Thursday, 8 November 2012

Smart cities rise from the Gulf’s deserts

With urbanization 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.


 Masdar City, UAE

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.

This article was first published in The Middle East magazine, July/August 2012 issue.

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, urbanization 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, Pike Research 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 investments.

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 CO2 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 multi-purpose 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.

But it is Masdar City, 17 km from Abu Dhabi, which stands out as the Gulf’s current landmark smart city. The aim of the developers of the $22 billion project was to create the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city, with the emphasis on energy efficiency. The 36 sq. km city, designed by British architects Foster + Partners, incorporated renewable energy and clean technologies as part of its design.

There is a strong emphasis on natural cooling, with streets aligned to provide daytime shading, parks located to channel prevailing winds into the city, and traditional Arabic building principles such as wind towers. Exterior materials and windows were chosen to provide maximum cooling and reduce heat gain in buildings.

Construction began in 2008, and when it is completed in 2025 the city is expected to accommodate 40,000 residents and 50,000 daily commuters. Conventional cars have been replaced by public transport using electric pod cars.

Masdar City treats wastewater for landscaping, to reduce the need for desalination, and uses 54% less water than the average UAE city.

Its 10MW solar-power plant, the largest grid-connected plant of its kind in the Middle East, is designed to produce more electricity overall than the city consumes, with excess transferred to the national grid. By 2020, Abu Dhabi aims to generate at least 7% of its power needs from renewable sources.

Every electrical outlet in the city is monitored, and smart meters collect and continuously analyse data about power usage to provide an accurate "live" model of energy use.

Smart energy grids are vital to smart cities. They can reduce peak demand for electricity by providing information and incentives to consumers, allowing them to shift consumption to other periods.

Smart metering is key to the effective operation of smart energy grids. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the Geneva-based global standards organization for all areas of electrotechnology, maintains that without accurate measurement it is not possible to demonstrate energy efficiency improvements credibly.

The UAE currently leads the smart meter market in the Middle East and North African region. A June 2012 report by Northeast Group, a Washington-based market intelligence firm, projected that MENA countries could save between $300 million and $1 billion every year by adopting smart grids to incorporate renewable energy sources, cope with rising demand and reduce energy losses on networks. The report predicted that capital spending in the MENA smart metering market would rise to $3.9 billion by 2022, with smart meters installed in 86% of homes in the Gulf.

But while conspicuous energy consumption remains a feature of Abu Dhabi, Masdar comes across more as a development project rather than an environmental one. And other regions of the world, such as Europe, are still ahead of the GCC in using real-time data systems to collect data on water and power usage and increase user awareness in environmentally friendly smart homes.

So, given the enormous financial resources of the Gulf states, why are there relatively few smart cities in development in the region?

Andrew Nusca, editor of the US-based website SmartPlanet, believes that while the Gulf states have considerable wealth, traditionally they have not been good at distributing it throughout the population or investing in public works projects that enable wealth generation. He told The Middle East: “By definition, the term ‘smart city’ denotes not just physical capital - infrastructure - but intellectual and social capital, too. That can't happen until the Gulf states begin to give their own people the tools to generate economic benefit for themselves and the state. That kind of progress takes generations to materialize, which is why we're only seeing the beginnings of this in the Middle East today.”