Tips for getting smart city tech into policymakers hands

Construction in Reem Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by: Panoramas / CC BY-ND

As they discussed issues ranging from cutting edge car automation to innovative ways of recycling construction waste, researchers at the recent UAE Research Symposium on Smart Cities had a shared message: The science is the easy part. Getting policymakers, companies and citizens on board is where the real work of building a smart city begins.

“It’s not about the technology, but rather the context,” Shereen Nassar, assistant professor of management at the Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus, told Devex. “You can implement a highly complex technology, but when you come to the culture — things might not work. It’s easy to set up technology and apply it, but [the question is] more how to manage and get people really convinced about it.”

As the sole media representative at the event, which was hosted by the British Council, Devex spoke with researchers and officials about their tips and lessons learned for bringing innovation into the living, breathing cities they support. Here are our top three takeaways.

1. Align research to policymakers’ and citizens’ concerns

When Akin Adamson, Regional Director for the Middle East at the U.K.-based Transport Research Laboratory, began researching recycling in the Gulf region, the idea was literally illegal. Builders were prohibited from using recycled materials in projects, largely out of concern over the quality of the material.

Adamson and his team set out to test whether those concerns were warranted — and whether new methods could be found to reuse waste material. They were able to build recycled raw materials that actually outperformed the new supplies in strength tests.

The research matched up with governments’ concerns and needs — a fact that both motivated the project and made it an easier sell to authorities. The Gulf region is seeing a massive boom in infrastructure construction, particularly in Qatar ahead of hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup. At the same time, Qatar has no local sources of the aggregate raw material needed to make cement, for example. They were spending roughly $20 per ton to ship new material from elsewhere in the Gulf. Adamson described a “supply chain inefficiency of shipping rocks from one part of the GCC to another” even as countries were “creating very large stockpiles of waste.”

Adamson found that he could reduce the cost to just $5 per ton for recycled material. His team worked with authorities to help rejigger regulations such that today builders have the option of using recycled material.

2. Build coalitions to overcome political constraints

Imagine a city that wants to update its parking system or management design for buses. A number of companies have ideas and proposals that they expect would lower costs and provide a better user experience.

Enter political reality: the government “might be stuck with some companies” that are already running the show, said Nassar. Whether because of longstanding contracts, land ownership, or client loyalty, disrupting the inefficiencies in the system can be costly, requiring governments to literally break apart whole systems of vested interests.

Nassar offered two potential workarounds, cautioning both time and investment. The first is knowledge transfer. Rather than disrupting existing commercial interests, companies can be convinced to adopt the new technologies and reap the benefits of the efficiencies they provide.

The second is building trust in innovation, which is far less concrete and more difficult to nurture. Researchers may have to step out of the lab — and their comfort zones — to talk directly to the public about how new technologies work and respond to any concerns.

Government can help on both fronts by backing new technologies and leveraging their relationships with the private sector to encourage roll out. But that means that governments, too, need to be good listeners. Citizens today expect the same quality of services from government as they do from the private sector, said Saeed Al Dhaheri, chairman of Smartworld, a Dubai-based smart cities venture. “You need to engage with the people, you need to understand their needs,” he told the audience.

3. Data interpretation needs as much investment as collection

Everyone loves to collect mountains of data. But the real value of smart new tools is how we interpret and use it, said Nigel Cassidy, professor of civil engineering at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “It’s moving away from finding the new sensing widget toward making sure that we actually have the research and understanding,” he told Devex. “The knowledge economy of the future city is about the people and their ideas.”

Cassidy knows this well from his work examining sub city surfaces. As city planners build above ground, they often unintentionally redirect groundwater flows and cause seismic disruptions. When things go wrong, building projects can blight the ground, erode rock, and even set off a reaction that opens a landslide or sinkhole.

New buildings, he suggests, could easily be equipped with existing seismic sensors to detect how the ground is shifting and prevent the worst sorts of disasters. The real work will come in knowing how to read that data and when to act. “Anybody can collect data,” he said. “But not anybody can interpret it.”

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.