What does it take to be ‘smart?’

In October, the government of Dubai launched it’s smart city project. This initiative is aimed at transforming local service delivery by interlinking key public and private sector services.

What does it take to be ‘smart?’


IDC’s Mukesh Chulani on the Bosphorus shore. On October 29, the first stage of the Marmaray Project, the railway tunnel under the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, was inaugurated. It’s part of Istanbul’s “smart transport” effort.

Molouk Y. Ba-Isa

Saudi Gazette



In October, the government of Dubai launched it’s smart city project. This initiative is aimed at transforming local service delivery by interlinking key public and private sector services, and delivering these to the public via the use of smart devices relying on high-speed wireless internet connections. Saudi Arabia under its 10x10 Program, has already announced plans to create six Economic Cities, which will embrace the smart city concept.  

While there has been recent buzz about smart cities, there are many different and confusing definitions of what it means to be “smart.” International Data Corporation (IDC) has in fact been examining the concept of smart cities since 2010, and has had the opportunity to interact with hundreds of city mayors, CIOs and government leaders involved in urban innovation with technology vendors and IT service providers. IDC has learned that city leaders are most concerned about improving their ability to deliver efficient and relevant services across several common service domains. In terms of city infrastructure, these issues center around the provision of citizen-centric services, the expansion and improvement of transportation networks, the management of public safety, waste and energy resources, and education and health services. Economic development, tourism promotion and job creation are also important aspects considered by city leaders.

Any smart city initiative must therefore involve a multifaceted transformation of services and infrastructure. Such initiatives must impact numerous areas, from the provision of transport, energy, and healthcare services, to the state of public safety and government services.


“The same key questions often arise in cities as diverse as Beijing or Boston, as they consider how to grow and keep pace with technology and the expectations of their citizens and businesses,” said Mukesh Chulani, Research Manager for IDC Government Insights Middle East, Turkey and Africa.

Access to a vibrant city economy by business, citizens and local government is the ultimate goal of any smart city initiative. Effective smart city solutions must integrate information and operations between different city systems. For example, to provide effective and smart public safety, governments would require seamless views across border management, surveillance, emergency response and other related security systems.

What exactly, therefore, is a Smart city solution? IDC identifies the following attributes that must be included for a solution to be considered smart:


  • To gather and aggregate data, pervasive broadband networks must be in place to collect and transport the data in real-time or near real-time. Data may be gathered from a variety of software and hardware components, such as sensors, parking meters, license readers or directly from citizens via social media applications.

  • To discover and analyze information, robust software is required to process, cleanse and consolidate collected data. New data should be integrated with historical data sets. Furthermore, trends should be discovered and/or outcomes predicted from the use of analytics software-including predictive analytics and social analytics software. Finalized information must then be displayed in an automated fashion via dashboards, system management tools or customized alerts.


  • Mechanisms must in place to respond to the analyzed information. For both automated responses and those that require human intervention, processes must exist that facilitate the optimal execution of a response and measure the outcomes of that response.


Technology advancements in the last decade have created the right environment for smart city solutions. Pervasive wireless and broadband connections, advanced analytics software, intelligent sensors, the profusion of mobile devices and the use of social media can all be integrated by vendors to provide solutions for city governments. And while it might seem that the UAE would have the lead in its smart city projects, when taking the long view, Chulani believes that Saudi Arabia has the advantage. 

“I think that Saudi Arabia has done quite a bit in terms of setting the vision,” said Chulani. “It tends to move a little bit slower than Dubai, simply because it’s a bigger ‘ship’ to move. When you look at the smart cities effort in Saudi Arabia, there are six economic cities which have been set in place. These economic cities have been planned by SAGIA for some time now. The vision exists and it is ambitious because it’s from the ground up.”

He pointed to the struggles that Istanbul is experiencing as it aims to become a smart city. The   railway tunnel under the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, a key portion of the Marmaray Project, was delayed for years due to archeological excavations that were carried out during the tunnel’s construction. The Marmaray Project is part of Istanbul’s “smart transport” effort.

“Any existing city such as Cairo, Istanbul or even Dubai will face such issues as they implement smart city projects,” remarked Chulani. “As Saudi Arabia is building its smart cities from the ground up, it may take more time, but it’s easier to leapfrog when you’re building from the ground up. You’re not saddled with legacies, particularly in terms of infrastructure, technology and systems integration.”

But it’s not just infrastructure that’s an issue with smart cities. What will actually happen with all the data that becomes available though all the smart systems?   

According to Chulani, there are various pieces that make up a smart city, but nowhere in the world does a smart city yet exist. Many cities are works in progress. For instance, take Singapore with their focus on broadband technology, which is helping in their effort to create and integrate smart systems city-wide. But when looking at all the specific areas that make a city really smart - energy resourcing, public safety, education, health, tourism, economic development - no city has leveraged all the available aggregated data to its full potential. Some cities are discovering, cleaning and consolidating data but most haven’t even begun using analytics on the data to spot patterns, identify trends and automate responses. That is what’s needed to really be “smart.”

Chulani pointed to the small example of “Istanbul in Motion” (Istanbul Hareket Halinde). The purpose of this project is to optimize public transport. It uses location data from mobile phones to analyze traffic patterns in Istanbul throughout the day. Eventually the goal will be to advise people which public transit choices to take and even to migrate people away from certain transport in order to keep transit flowing smoothly throughout the city.

“This is just one concept to show what is needed in terms of analyses and automated response in smart cities,” said Chulani. “That analytic layer is still in the offing.”

The final issue with the creation of smart cities is the ability to successfully drive a project to completion; something that can take decades. Chulani noted that often there is a vision at the top for the smart city concept, but the actual planning and execution of the required project elements are handled by other entities and local authorities. The vision can’t be piecemeal and there must be accountability in the execution for the project to succeed.  

For those interested to understand the smart city concept further, IDC offers a free Business Strategy document, “IDC Government Insights’ Smart city Maturity Model - Assessment and Action of the Path to Maturity,” from IDC’s Smart Cities Strategies Program online resources at  www.idc.com/prodserv/insights/government/index.jsp