TALKING SMART CITIES WITH GHAZI ATALLAH, MD OF NXN, THE COMPANY BEHIND SMART DUBAI’S MASTER PLAN AND THE SMART DUBAI PLATFORM.
The development of Dubai Smart City has brought together many different organisations and experts from multiple domains, and the initiative has required both comprehensive planning and the evolution of new solutions to enable the vision to become a reality. Advisory and consulting company NXN has been at the centre of both efforts, as the designer of Smart Dubai’s master plan, and the creator of the concept for the Smart Dubai Platform.
According to Ghazi Atallah, managing director of NXN, the company has come a long way from its foundation in late 2006-early 2007, when there wasn’t even much awareness of the smart city concept in the Middle East.
“The premise of us starting NXN, myself and a couple of colleagues, was the fact that in the region, thought leadership around smart and digital wasn’t there,” he explained. “We saw a huge hole, in thought leadership. There wasn’t a lot of thought leadership around how you build a new district and integrate the technology to make it smart, so you can change the way that community interacts.”
With the lack of awareness around smart cities, NXN initially gained more interest from real estate developers to work on smart initiatives focused on districts, rather than city-level projects, and the company has worked with several of the leading real estate developers in the region including Emaar, Aldaar and Barwa.
The company focused on building its knowledge and expertise across different domains, Atallah said, including participating in benchmarking initiatives and involvement in international groups focused on smart communities, such as the CABA Intelligent & Integrated Buildings Council and the ITU Smart and Sustainable Communities Focus Group (FG-SCC).
NXN had a short consultancy engagement with Dubai government in 2008 on the initial concept for smart city, but it wasn’t until around 2010 that new technology and increased awareness really pushed the digital idea towards reality. Since then, the adoption of cloud, which makes deployment easier, and the emergence of IoT solutions has greatly increased positive steps for smart solution adoption.
The company has developed its offerings along two main tracks, consulting and managed services, to help smart cities or district authorities to both develop their master plan, and to execute it. Atallah explained that the company developed its methodology for smart city master plan from years of experience which was then applied to Smart Dubai, namely by focusing on objectives.
“Very simply in the beginning, we look at tying in smart city objectives directly with your city objectives. It is essential that the objectives of the smart city initiative directly affect the city’s plans and objectives,” he said.
For Dubai, the objectives such as economic growth, improving quality of life and so on, were clear, and such objectives should always form the basis of the master plan for any city, Atallah said. From there, the master plan then needs to look at the dimensions that need to be delivered upon. Many smart city projects in other parts of the world have previously only addressed one or two dimensions of development, with projects typically focusing on a specific area such as sustainability or transport.
NXN identified that smart city projects should focus on more than just one dimension, instead looking at the city as a whole, he said. Based on the smart concept developed by the European Union of six dimensions — economy, living, environment, mobility, people and governance — a city’s master plan should identify how each dimension can be impacted, and set measurable KPIs to track progress against those.
“For us it was very important that when we talk about smart city, and we talk about a holistic master plan of the city, we look at all dimensions of the city. It was important to organise the smart city masterplan [in this way] because if you want to have an impact on all aspects of the city, you have to organise yourselves in dimensions, to have an impact on each.”
The concept of the smart city platform was created as a seventh dimension to the city plan, as a control layer. Atallah said: “To be able to impact all of those dimensions, we need to make sure we have the foundation, the smart ICT foundation. We created that seventh dimension as a layer that is horizontal to the dimensions above, and that layer is where we built the concept of the smart city platform. We developed the concept, the architecture, we developed the input-output elements of the platform, and how it impacts the city.
The ICT layer plays a central role in breaking down silos of systems, Atallah added, supported by policies to govern the interaction between different departments. Most cities will have existing systems, deployed by the relevant departments, to manage individual functions such as traffic management, or utilities. To really gain value from a smart city initiative, these silos have to be overcome, and functions need to be integrated across the whole of the city. It is not practical to replace all of the existing systems, so the smart city platform becomes the point of integration for all these services. With a single unified platform, the city is then able to connect to the individual, and cater to all of their requirements from the city, rather than the city offering dozens of unconnected services originating with each different department.
“We set out a concept of a platform that allowed these systems to integrate, and allows the government to turn the relationship into one between the government and every stakeholder, and to ask ‘what do they need and how do I cater to their requirements?’” he said.
“It is citizen and resident-driven, it is business-driven as an approach rather than it is a city- or e-government services-driven view. The platform is a tremendous tool to allow that to happen.”
For Dubai, after developing the master plan and the architecture blue print, NXN was also heavily involved in the creation of the Dubai Smart Platform, including driving the technology, benchmarking and writing the RFQ, and managing the selection process of the vendor to build the platform. The company is also working with the city of Riyadh to deliver its master plan, and has various projects in Qatar and Kuwait, and with other cities in the region, Atallah said.
With the development of the smart platform, NXN is now able to go to any smart project and offer an architectural blueprint for development. The platform is based on open standards, so any technology can plug in to it, and it can be used to align many different functions including data orchestration, data analytics, IoT management, device management, connectivity and vertical specific solutions.
The maturity of the platform has also allowed NXN to offer it a managed service ‘smart city platform-as-a-service’ offering for customers across the region, which is already available in UAE, Saudi and Kuwait, and will soon be ready for Qatar. This approach is gaining considerable interest, both from cities and from district-level projects, which still represent around half of the opportunities in the region. Real estate developers now realise the value in ‘smart’, Atallah said, and the benefits it offers in terms of operational efficiency, energy efficiency, better communications with tenants and residents and so on.
“They now get the value, they understand that using technology, being smart, isn’t just a branding activity. They can become a smart service provider to their residents, and that is exactly what we enable them to do.”
As the platform and the approach matures, Atallah said that he expects the landscape to shift to multiple deployments of interoperable smart city platforms, which in turn places more emphasis on NXN’s experience in consultancy in policy, regulation and governance to create the right framework for collaboration between different entities.
“Technologically, the way we see things evolving, you will have lots of platforms, smart districts, in every city. These districts can come together and the platform enables them to interact and exchange. Technologically we don’t see a problem, but policy-wise, regulation-wise this is where the difficulties will be,” he explained.
“One of the things that we make sure of as we develop our smart city masterplan is that we work on the policies. In conjunction with the smart city initiatives, with the platform and the benchmarking, we do an extremely sophisticated effort in terms of identifying the policies and regulations necessary for the success of the masterplan.
“In transforming cities, transforming districts, people have to come together, entities have to to come together and departments have to come together — you have to create the right governance and the right atmosphere if you want change to take place.”