Today marks the seventh World Cities Day. Under the overarching theme of Better City, Better Life and the subtheme of Valuing our communities and cities, World Cities Day serves as a reminder to one of the most recognisable and deeply important pillars in service of a society: Cities. World Cities Day concludes Urban October — an initiative founded by UN-Habitat which looks to tackle Goal 11 from the Sustainable Developmental Goals, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.
In addition to the obstacles faced by nations burdened by mass urbanisation, the world has witnessed radical changes. COVID-19 has altered how people think, behave, spend, and consume in a way few could have predicted. This particular world health crisis has presented cities, industries, and businesses with much uncertainty — each under immense pressure to adapt and transform. It has also thrust the topic of health and well-being to the forefront of discussions.
A critical time lies ahead in shaping the path to recovery. Globally, cities need to be more resilient to account for citizen health and well-being. They must also be better equipped to respond to the closure of services and workplaces, and better able to manage any future economic downturn.
The way forward is undoubtedly marked by digital transformation and the increasing prevalence of smart cities. Not only is digital transformation a precursor for economic growth, it is an investment to help cities rebuild through data, online services, and planning tools. It ultimately improves the quality of life for citizens, making cities safer, healthier, and more sustainable.
The true value of smart cities is evolving amid the effects of COVID-19. While they are important in stimulating economic activity and sustainability, the new measure of a smart city’s success will include how the holistic well-being of its citizens improves.
Dubai’s own smart approach to citizen well-being
As the theme of World Cities Day suggests, Better City, Better Life, Dubai is prioritising citizen happiness and well-being through the adoption of smart technologies. Here, smart city governance and policy prioritises citizen well-being above almost all else. Guided by the Smart Dubai initiative, the goal is to seamlessly integrate smart services into daily life.
Dubai’s government has revolutionised public services to be more citizen-centred through technologies such as AI and big data. It has launched more than 1,000 smart services from two dozen government departments and private sector partners, measuring Dubai’s smart city progress against nearly 100 KPIs. This continued, measured effort ensures the safety and well-being of its residents.
Smart Dubai’s COVID-19: City Experience Resilience and Impact Report highlighted how digital transformation is crucial to sustaining and improving digital services and infrastructure. It emphasised that adopting empowering technologies is fundamental for a resilient smart city, but also underlined their role in citizen well-being.
The UAE ranks very highly for treatment efficiency for COVID-19 and in the implementation of safety measures. Acting swiftly, March saw the widespread usage of the national e-health service, Wareed, which enabled healthcare facilities to quickly identify individuals at a higher risk of contracting the illness, mitigating the risk of widespread infection.
Other digital developments include UAE PASS and the national digital identity — a digital solution that allows citizens to access government services by any federal or local government entity through one app, omitting the need to visit physical service centres and sign paper documents. Solutions like this provide efficiency, enhance customer experience, and improve citizen happiness overall.
The focus on well-being is further highlighted in one of Dubai’s first strategic ‘smart city’ initiatives — the Smart Dubai Happiness Meter. The meter is a simple yet powerful city-wide live sentiment tool to measure happiness among city experiences across thousands of touchpoints. It is directly linked to Dubai’s smart city vision and the emirate’s goal to become the happiest city on Earth.
Well-being at the heart of smart city progress
Dubai’s mission to put well-being at the heart of its smart-city initiatives is evident in Expo 2020’s pioneering Worker Wellness Programme. The first phase of this project saw a total of 5,540 workers volunteer for a preventative health programme that used Whoop technology – wearable wrist-strap wellness devices – to record and improve worker welfare.
The programme forms part of Expo 2020’s wider approach to worker welfare and health and safety, designed to set new benchmarks for major construction projects and mega-events in the region and beyond, and leave a positive legacy long after Expo 2020 closes its doors on 31 March 2022.
It is a vision that will be preserved by District 2020. With a human-centric approach to its smart-technology-enabled community, District 2020 is designed to allow people to work and live in balance with the environment around them.
Smart cities can truly measure their progress when data and digital tools powered by an efficient digital network can help authorities tackle issues underpinning urban life. The pandemic could very well be a catalyst for accelerated change, shifting the way technology is used in smart cities to emphasise the human experience and improve well-being.
A Smart Cities report published by MGI — McKinsey & Company’s business and economics research arm — highlights that smart cities are “entering a new phase, and their advanced detection, and prediction systems will help to have a direct impact on the improvement of their citizens’ lives”. The report also suggests smart cities can “save between 30 and 300 lives per year in a city with a population of 5 million; reduce crime by 30-40%; reduce disease risk by 8-15%; shave 15-30 minutes off the daily commute; save 25-80 litres of water per person per day and enable 20-35% quicker response times for emergency services.”
District 2020: A blueprint for a future-focused smart city
District 2020 will evolve into a new type of urban experience in the region. Designed to be adaptable and human-centric, the community aims to curate an innovation ecosystem that meets the needs of its future workers, residents and visitors. Both its physical and digital infrastructure will ensure that District 2020 is a place where people can live and work in balance — they will have access to the latest enabling technologies (5G and IoT) while being in a holistic, integrated, mixed-use environment that equally promotes well-being. Through actualising values which promote a balanced lifestyle, District 2020 will focus on building a community which enables individuals to thrive.
Post-Expo 2020 — one of the most anticipated mega-events of 2021 that itself will leverage smart technology to create a seamless experience for visitors and partners — District 2020 will grow to become a blueprint for the kind of adaptable smart city that could prove so effective at managing the kind of disruption faced in recent months.
Inheriting Expo’s advanced digital and ICT infrastructure, District 2020 will curate all the elements necessary to shape a cohesive smart city, including key players that are driving progress in smart city operations. They include German giant Siemens, Expo 2020 Dubai’s Official Infrastructure Digitalisation Partner, as well as China’s Terminus Technologies, a leader in AI and IoT that will establish an AIoT R&D centre at District 2020 following its involvement in Expo 2020 as its Official Robotics Partner.
With a human-centric purpose, District 2020 has been designed to consider the many aspects of well-being of its future population and, most importantly, will provide a greater degree of control over such elements when compared to a conventional city. For example, careful consideration has been given to smart mobility and reducing the time spent commuting. As a solution, autonomous vehicle (AV) routes and interconnected pedestrianised pathways will allow workers to move around quickly and seamlessly, by car, foot, or bicycle.
By providing an urban lab, District 2020 will enable businesses and innovators to participate in piloting projects that offer solutions to urban issues. The community will benefit from optimised lifestyles, and they will also be involved in creating and implementing new ideas that could potentially be scaled to improve communities elsewhere.
Additional smart elements supported by an underlying ICT infrastructure (Telecom, Network & Data Centre) will also allow for integrated sustainable practices. Buildings fitted with smart sensors and metering will provide precise analytics of water and energy usage, allowing for controlled and reduced consumption. These smart monitoring systems will constantly grow in sophistication to improve life for District 2020’s residents and workers.
As District 2020 actively contributes to the discourse surrounding smart city developments which emphasise citizen well-being, it does so in a climate of uncertainty. The permanence of today’s changes in citizen behaviour is not yet known, which is why the pressure is on cities, industries, and businesses to work flexibility and adaptability into their future plans. Smart technologies are fundamental to enabling evolution, as they provide the insight and intelligence authorities and organisations need to quickly assess and adjust their approach as society changes around them.