Smart Cities Part 1: Understanding a Transforming Concept

Smart Cities Part 1: Understanding a Transforming Concept 

Thought Leadership

ADSME Hub goes on a deep dive into smart cities and how innovation drives their growth. In this first part, we look at what a smart city is meant to be today and how Abu Dhabi fares on key smart city indicators.

With the third Abu Dhabi Smart City Summit in the works (it will be held from October 31 to November 1, 2023), many stakeholders in the country’s innovation ecosystem are focused on establishing a unified framework for the UAE capital city’s transformation into a leading smart city globally.

In fact, Abu Dhabi already ranks as the smartest city in the MENA region in 2023, coming 13th out of the 141 cities listed in the IMD Smart City Index 2023 (SCI), released last April and establishing internationally recognised global standards for smart cities since 2019. Interestingly, Abu Dhabi is, with Dubai, the only city in the Index’s top 20 that isn’t either in Europe or in Asia-Pacific (American cities are remarkably absent).

Indeed, Abu Dhabi has long been investing in a number of smart city projects, extensively integrating artificial intelligence (AI) across sectors, in line with the UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, the UAE Vision 2021, and the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. Back in 2010, it was also one of the founding members of the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organisation (WeGO), a membership-based international association of local governments, smart-tech solution providers, and institutions committed to the transformation of cities into smart sustainable cities through facilitating public-private partnerships (PPP).

The UAE maintains a leadership position in this field even though the notion of smart city itself is evolving.

Blending Technology, Sustainability, and Humanity

Initially, a city was considered smart if it used information and communication technology (ICT) to improve operational efficiency, share information with the public, and provide a better quality of government service and citizen welfare.

However, in recent years, the definition of a smart city has been expanding beyond the mere use of technology to encompass a broader blend of technological innovation, sustainability, and citizen well-being.

Today, WeGo defines smart cities as “cities that ensure enduring economic, social, and environmental sustainability by:

  • exploiting the power of digital technologies
  • engaging city leaders and communities
  • integrating across sectors and disciplines
  • accessing investment for smart sustainable cities development

to improve efficiency of urban operation and services, quality of life, and economic prosperity and services for their communities.”

In other words, a smart city creates and activates synergies between sustainable development and technological innovation to ensure a progressive, inclusive, and sustainable future for all. Moving away from a purely technology-centric approach, cities that want to be smarter need to be more human-focused as well, reflecting “deep changes in the way smart cities (and cities in general) will be designed and managed,” says the SCI.   

Source: Iberdrola 2022

In addition, startup research platform StartUs Insights identifies the following top 10 smart city trends in 2024:

Abu Dhabi’s Steadfast Progress as a Smart City

The SCI 2023 report first highlights attitudes – responses to three key privacy aspects and use of online payments.

According to the survey:

  • 75.2% of respondents are willing to concede personal data;
  • 90.6% of respondents are comfortable vis-à-vis face recognition;
  • 91.9% of respondents feel the availability of online information has increased their trust in authorities;
  • 68.2% of respondents make day-to-day transactions that are non-cash.

The report also shows that respondents say Abu Dhabi is actively getting smarter in some key areas:

  1. Health & Safety
    • Online reporting of city maintenance problems provides a speedy solution: 80.8%
    • A website or app allows residents to easily give away unwanted items: 76.8%
    • Free public Wi-Fi has improved access to city services: 72.8%
    • CCTV cameras have made residents feel safer: 87.2%
    • A website or App allows residents to effectively monitor air pollution: 60.4%
    • Arranging medical appointments online has improved access: 86.2%
  2. Mobility
    • Car-sharing apps have reduced congestion: 65.1%
    • Apps that direct you to an available parking space have reduced journey time: 73.6%
    • Bicycle hiring has reduced congestion: 68.4%
    • Online scheduling and ticket sales has made public transport easier to use: 81.8%
    • The city provides information on traffic congestion through mobile phones: 80.5%
  3. Activities
    • Online purchasing of tickets to shows and museums have made it easier to attend: 88.7%
  4. Opportunities (Work & School)
    • Online access to job listings has made it easier to find work: 78.7%
    • IT skills are taught well in schools: 77.0%
    • Online services provided by the city have made it easier to start a new business: 77.0%
    • The current Internet speed and reliability meet connectivity needs: 85.9%
  5. Governance
    • Online public access to city finances has reduced corruption: 70.1%
    • Online voting has increased participation: 67.3%
    • An online platform where residents can propose ideas has improved city life: 73.3%
    • Processing identification documents online has reduced waiting times: 83.1%

Lastly, the survey ranks priority areas that respondents perceived as the most urgent for their city to address – highlighting opportunities for innovative solutions and providing a roadmap for future development in the process:

  1. Affordable housing: 72.0%
  2. Fulfilling employment: 52.0%
  3. Unemployment: 50.0%
  4. Health services: 34.4%
  5. Road congestion: 29.7%
  6. Air pollution: 26.8%
  7. Green spaces: 26.5%
  8. Public transport: 26.4%
  9. School education: 23.5%
  10. Basic amenities: 21.6%
  11. Citizen engagement: 20.8%
  12. Recycling: 20.5%
  13. Social mobility: 18.7%
  14. Security: 16.4%
  15. Corruption: 12.4%

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