x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Digital cities the answer as urbanisation spreads

Populations are growing fast in global mega-cities, and digital technology holds the key to meeting the resultant demand for services.

Singapore developed a city-wide smart transit system that collects and processes traffic data from the location and speed of moving cars. Above, traffic at Orchard Road during the evening rush hour in Singapore. Munshi Ahmed / Bloomberg News
Singapore developed a city-wide smart transit system that collects and processes traffic data from the location and speed of moving cars. Above, traffic at Orchard Road during the evening rush hour in Singapore. Munshi Ahmed / Bloomberg News

One of the greatest challenges facing governments today is urbanisation, which is leading to the creation of mega-cities around the world. According to the United Nations, more than half the global population currently lives in cities, and this number is likely to reach 70 per cent by 2050. Such a large demographic shift poses challenges for developed and developing regions alike. Faced with expanding populations, municipal governments are already struggling to meet the demands on infrastructure, services, and resources (including water and energy). Governments must also promote economic growth and deal with growing environmental issues—often in a context of fiscal restraint.

Digital technology is among the most promising means to help meet these multiple challenges. The right digital tools can enhance the quality of life in cities by enabling governments to deliver services more efficiently. Digitisation can also create jobs in promising, tech-driven areas such as data analysis and app development, and reduce the environmental impact of mega-cities by, for example, making urban transport more efficient.

The next step is to apply digitisation more directly to urban planning, with the goal of creating “digital cities”, or intelligent ecosystems that are better able to meet the challenges of growth and sprawl. Unlike traditional cities, which have developed haphazardly, digital cities are purposely designed around integrated infrastructure, leaving them better equipped to deliver integrated value-added services such as e-health, e-government and e-transport, among others.

The “Smart Dubai” initiative is one promising example. The five-year plan aims to transform the emirate using digital technology, allowing it to offer a range of online government services to citizens, local businesses and government entities. In addition to quality-of-life benefits, the project will add US$5.5 billion to Dubai’s GDP, along with 27,000 jobs.

Other cities are launching similar programmes. Singapore is currently implementing a 10-year master plan (called “intelligent nation 2015”) that relies heavily on digital technology. As part of the initiative, Singapore developed a city-wide smart transit system that collects and processes traffic data from the location and speed of moving cars, through crowd-sourcing, and gives residents real-time traffic data on a public television channel. Singapore also has a large telemedicine initiative—some 3 million patients, or 60 per cent of the population, are seen by medical doctors through remote consultations on digital media.

Similarly, Busan, a city in South Korea, built a 10-gigabyte IP network that connects all government agencies and private-sector companies. The network covers 319 organisations and nearly 1,300 kilometres of fibre, enabling fast data connections across all organisations. To support its data management, Busan is building the largest global cloud data centre in South Korea, a 133,000 square metre, earthquake-resilient facility. Busan’s municipal government believes that the data centre could create up to 30,000 new jobs.

The message for policymakers in cities throughout the Gulf region is clear. Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to technology, they should create a more expansive agenda and create “digital cities” that can tackle the economic, social, and environmental problems of urbanisation.

These efforts require significant infrastructure, namely a backbone of fibre-optic cable that connects city agencies, residents, and businesses. They also require a central integration layer that can coordinate data among multiple applications and services, and connect to end users through multiple access points, such as smartphones, tablets, urban transit elements and other devices.

Once these components are in place, the potential applications are virtually limitless. For example, a city-wide monitoring system equipped with intelligence could detect suspicious behaviour on public premises and proactively prevent crimes; the result is a better allocation of law-enforcement resources and lower crime rates. Similarly, teachers and students could more easily exchange learning materials and assignments.

Of course, digital transformations are long, complex, and expensive. Given the political or economic obstacles that will inevitably arise, the process will require city leaders to work with all stakeholders to establish right objectives and development efforts. This is particularly true in older cities that already have dense infrastructure in place and often require expensive, complex retrofits to accommodate digital technology.

However, governments that take steps—even small, incremental measures—to strengthen their information and communications technology and offer enhanced and integrated e-services across all sectors will reap sizeable benefits. As the urbanisation trend gathers momentum over the coming decades, the advantages of digital cities will only grow larger.

Ramez Shehadi and Olaf Acker, partners, Danny Karam, principal, and Keirin Lee, senior associate at Booz & Company are the authors