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According to the UN, 70% of the world's population is expected to live in smart cities by 2050. That is around 6.86 billion individuals doing their daily activities in cities should the world population swell to 9.8 billion by then from the current 7.6 billion.

As such, the traditional infrastructure and public service systems will not hold water as the demands of city life become more complex and interconnected. To be more efficient, the data and information generated within the systems — utility, telecoms, transport, health, finance, economy and energy — must be utilized in a way that fosters innovation and the interoperability of essentially disparate systems.

We are aware that the ICT sector plays a pivotal role in optimizing the value of data to facilitate the exchange of information and promote innovation, knowledge and overall governance. And smart cities offer telcos unprecedented opportunities to garner a competitive advantage and bolster their growth momentum. One prime example of such opportunities for telcos is the Dubai Digital Authority’s new digital transformation strategy. This seeks to harness the power of data, innovation and smart solutions to better enhance the quality of life of its citizens and residents and build an advanced digitally-enabled economy and society. This roadmap focuses on seven critical pillars: the Digital City, Data and Statistics, Cybersecurity, Digital Competitiveness, Digital Economy, Digital Talent and Digital Infrastructure. Each pillar is aimed at realizing meaningful economic, social and environmental outcomes.

The Need for Growth

The concept of smart cities has evolved as a consequence of countries’ needs to keep pace with global advancements. The smart city model incorporates the use of digital technology to provide solutions to monitor, manage and enhance key infrastructure and public services to improve the experience of its citizens. Conversely, with this potential explosion of the population in cities, governments are under pressure to look for ways they can reduce energy use, lower carbon emissions and save costs. Hence, technology can play an important part in tackling many of these challenges, and smart cities factor heavily in this priority. The case in point can be the Dubai Economic Agenda ‘D33,’ which aims to double the size of Dubai's economy over the next decade and consolidate its position among the top three global cities.

D33 includes 100 transformative projects, with economic targets of AED32 trillion over the next 10 years, doubling foreign trade to reach AED25.6 trillion and adding 400 cities as key trading partners over the next decade.

With smart city growth becoming such a global trend, telecom technologies are extremely important in connecting critical sub-segments such as information management, emergency disaster management, inter-agency collaboration, critical infrastructure management, citizen services and immigration, law enforcement, public administration services and so on.

A Slice of the Intelligent Technology Pie

The “level next” of smart city evolution will increasingly see the use of data and artificial intelligence (AI) to improve city operations and provide accurate insights for developing new use cases, revenue streams and innovative services for the city’s population. Urban infrastructure projects will witness the increasing integration of technologies such as AI, IoT, data analytics, and digital twins for building optimized designs. Current industry findings point towards protocol standardization and limited wireless connectivity options as roadblocks in IoT deployment; however, substantial industry efforts are underway to resolve them. Leveraging IoT platforms can support the city's extensive network of connected devices and sensors, as well as the huge amount of data that will be gathered through them. The popularity of AI among businesses cannot be overlooked today. Since its launch earlier this year, the Dubai Center for Artificial Intelligence (DCAI) in the UAE has seen 615 startups from 55 countries sign up for AI accelerator programs that provide advanced technology startups and entrepreneurs with an opportunity to develop AI uses and applications in the government and media sectors at AREA 2071.

Sustainable Value Creation

As countries and companies compete to stay relevant in the global context concerning sustainability and energy efficiency, ICT’s role in supporting these key metrics will only become more significant. A remarkable example of tapping into this value creation aspect is the collaboration between Zain KSA and the Red Sea Global project.  Zain KSA came up with the world's first zero-carbon 5G network at the Six Senses Southern Dunes resort at the Red Sea. The revolutionary 5G network that can provide the highest data transfer speeds for 5G connectivity is powered by 100% renewable energy from over 760,000 solar panels that Red Sea Global has built to power the entire 28,000 km2 tourist destination. “Zain KSA has demonstrated a deep understanding of our requirements and provided us with the services and solutions necessary to achieve our strategic objectives. Together, we are determined to make a meaningful impact that sets new standards in sustainable development,” John Pagano, Group CEO at Red Sea Global, noted of the recent development. Zain KSA’s move is in line with the basic principle of smart cities: if cities want to be smarter, they need to be less technology-centric and more human-focused. This is a deep reflection of how cities of the future will be designed and managed. All telcos would do well to align their strategies based on this innovative approach.

Realizing Inclusivity

Furthermore, the IMD Smart City Index 2023 report suggests that an increasing number of cities are deploying new efforts to encourage diversity and inclusion as part of their smart strategies, which are variously linked to strategies to attract or retain talent. Higher levels of tolerance for immigrants and minorities are becoming a marker in the quality of life category and in leaving no one behind — a key phrase in defining the future of smart cities. Moreover, cities continue to accept and seek new roles as central governments strive to become more agile through decentralization. Openness and inter-city collaboration may very well become key components of next-wave globalization. Fittingly, Dubai’s ‘Digital Harmony’ initiative follows that direction by aiming to facilitate the synergy between individuals and digital products and services in Dubai. The Authority’s ‘Digital City Experiences’ program develops a unified digital ecosystem for citizens, residents, visitors and entrepreneurs that values privacy, is user-centric and provides many options. As such, armed with cutting-edge technological support, operators command an advantageous position to build new digital businesses. Moreover, with the growth of satellite operators, telcos must leverage this wireless technology to connect underserved communities around the continent. In a recent development, Vodafone and Project Kuiper, Amazon’s low Earth orbit satellite (LEO) communications initiative, have announced a strategic collaboration through which Vodafone and Vodacom plan to use Project Kuiper’s network to extend the reach of 4G/5G services to more of their customers in Europe and Africa. Such developments can well be a welcome move from connectivity providers in their effort to close the digital divide gap.

Although the concept of smart cities is appealing to telecom companies for its growth potential, there is plenty of groundwork to be done. This calls for continuous and productive consultations among operators, vendors, system integrators, city planners, regulators and other key industry players to make the most of the opportunities afforded by a globally interconnected smart city ecosystem.

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