11th April 2019


H.E. Dahi Al Mansouri
H.E. Dr. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh
Dr. Manal Awad Mikhaiel
Mina Al-Oraibi

Building smart cities of the future requires informed and data-driven urban development policy. Entering targeted data partnerships with the private sector and civil society will enable governments to formulate and answer the most impactful questions that will shape the cities of the future. How can urban stakeholders reframe modern challenges to utilize the datasets that offer solutions in sustainable urban planning?

Although this panel looks at Arab cities, each city uses data in different ways. The UAE, for example, has a mobile and Internet usage of 98%, which is one of the highest in the world and much higher than the 60% for the rest of the Arab world. “I asked Bill Gates once how he would describe this century”, Dr. Abu-Ghazaleh said. “He said that AI will govern the world.”

In his career in international development Dr. Abu-Ghazaleh has chaired 14 UN task forces and initiatives. He has focused on establishing partnerships between the private sector and government. Dr Abu-Ghazaleh told the story of meeting Kofi Annan for coffee after Annan was first appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations. “I told him the United Nations should not be a club of governments. The private sector should be in it as well. When I told the stakeholders this, they looked at me like I was speaking Greek. I mean, it was in Arabic.”

Some of the best solutions to urban problems have come from private companies using data. Uber, for example, solved the traffic problem in a creative way. In his guide to the best practices of urban development, however, Dr. Abu-Ghazeleh notes that the approaches that work the best always consider the human being. “The digital era is a great equalizer,” Ms. Al-Oraibi noted. “But access to information and technology is important to achieve this equality.”

Egypt has digitized the demographic information about its citizens. The government also has data about social organizations, artisans, and even geography (e.g. sea, desert, mineral). This information allows the government to match up qualified workers with job opportunities. Mass aggregation, however, also raises issues of privacy. The government has raised the idea of legislation to protect users from data exploitation, though it is not yet passed. “We are undergoing a digital transformation,” Dr. Mikhaiel said. “It has allowed us to find weaknesses in our programs and overcome them. And now when people look at the Ministry of Technology, they can see it benefits them.”

One interesting application of the digital transformation is in waste management. An Egyptian recycling factory that takes in 600 tons of material daily was only receiving half of their loads. Drivers would get to sell off the other half along the way. To solve this the government installed GPS in the trucks so they could track where the drivers were going. “We are fighting corruption through digital technology,” Dr. Mikhaiel said. “Now drivers deliver the full load, and there is less chance of bribery.”  

The Department of Economic Development in Abu Dhabi has also digitized. The statistics department recently started studies based on polls that deal with samples of Emirati society. From this information they have created indices that track consumer confidence and quality of life, which they publish in bulletins and magazines for stakeholders to track trends so they can make better decisions. They recently partnered with the Oxford Group and will launch projects that will allow the government to predict accurately what happens in the near future. “We try to use data so our investors can get greater transparency,” H.E. Al Mansouri said. “When they are more certain they can cut their losses. The more immediate flow of information leads to a necessary equilibrium.”