Digital. It's a byword for modern life and how we move our homes and cities forward.
Back in May, Dubai hosted the 22nd GCC Smart Government and Smart Cities Conference, where for five days speakers from across the Gulf discussed the intricacies of smart government and the challenges of integrating governments and communities via smart services.
Samia Melhem, lead policy officer in the World Bank’s Transport and ICT Global Practice, presented the first ever Digital Dividends World Development report, which highlights the role of digital technology in enabling sustainable economic development.
Melhem, a contributor to the report, sat with Wamda to explain the study’s findings in a regional context. The views below are not an official representation of the World Bank, but Melhem's opinion.
On the report
Melhem said researchers looked at digital access through the lens of the government, private sector and the consumer. “We looked at institutions and legislation that government can transform to leverage digital, how to enable private sector to be innovative and what kind of skills citizens needed. You need these three enablers for smart city [development].”
The role of the GCC
Compared to the rest of MENA and among countries without constant conflict, the GCC block is paying more attention to digital and making financial investments in the industry.
Melhem called the GCC a trendsetter, and said other MENA countries try to emulate the Gulf’s policies. Nevertheless, the GCC could take a more proactive role through knowledge exchanges and site visits with its neighbors.
Here’s where the government comes into play. In order to “not upset the existing equilibrium between mobile providers and regulars”, the knowledge sharing needs to paid for by the government and happen at a government level.
Why is digital access important to economic development?
Though a lot of private sector business models have been revolutionized through digital technology, Melhem noted the “burden of doing business with the government [in some countries] is exactly like it was 200 years go.” Today’s youth have never lived in a world where digital came second, and a lack of digitization can cause unrest. “You don’t want to have only bad stories of using digital [or] social media to only be used for ill purposes [like] to create unrest or to join terrorist networks, or to just play games. But you want it to be used for the benefit of the poor people [and] for creating economic opportunity.”
There is a trickle down effect
The report includes examples of India’s Aadhaar initiative and Kenya’s Open Data Portal to analyze and demonstrate how governments can use smart services to for long term community and economic development.
Such large-scale digital infrastructure projects can create a lot of jobs, but they need a “champion, and that champion should be the government [who can] mobilize the funding, project management, outsource [work] to companies, who will in turn hire the youth to provide the labor force. This will secure employment for several thousands of youth, and then the youth with the experience they had could start their own company and could become the next Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the region.”
Dubai’s smart city goals and sharing successes
In a region ”fractured by several wars, and countries with huge poverty, the government of Dubai has taken a phenomenal stance…and is really standing out as an excellent example of really caring for citizen in its smart agenda,” Melhem said.
To transfer the knowledge and lessons of building a smart city to the region, Dubai first needs to ensure there’s a shared vision and strategy internally.
With that there needs to be a large education program on smart services in Dubai, then in the GCC, and then the whole MENA region. Initial results of smart services and improvement in customer satisfaction also need to be disseminated. Melhem said Dubai should involve multilateral banks and UN organizations in this journey, while taking in citizen feedback. In all instances, communicating a legal framework for data privacy and consumer protection is essential because “you don't want citizens persecuted for voicing their opinion”.
The need for entrepreneurs
The Gulf countries need to invite entrepreneurs to look at the challenges faced by the city. Through hackathons, bootcamps, etcetera, representatives of government agencies and the entrepreneurial community “not only the big IBMs and HPs” can discuss what’s missing in the government’s digital technology access programs and solve the problems.The service solutions need to address all demographics and the entrepreneurs can be from anywhere in the region. This would “create a great link between these two universes that rarely talk to one another.”