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Emerging technologies have given way for cities to flourish and become smarter. Modern day consumers are now enjoying the luxuries that come with residing in smart cities, especially when it comes to real-time, tailor-made services.

Telecom Review sat down with Ghazi Atallah, CEO of NXN, to discuss the prospect of smart cities, NXN’s role in the region with regards to digital transformation and its presence at the upcoming GITEX in Dubai.

What are some of NXN’s latest projects here in the GCC region?

Over the past decade, NXN has contributed immensely in designing the digital blueprints for the smart infrastructure and smart services of some of the emerging smart cities and districts across the GCC and the MENA region.

In terms of our latest projects, we recently transformed Riyadh and Dubai into smart cities through master planning their transformation. Master planning entails devising a five-year roadmap of transformation which takes into consideration what we need to do, when we need to do it and why, as well as the services we should offer and who the stakeholders will be.

In terms of city-wide engagement, the work we did in Saudi Arabia consisted of developing a smart city master plan for the kingdom as a whole. We collaborated with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs in Saudi Arabia and the NDU (the national Digitization Unit) through which we essentially created a blueprint to support and develop the Kingdom's  digital transformation agenda in the domains of digital services development and activation, platform innovation and most importantly, data governance.

Our partners, MOMRA and NDU, have taken this blueprint and are currently in the process of implementing it city by city. This is an extensive project which we also consider to be a lighthouse project.

As for our other type of smart city customer, we deal with large developers. In Saudi Arabia, we have put in place megaprojects such as Neon and the Red Sea project, among others, through which we have worked on in a similar fashion in terms of transformation, master planning and detailing the kinds of services they show be offering and how they should implement them.

In the UAE, we did some interesting work in Silicon Oasis and Masdar city.

In terms of North Africa, we did some work on the new capital of Egypt, New Cairo, where we worked with the authority that is managing the area, to transform the city and put in place a master plan. In this case however, we worked with the government because the developer of the area was in fact the government itself as well as the district-wide ACUD (the New Cairo development).

Since we have already engaged into North Africa, we are currently extending extensively into other parts of Africa because we have noticed that there seems to be a great deal of interest when it comes to the need for smart cities.

Beyond that, we also plan to expand into the Americas and have actively been looking into providing our offerings in the Canadian market as well.

What will smart cities mean for telcos?

For telcos, it would mean a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous challenge at the same time.

With NXN being a service provider, in essence, it is a company that delivers smart city services like a telco, instead we are service providers for smart cities. I believe this because telcos are typically used to delivering telecom services such as voice data, internet-related services, etc. This is a huge opportunity for us because the market potential is very big and all the telcos within the region and the world are aware of this fact.

At the same time, it’s a new business model which involves new services and technologies. That’s why I think smart cities represent tremendous opportunity and tremendous challenge at the same time for telcos across the region.

You established a fully integrated smart city and district offering that includes digital services with data orchestration on your DNX platform. Is there any new advanced technologies or new digital transformation services that you are adding to your platform?

DNX is a platform that enables you to accelerate your transformation by taking away 80% of the headache that customers may experience. By headache, I mean putting the right technology in place, integrating, testing and running it. This is something customers typically go through when they undertake this exercise over 12 to 18 months. We use this platform to go into immediately developing the right services for the customer rather than considering only what technologies will be needed.

DNX is a scalable platform; it is scaled by both the way in which we deliver our services and in terms of the technologies we use. Additionally, it is also scalable in terms of the number of transactions that work with either a small or big city, as well as the small or big district. This enables us to put the right configuration in the right place.

Also, DNX adds more functionality by integrating it when the time comes to delivering the new smart city services in a way that we are able to leverage those technologies.

For example, we recently added more artificial intelligence (AI) capability to the platform which enables us to build within our capability that didn't exist previously such as chatbots.

We have also integrated the capability to develop the digital twin which is essentially the ability to take something physical and create a digital version of it, like a city, for instance. You could take a physical city which has streets and buildings and create a fully digital twin which could be in the form of a live 3D model of that city. More importantly, the necessary data needs to be integrated into this 3D model. Creating the digital twin can help customers make better decisions and policies.

We are integrating lots of data science capability as well which can be used to help them make better decisions, simulate, discuss and analyze.

What are some of the most common challenges that come with digitally transforming entire cities, districts and organizations?

Planning is the biggest challenge for us and we have noticed this in many of the opportunities we’ve been presented with in the market. The challenge lies in being able to combine planning and execution.

Everybody is in a hurry now. They’re all in a hurry to show something. There’s this kind of euphoria in the market to say, “I want to have something ready in three months,” which is interesting, but we are trying to combine a good plan with good execution. You can’t just devise a plan and do nothing about it; otherwise, it would be useless. Unfortunately, a lot of customers pay a great deal of money to large organizations who take up to 12 months to devise a plan, to then find themselves unable to execute it. Also, there are some organizations which promise to have a showcase ready and up and running within two months - which is also good, but typically, that showcase is not something you could scale that would enable it to go into a production environment.

Businesses are investing heavily in analytics to support digital transformations and monetize their data. Where is NXN in this market?

As I mentioned earlier about our work and the DNX platform’s capabilities with regards to data analytics and science, they enable us to support the transformation of an organization or city which in turn, helps them benefit from their data whether it be in the form of making better decisions or monetizing.

One of our core strengths is that we are able to start at that level: in terms of understanding their data and the environment, then scaling it all the way to becoming an insight. That is what we do with our offerings around city, district and customer insights.

We take that data, shuffle it around, take the most important and relevant information from the data, add the science and AI onto it in order to build models that allow for better and more informed decision making and understanding the insights into the city or district.

How will smart cities impact the lives of consumers?

Consumers are already well impacted by everything smart, not just cities. Our mobile phones, for instance, are devices that allow us to interact in a way that is practically in real time which didn’t exist previously. Moreover, if you want to look at any information in the simplest form, you would simply just pick up your phone and search for it. We now expect real-time services and feedback, even on social media. The idea is that we are currently much more demanding as consumers.

When it comes to governments and cities, however, the cities need to understand this and they need to make sure they are engaging with their customers in a way that is much more in real time, interactive and caters to the need of this type of transaction.

Long gone are the days when governments would be able to tell their customers, citizens or residents to just fill out a form and that they’ll hear back from them within three business days. We need to be able to use any digital means to get the service and it needs to be immediate.

Granted the fact that sometimes you need to ask government for verifications, it would normally take them a little longer to get it done. However, most services can be delivered immediately and in real-time now so that is our absolute focus. Citizens are used to this kind of real time environment so governments need to understand and work on that through becoming much more flexible and agile.

Could you tell us more about your presence at this year’s GITEX?

GITEX has always been an important event for us, especially since there seems to be a greater emphasis placed smart city technologies than before.

This year, we participated through two different partnerships with Microsoft and Smart Dubai where we showcased our offerings on their stands. We have an ongoing partnership with Microsoft through which we have taken our DNX platform and smart district services such as smart energy, smart security, and AI-enabled solutions and created a version of it that is compatible with Azure Cloud. With Smart Dubai, we showcased a numerous smart city solution and use cases including: AI and data science enabled services, smart economy, smart health and remote patient monitoring, among others.

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