia), to accelerating urban digital transformation (Doha), and incorporating a 'happiness' oriented mindset (Dubai). Infrastructure investments lie at the heart of all such efforts, but they are capital-intensive and time-consuming. Therefore, future plans need to accommodate for much longer-term growth, addressing the huge volume of users as well as their evolving requirements.

In addition to being among the most urbanized, the Middle East's population is also one of the world's youngest. By 2030, 80% of the region's population is projected to be under 50 years old, leading to a generation of Millennials and Generation Z who are always connected, treat smartphones as necessities, and value experiences over things. Such digital natives are the future citizens, consumers, and workforce of a city, so infrastructure plans must accommodate their needs.

The Evolution of the City Ecosystem

Determining the best approach for infrastructure development requires both an understanding of what it needs to cater to, and an appreciation of how the three key players of the city ecosystem are evolving: namely citizens, employees, and businesses.

Continuous Personalized Experiences

The digital citizen values the overall experience more than an actual product or service. Therefore, a future smart city should focus on providing a continuous, real-time, personalized experience for users — be they citizens, residents, or visitors. Over time, cities have built multiple organizations to serve citizens, each of them involving multiple channels — both physical and digital. To serve digital citizens, services and experiences should cut across these silos. The Spanish city of Santander exemplified this idea with their 'Pulse of the City' project. By combining data collected through direct citizen input using an app — covering information ranging from traffic congestion to noise pollution — with data collected through a network of thousands of IoT sensors, the city feeds information back to citizens, providing an augmented reality experience and optimizing city mobility.

Pioneering city management departments in the Middle East region are already thinking along similar lines and have implemented city brands (Abu Dhabi), customer journeys, digital identities (UAE Pass), and city platforms (Dubai Now) to break down restrictive silos. Analyst firm IDC predicts that, by 2022, the market demand for tailored experiences will double every six months, particularly in industries such as tourism, entertainment, media, retail, hospitality, transportation, and healthcare.

The Evolution of Enterprise

The industry ecosystem has already witnessed drastic changes in the new millennia, with digital pure players becoming prominent in many industries. Even for traditional players, almost half of revenue now derives from digital products, services, and experiences. The mantra "think and act like a start-up" has given rise to collaborative ecosystems in which traditional and digital pure players work together symbiotically, enabling simultaneous growth. As a result, the future city ecosystem is expected to be increasingly collaborative, with concepts such as the sharing economy, open banking, co-innovation, and co-working gaining prominence.

The Rise of the Digital Workforce

Throughout the 20th century, the working environment saw minimal change, with employees and assets mainly concentrated around office buildings and factories. In contrast, the 21st century has already seen many jobs becoming location agnostic, with the traditional fixed desk, IP phone, and desktop/laptop workspace being rapidly replaced with a mobile-first, cloud-enabled, AI-supported digital workspace. The workforce of today requires instant, efficient, and ubiquitous access to resources, anytime and anywhere. Relying on global, secure, highly integrated, and collaborative digital workspaces, innovative organizations of this decade function as borderless organizations, where personnel operate side-by-side with 'digital coworkers', be that physical robots in a manufacturing environment or AI-based bots in a services environment. IDC predicts that, by 2021, digital coworker contributions will increase by 35%, as more tasks are automated and augmented by technology, including AI, robotics, AR/VR, and intelligent process automation.

The Future of City Digital Infrastructure

The infrastructure of the city of the future will need to support digital workforces, provide citizens with continuous personalized experiences, and facilitate a digital economy. City management departments therefore need to extend their view and not only treat physical plants and buildings as critical infrastructure, but also regard digital IT infrastructure — including data centers, sensors, and cameras across the city, as well as the connectivity backbone and network elements that bind them all together — in the same way. As the volume and complexity of digital infrastructure expands, three elements become critical: real-time functionality, scalability, and security.

Real-time, Scalable, and Secure

What puts future-ready digital infrastructure at the forefront of development is its ability to access, process, and return large volumes of data from a variety of sources in real-time. If a fire breaks out, city infrastructure should be able to access data from a variety of sources — including video feeds from fixed and mobile cameras, environmental data from smart poles, building management systems, social media posts, and so on — and relay it to a command center. There it needs to be processed in real-time then followed by an automated and appropriate response. The success of such a system will rely on a network of IoT devices with a robust connectivity backbone.

Building effective citywide infrastructure without compromising security is key to successful implementation. If telecom and IT infrastructure is indeed critical infrastructure for a city, securing it is a matter of national security, especially in the era of cyber terrorism and cyber warfare. A recent IDC survey found that among the 35% of cities that deployed an IoT project, 10% were unable to scale them up due to infrastructure limitations and security concerns.

An IoT Edge in a 5G-based, Multi-cloud Environment

Connected things — ranging from cameras, sensors, wearables, smartphones, and computers — act as the sensory network of the city, while the telecom network becomes the nervous system. Efficient city functioning in the future will be heavily dependent on the smooth flow of data and its conversion into actionable insights by technologies such as AI and big data analytics. The development and implementation of intelligent command and control centers, autonomous transport, emergency ambulance drones, elderly care robots, and immersive experiences, puts pressure on edge elements to process data locally, pushing computing towards the edge. This network of intelligent elements needs a secure cloud-native backbone that adheres to local and global data regulations such as country GDPRs. Cloud — with its scalability, elasticity, and efficiency benefits — is emerging as the preferred operating model for most workloads.

4G networks were the perfect catalyst for widespread adoption of smartphones and IoT devices. They were not, however, designed to enable mobility-as-a-service platforms, autonomous driving, and city digital twins. 5G enables such innovations with its enhanced capabilities around video, ultrafast speeds, real-time data integration, high device density, long battery life, and low latency. Only now are robotics, drones, AI, and immersive reality technologies more accessible with the potential to completely revolutionize public safety, transportation, healthcare and tourism sectors, all while improving environmental sustainability. By 2024, according to IDC predictions, one-third of all smart city use cases will be influenced by 5G, and 75% of large cities will use it to scale key services such as real-time and intelligent command and control centers, V2X connectivity, and smart stadiums and districts.

Figure 1: Future Ready City Infrastructure

Many urban zones in the Middle East are striving to build the 'futuristic city' — a place defined by high quality and sustainable living standards. Such cities need to serve the digital citizen who craves continuous personalized experiences, while catering for a location-agnostic digital workforce, and supporting innovative digital enterprises. Fueled by data, the new generation of Smart Cities will depend heavily on robust digital infrastructure. Therefore, city management departments must review the scalability, security, and resilience of their digital infrastructure and develop agile digital platforms supported by AI, big data analytics, IoT, cloud, and 5G networks. Only through planned, researched, and strategic investment in improving digital infrastructure can the vision for future-ready cities be achieved.