The city: reimagined

Smart cities in the Middle East gain momentum as advanced technologies, ideas, converge

To run Smart Cities, millions, or even billions, of sensors will be connected under a vast internet of things (IoT) umbrella.
To run Smart Cities, millions, or even billions, of sensors will be connected under a vast internet of things (IoT) umbrella.

The city of the future is being built-and the Middle East is right at the heart of it. 

The Smart City, a broad term used to describe the use of the latest digital technology to improve public infrastructure and services, promises to completely transform urban living for people and businesses in the region. 

National and municipal authorities increasingly recognise the importance of sustainability, especially in energy and water, and the associated requirement for advanced ICT technologies.

The motivation behind smart cities is driven by the complex and unique challenges that face urban centres, including sustainability, infrastructure quality, and investment and funding, environmental quality, competitiveness and jobs, and digital public services, says Gordon Falconer, global director, Smart Cities, Schneider Electric.

“Addressing these challenges helps cities to attract investment, create jobs, and boost competitiveness. Smart Cities also provide better citizen public services for residents, citizens, and visitors while becoming greener,” Falconer adds.

The key to a Smart City is operational infrastructure technology, Falconer says, especially in the integration and optimisation of OT and IT systems.

Under its EcoStruxure platform, Schneider Electric’s offers an IoT-enabled, interoperable architecture for smart homes, buildings, data centres, infrastructure and Industries. Last year, Schneider Electric inaugurated a mobile IoT platform in Dubai designed to bring the EcoStruxure architecture closer to customers. Designed to run digital demos using videos and customer references, the ‘Innovation Hub on Wheels’ incorporates 17 user case studies across six areas of expertise that highlight EcoStruxure use cases.

Internet of things

To run Smart Cities, millions, or even billions, of sensors will be connected under a vast internet of things (IoT) umbrella. 

IoT will turn “Smart Cities” from intangible visions of the future into reality

IoT will turn “Smart Cities” from intangible visions of the future into reality, says Moe Raslan, regional sales director for Ruckus Networks in the Middle East. “Having a robust wireless network is a key part of this preparation – it is the “glue” that holds Smart Cities together, enabling effortless sharing of workloads with data centres and bridging connectivity across wired and wireless.”

Regional service providers and application developers are now creating purpose-built, end-to-end IoT solutions, which is a key driver in the accumulative IoT adoption throughout the MENA region, says Chafic Traboulsi, head of networks, Ericsson Middle East and Africa.

Ericsson is an increasingly important global player in Smart City applications. In Kuwait, for example, the Ministry of Electricity and Water is in the process of connecting around 800,000 smart meters in that country to more efficiently manage energy and water consumption. A consortium, led by Zain Kuwait and which includes Ericsson as the sole technology partner, has been formed to implement what will be one of the largest digital transformation projects in the Middle East when completed.

Wireless connectivity is a foundational layer to Smart Cities, both for Internet access and new digital services, such as the IoT applications.

Whether those connections will be done over Wi-Fi or 5G is part of an ongoing narrative.

For now, carrier-grade Wi-Fi is at the forefront of smart city infrastructure. Given its cost efficiencies, the speed at which it can be deployed and the high bandwidth it delivers, as well as nearly universal support across mobile devices, Wi-Fi is now viewed as a basic building block for enabling the smart city.

Wi-Fi has gone through six generations over the last 25 years. Over these six generations, Wi-Fi speed and efficiency have improved by three orders of magnitude, observes Raslan. “The latest sixth-generation Wi-Fi, based on the 802.11ax standard, supports a maximum data rate of nearly 10 Gbps with spectral efficiency reaching 62.5 bps/Hz allowing concurrent transmissions to/from as many as 74 (using OFDMA in 160 MHz). Compare this to the initial 802.11 standard’s peak data rate of 2 Mbps and spectral efficiency of 0.1 bps/Hz,” he adds.

Wi-Fi 6 will enable connectivity in dense environments such as stadiums, metros and other public venues, where there is a large number of people all trying to connect to a limited number of access points.  “Thus, the new generation of Wi-Fi will enable Smart Cities to employ technologies such as VR and AR that require improved latency and HD quality. Hence, Wi-Fi 6 will bring new technology capabilities to the table,” Raslan says.  

Ruckus Smart Wi-Fi employs a range of new enhancements not available in traditional Wi-Fi systems that are suited to the development of smart cities. When coupled with cloud-based applications, analytics engines and IoT, Smart Wi-Fi allows a city to more easily, efficiently and economically collect and analyse all kinds of data to make better decisions about urban planning, city property management and budgets.

Wi-Fi has its limitations, however. Wi-Fi is a local area network (LAN) which provides great coverage in a very limited area. Yet, the moment a connected device leaves that area, coverage is lost, which results in significant design limitations for IoT application developers. Cellular IoT can solve many of these challenges. Telcos already have almost ubiquitous LTE coverage in the region delivered by hundreds of thousand macro base stations and small cells. Updating this infrastructure to accommodate communication with IoT devices in most cases requires just a software upgrade rather than a major investment in hardware such as RF and microwave transceivers. 

Commercial LTE networks are now progressing towards supporting downlink peak data transmission speeds of up to 1 Gbps, notes Traboulsi.  Moreover, more devices which support high data speeds are being introduced. This will translate into two-thirds faster download speeds for consumers, boosting demand for IoT devices, Traboulsi observes. “By 2023, we now estimate around 3.5 billion cellular IoT connections globally,” he adds.

For the moment, the standards of 5G are not yet fully defined and therefore, today’s end devices are not ready for 5G. Wi-Fi continues to be the connectivity technology of choice for Smart Cities, Raslan observes.

Smart Cities do not just mean easy online access to public services.For better decision making, having all the city’s infrastructure mapped out and easily accessible is instrumental, says, Rabih Bou Rashid, CEO of Falcon Eye Drones.

Drones are increasingly being used to map out major parts of the smart city ecosystems.

Falcon Eye, the Dubai based drone operator, recently celebrated 10,000 flights for projects across the Middle East and Africa, covering nearly 34,000 kilometres since 2014.

Drones are also increasingly being used to support Smart City platforms such as communications infrastructure.  A particularly popular application for drones is the inspection of all cell towers, as these need regular inspection and they are usually hard to reach, explains Rashid. 

Another application would be the carrying of devices that allows the monitoring of signal strength in different parts of the country which enable the telco companies to improve their services. They could also carry signal and internet to remote areas or disaster areas.

Drones can also be used to map out new corridors for laying out of new fibre optic network or new towers at 10 times the speed of traditional methods, says Rashid.

In the past few years, new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) have risen in prominence and will have an increasingly important role in Smart City developments.

AI and drones go hand in hand, says Falcon Eye’s Rashid. “Most of our drones have some AI capabilities at different levels of intelligence. We also use AI to do image analysis of some of the work we do. We use the technology to extract specific features from large sets of data or auto recognise faults during inspections,” he adds.

Eventually, drones will run as completely independent units, their navigation relying purely on AI and decision making that is done spontaneously, says Rashid.

Cost

Cost is an obvious obstacle in realising Smart City goals, which is why public/private partnerships are key in getting these projects to fruition.

Governments, in many cases, will kickstart projects, such as in Dubai or Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. The next step is to provide the enabling environment for the private sector, by providing incentivisation to get involved. “The UAE government shows how to have a shared and integrated vision to bring Smart Cities to life,” Falconer says.

Rashid says the use of drones has already resulted in significant savings for inspections and mapping. The cost of drones is also dropping all the time and the technology, compared to a few years ago, is increasingly affordable, Rashid observes. An average industrial drone used to cost around AED100, 000 a few years ago, but now a better, safer and more reliable ones are around AED20,000.

Drones will have even more widespread smart cities applications in the future, as our roads get more congested and the air gets more polluted. The world then needs to look into clean sources of doing business. “Drones will be increasingly deployed in the supply chain and transportation, reducing traffic and speeding up deliveries of consumer goods,” says Rashid.

The emergent 5G technology will have a massive impact on smart cities in the future.

The upcoming deployment of 5G networks in 2020 is expected to boost the adoption of IoT devices with technologies like network slicing gaining more prominence. “The forecast for cellular IoT connections has nearly doubled since November 2017, driven by ongoing large-scale deployments in China. New massive IoT cellular technologies such as NB-IoT and Cat-M1 are fuelling this growth, giving service providers opportunities to improve efficiencies and enhance customer,” explains Traboulsi.

The region can learn from existing Smart City implementations in other parts of the world. Schneider Electric in the Arabian Gulf is exchanging best practices from Smart City projects such as Naya Raipur, India; Istanbul, Turkey; and the EUREF Campus in Germany, says Falconer. The EUREF Campus district in Berlin, in particular, is a Living Lab that is driving energy innovation for the city, saving 30% in typical energy costs.

The Middle East is poised to lead the next wave of Smart City deployments. With a tech-savvy population, almost universal mobile and broadband connectivity, and with the backing of visionary leaders, the foundation has been laid for the cities of the future. 

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