According to a World Bank report published in April 2023, urban population globally will more than double its current size by 2050, at which point nearly 7 of 10 people will live in cities.
With more than 80% of global GDP generated in cities, the speed and scale of this urbanisation bring many challenges, from accelerated demand for affordable housing to viable; but they can also contribute to sustainable growth through increased productivity and innovation, if managed well.
Abu Dhabi embarked on this smart journey quite some time ago, intent on leveraging the fact that, according to the UAE Ministry of Economy, the global smart cities market is poised to nearly double to $873.7 billion by 2026, while the global mobility-as-a-service market is projected to reach $40.1 billion by 2030 and the smart building market is expected to triple to $229.10 billion by 2026.
The Sustainable Gold Standard: Masdar City
Back in 2006, Abu Dhabi kickstarted Masdar City, the first sustainable city in the Middle East, developed in a collaboration of government, private companies, universities, and individuals. Masdar City aims to reduce energy and water consumption, as well as waste generation, through a combination of technology, architectural designs, and solar power.
Since, it has been growing a rich network of sustainability-focused startups such as Volts and FortyGuard in its Free Zone, joined international initiatives such as the Abu Dhabi – Singapore Smart Cities Open Innovation Challenge, launched Catalyst, the region’s first clean technology startup accelerator, and inked partnerships to further support its innovation ecosystem, including in terms of agriculture and food security. The city is also being used to run pilot projects testing new renewable energy innovations developed at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.
Today, Masdar City’s buildings consume 40% less energy and water than similar conventional properties, while power demand is offset by a 10MW solar power plant on site and 1MW of rooftop solar panels. Its walkability and compact urban planning reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation and its Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system offers automated electric transport, among numerous other initiatives that allow Masdar City to set a new standard for eco-friendly urban development. By 2030, the city will be home to 50,000 residents and a base for 40,000 professionals and sustainability research students.
Leveraging Technology: The Zayed Smart City Project
Meanwhile, the Zayed Smart City Project, a five-year plan to promote the development of smart city technologies launched in 2018 by the Abu Dhabi Municipality, manages infrastructure by using information technology and the Internet of Things (IoT). Largely powered by artificial intelligence, the project was initially tested on the Corniche area of Abu Dhabi to validate key use cases and its viability before being expanded to the rest of the city.
Ten use-cases were evaluated to connect key components across the city, including air quality monitoring, asset tracking and logistics monitoring, structural health monitoring, water metering, palm tree weevil detection, street lighting, smart parking, waste management, water storage tank monitoring, and swimming pool monitoring.
Harnessing the Power of the Sun
Located in Al Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi, Shams was the largest renewable energy project in operation in the Middle East when it launched in 2013. It now occupies 2.5 sqkm and has a capacity of 100 megawatts. It directly contributes toward Abu Dhabi’s target of 30% power-generation capacity via clean energy by the year 2030.
Following the launch in 2017 of the UAE’s first unified Energy Strategy 2050, aims to increase the contribution of clean energy in the total energy mix from 25% to 50% by 2050 and reduce the carbon footprint of the power generation sector by 70%, Abu Dhabi has built the largest single-site solar park in the world, Noor Abu Dhabi, with more than 3.3 million of solar panels and a total capacity of 1.2 GW. The plant started its commercial operations in 2019, supplying Abu Dhabi with clean energy through a long-term power purchase agreement with the Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC).
This, however, will be surpassed by the 2 GW Al Dhafra solar project, led by a consortium of four leading companies in the energy sector. The plant will span over 20 sqkm of desert climate area, with more than four million PV modules. Upon completion, it will generate enough electricity for approximately 160,000 homes across the UAE, allowing the emirate to approach 100% carbon-free peak power by 2027-20228.
Tackling Mobility the Smart Way
Only 4.9% of people in Abu Dhabi use public transport (against 59% in New York or 33% in Tokyo), a Strategy& report says, leading to issues like urban congestion, traffic safety, and accessibility for underserved populations. Faced with the substantial growth of its population, the city has been incorporating smart mobility — the use of technology to create urban transportation networks that are far more efficient, sustainable, and data-enabled – into its urban planning, starting with Masdar City which now has a self-driving shuttle service and partnerships with several e-scooter providers.
Various partnerships have been signed to further enhance smart mobility: in 2021, the Abu Dhabi Municipality tasked Bayanat with leading the development and application of autonomous vehicles; the first fleet of fully autonomous taxis, TXAI, was unveiled a few months later.
In November 2022, Abu Dhabi Airports also signed a memorandum of understanding with French engineering and operations firm Groupe ADP to explore the potential of advanced air mobility (AAM), which uses electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to move people and cargo.
And last April, Abu Dhabi-based manufacturer Monarch Holding and Chinese AAV technology platform company EHang Holdings signed a partnership agreement to establish in Abu Dhabi the first facility in the region to manufacture and operate sustainable, electric-powered aircraft and drones for passengers and cargo transportation.
Streamlining Public Work
Last September, the Department of Government Enablement – Abu Dhabi was launched as a centralised government enabler that delivers quality services to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi government employees and entities, customers, citizens, and residents.
The platform includes GovDigital, which supports government partners to deliver services and build ecosystems that enrich quality of life and multiply opportunities for business and personal growth; GovTalent, which oversees the human resources system in Abu Dhabi to ensure support and assistance is always available to government employees; GovAcademy, dedicated to enhancing the skills and knowledge of government employees through effective training and development initiatives; GovProcurement, an integrated regulatory framework for procurement to be used by all Abu Dhabi government entities; TAMM, a unified omnichannel government ecosystem, offering a wide range of services provided by the Government of Abu Dhabi; and employment support centre Mawaheb, which prepares UAE nationals for current and future employment.
These are but a few of the many initiatives in Abu Dhabi’s smart city pipeline. Smart homes technologies, blockchain, and many other innovative trends are gradually reshaping the way the city evolves. As, Gabrielle Inzirillo, a financial regulator from the Abu Dhabi Global Market, said at the 2023 edition of Hong Kong’s annual Digital Economy Summit, “Both Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi are trying to build these sandboxes, to prove these technologies and send them out on a national and global level.”