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Our Middle Eastern City of the Future | Congress for the New Urbanism

Our Middle Eastern City of the Future

wajdighoussoub's picture

UN Habitat predicts higher percentage of urban populations by 2030 in pretty much all of the Middle Eastern countries. People flock to cities looking for opportunities and connectedness. In this part of the world, they do so also because of rough rural terrain, inadequate government support of remote communities and lack of balanced economic and social development.

Increased urbanization comes with its challenges and it is critical that we stand up to them quickly and in the right away. How capable we prove to be in catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to adopting technological innovations in our cities will determine their sustainability for generations to come. Such advances revolve around ideas of connectedness, mobility and public service.

1.      

 Connectedness

In Porto, Portugal, “when buses and taxis hit a sharp bump that might be due to a pothole, the suspension sensors detect this and relay the information to City Hall to help identify where roads need repairs1”. Routers on over 600 buses and taxis are not only spreading free Wi Fi across the place, but are also collecting data like this. It is a city wide experiment exemplifying how tech wizards and urban planners can work together to come up with ideas and solve everyday challenges. The Porto network is built by a startup called Veniam which has recently raised $5m in venture funding and is planning to expand its motto of “An Internet of Moving Things” into other urban centers.

At a more micro level, homes are also more connected. Tony Fadell and his team at Nest Labs (bought by Google in 2014 for USD 3.2b2) gained worldwide popularity when they introduced smart thermostats and smoke detectors. Whirlpool is looking into a smart refrigerator that keeps a “running inventory of its contents, and then suggest recipes and even automatically program[s] the smart oven according to those dishes3,4”.

An urban center’s ability to connect people makes it a human magnet. In his book Principles of Economics, Alfred Marshal spoke of “advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighborhood to one another.” Today, connectedness is taking a 2.0 version powered by the likes of Internet of Things (IoT) and Internet of Moving Things.

2.      

 Mobility

Ride sharing businesses, Uber-likes and other startups are sprouting and disrupting conventional wisdoms. Few years ago, a day starting like this might have sounded like an exaggeration: order a taxi (such as Uber) through a mobile app, track it on an app embedded map whilst you have your morning coffee, smoothly go through traffic lights and virtual toll gates operated by smart sensors, arrive (on time) and finally receive an electronic receipt by email proving that your credit card somehow got charged in the background (you can even split the bill if you are car-pooling!).

If you happen to be driving, GPS systems can guide your way; an app like Waze can let you know where a police car is waiting to get you; others like ParkWhiz and SpotHero can finally help you shop for and book the nearest available parking spot.

If you happen to be walking, then just be aware that your footsteps might be powering the street lights above your head or even a nearby building. Though this will take some time no doubt, companies like the London-based Pavegen are starting to turn dreams into realities. The company is building sidewalk tiles that convert kinetic energy to electricity that can be stored then used (foot power reducing carbon foot print!).

Rush hour jams will not disappear overnight as a result of such mobility targeting ventures. Footstep power will not solve the problem of global warming. Yet, the amount of data collected and analyzed every day will get us there one day. We will be able to better understand our cities and ensure we preempt problems instead of react to them.

3.      

 Public Service

A new traffic law is being rolled out now in Lebanon. Instead of crowding out police resources to monitor its implementation, imagine if every resident becomes a cop? By using an app such as SeeClickFix, citizens become a city’s eyes and ears in the field5: they can report all types of incidents which can then be directed to the responsible governmental department.

Governments are also embracing technology and social media to interact better and more efficiently with citizens. Forget frustration out of low election turnouts; jurisdictions can now utilize online surveys and forums as channels for people to vote on community related proposals and reward those who are regularly engaged6. In the Arab world, nothing more than such endeavors can help rebuild trust between people and their governments.

From “e-government” facilitating government services to “open data” making budgetary spend and other financial information transparent, governments now have the option to use technology to better serve and to do so at lower costs. People, in turn, naturally become more interested, engaged and trusting.

 

As we see and hear of towns in the Middle East get burned down, it might sound ridiculous talking of adopting the latest fancy technologies. But sooner or later, the time for rebuilding will come. It is inevitable. Meanwhile, some places are already storming ahead. Dubai has a goal to be one of the happiest cities in ten years and has a smart city agenda to help it achieve that. No matter the circumstances, it is always the right time for urban planners, entrepreneurs, techies, venture capitalists and others to work together. Our cities need such cooperation if they are going to continue to grow and absorb more people.

Picture: http://smart.welcomeportugal.org/?p=492&lang=en

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