Smart Cities Emerge from the Desert

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WITH URBANISATION ON THE INCREASE around the world, just over half of the planet's population now live in cities. They also produce 75% of carbon emissions worldwide. As urban populations have mushroomed during the last 50 years, "smart" information and communication technologies (ICTs) have led efforts to improve the efficiency of urban systems and services.

The quest for sustainable urban development has led to the loosely defined concept of the "smart city" (also called "digital" or "connected" city). Although Europe and North America led the way in the 1980s and '90s, attention is turning to Asia and the Middle East, where the concept is gaining momentum and smart cities are being built from scratch.

Smart cities use ICT to build new or adapt existing infrastructure, buildings and systems to make better use of energy and resources in meeting the challenges of climate change, population growth, demographic change, urbanisation and resource depletion, and contribute to reducing emissions while increasing living standards.

A 2011 report from Pike Research, a US firm that analyses global clean technology markets, forecast that investment in smart city technology infrastructure would total $108 billion in the decade from 2010 to 2020. By the end of that period, annual spending will reach nearly $16 billion, the forecast anticipates.

Ali Al Khulaifi, market development manager at ictQATAR, the country's telecoms regulator and technology advocate, defines a smart city as an "intelligent ecosystem employing integrated technology to provide public and private services". They tend to be long-term projects, usually taking between 5-10 years, which require significant investment.

In the Middle East, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have earmarked more than $63 billion over the next five years for development authorities, infrastructure companies, governmental and corporate entities to develop smart city projects.

At the Arab Future Cities Summit in Doha in April 2012, participants agreed on the importance of developing smart and sustainable cities in the Arab region, given that the majority of the population in the GCC region now live in cities. While global corporate giants such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens and Orange look for their slice of the smart city pie, commentators also see social aspects such as investment in human and social capital and participatory governance as vital elements.

The GCC countries are leading the way in implementing smart infrastructure developments in the Middle East, lavishing vast sums in investment and funding for major projects such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, Lusail in Qatar and King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia.

Qatar, which currently has the highest per capita rate of C[O.sub.2] emissions in the world, is investing billions in "green" building and solar technologies in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint.

Lusail, an extension to Doha, is intended to be Qatar's biggest green-field area once it is completed over the next 15 years. Extending across 38 sq km, the new city includes four islands and 19 multipurpose residential, mixed use, entertainment and commercial districts. As well as 200,000 permanent residents, it will have 170,000 employees and 80,000 daily commuters. The promoters of the project describe Lusail as the "conscience of sustainable development".

In Saudi Arabia, the ambition of Dubai property giant Emaar is to develop its $100 billion King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) project, taking shape 100 km north of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, into one of the world's most advanced smart cities.

The KAEC website paints a picture of "seamless integration of state-of-the-art infrastructure and advanced technology with business and public services".

KAEC will include one of the largest ports in the world. It forms part of a $400 billion plan announced by the Saudi government in 2008 to make the kingdom less dependent on the oil industry and provide jobs and housing for the 10 million Saudis under the age of 17. …