3 Things That Happen When You Live in a Smart City

Futuristic Hollywood blockbusters, like Star Wars, Minority Report, and the Back to the Future movie franchise, love flying cars. In popular culture, visions of what the future holds always feature transportation above our heads traveling at warp speed. On screen, we are still on planet Earth. But it’s a 100 years in the future and everyone travels galactic lengths in minutes. It’s breathtaking cinematography, and rather far-fetched.

Or is it? Last week the Roads and Transportation Authority of Dubai announced the launch of the world’s first driverless flying car, Ehang 184. It can hold one passenger and has preset routes selected from a touchscreen, and pilots itself. These Chinese-engineered flying cars are a mere 4 months away and will start transporting Dubai residents in July 2017.

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Prototype of Ehang-184, the driverless flying car. Photo credit: The National
But that’s not all. Hyperloop One, the brainchild of Silicon Valley titan and inventor Elon Musk, has been busy building and testing the world’s first Hyperloop transport link between Dubai and the capital city of Abu Dhabi. The levitating pods will travel at airline speeds to reduce travel time from 1.5 hours to as little as 12 minutes. Hyperloop One is expected to begin operations in 2020, the same year Dubai hosts the World Expo.

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Prospective buyers check out Tesla’s electric vehicles on display at The Dubai Mall, Feb 2017
In the meantime, residents are up and running with the Dubai Now smart phone app. With a few swipes, I am able to pay my cellphone, Internet and utility bills, hail a cab, recharge my Dubai Metro card, track upcoming flight information and pay traffic fines, search for pharmacies, hospitals, and schools. It is, without a doubt, the most convenient mobile app I have used for day-to-day living.

It’s an exciting time to be alive. Cities like Dubai, Singapore, and Barcelona are racing to realise ambitious plans to integrate information and communications technology in their infrastructure and services and become smart cities.

What is a smart city? According to The Pew Charitables Trusts, a smart city uses digital technology to improve community life. The general goal is to “collect immediate data on everything from traffic patterns to home water use, analyze it, and use that information to make the city work better.” It’s all happening now, and it’s going to transform the way we live and interact with government in the 21st century.

The goal is sustainability, efficiency, and in the case of Dubai, happiness – of expats, locals and visitors alike. It is the future, and Dubai has entered the race to become the world’s first fully operational smart city.

What The Inside of a Dubai Restaurant Can Tell You About Globalization 

In the last five years, my husband and I have created and operated two restaurants in Dubai. The first was a small pizzeria that focused on take-out and deliveries. The second was an Italian restaurant inside The Dubai Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in the world.

(It sounds strange to open a restaurant inside a mall, but malls in the U.A.E. are unlike malls in North America. Because of extreme temperatures, indoor spaces like malls are designed to be your one-stop-shop to beat the heat. The Dubai Mall has a hospital, a cinema, an ice rink, 1400 retail outlets, an underwater zoo, a gold market, a shoe district, two hotels, a waterfall fountain and more than 200 restaurants. It is also a major tourist destination. A year ago it received more visitors than the Great Wall of China.)

Our Dubai Mall location was large and upscale. It employed 50 people from all over the world: Nepal, Australia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Russia, Morocco and the United States. There were Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and within these faith traditions, adherents of different sects. Everyone had left family members behind in their home country.

What makes people leave their children to live in a foreign country for months, sometimes years on end? For members of my team the reasons were clear: to seek better employment opportunities so they could support their families and provide a better future for their children. It’s one thing to read about globalisation. To see it up front makes the cliched explanations crystal clear. For lower level and blue collar workers especially, the burden of supporting a family usually fell on one person. The reality is salaries at home are too low, and job opportunities too few.

Dubai is a big draw because it is safe, politically stable, and has a growing economy. It employs large numbers of expatriates, or foreign workers, in the core areas of it’s economy: aviation, tourism and hospitality, logistics, transportation, and marketing. Due in part to the relatively small size of its local population, Dubai must import workers to fill the jobs it needs to power its growth. Dubai’s expats make up a massive 94% of the population. This is abnormally high. According to Expat Focus, the U.A.E. ranks amongst the top 5 countries in the world with the highest percentage of expat workers. In comparison, the island nation of Singapore – another hugely popular expat destination for work and play- has a population of 5.5 million, of which 40% are foreigners.

Without expats, Dubai would not be able to achieve what it has in such a short period of time. Now, the UAE government has approved a new visa system designed to attract “geniuses,” or individuals with exceptional ability, across sectors. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, tweeted, “The UAE is a country of vast opportunity; we aim to provide a tolerant environment that can nurture potential and support outstanding talent.”

Given the recent flurry of initiatives in the realm of science and technology, measures like this highlight the UAE’s current focus on innovation. More importantly, they underscore a commitment to an exchange of ideas and dissemination of knowledge that are foundations of Dubai’s long-term vision and strategy.

This blog post was updated on March 15, 2017

Love It or Hate It, You Cannot Ignore Dubai

When the 2008 financial crisis caught up with Dubai, online British newspaper The Independent published an article called The Dark Side of Dubai. It wasn’t a particularly good piece of writing, but the author was unequivocal. “Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out. This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Dubai is a living metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history.”

In March 2011, a writer named A.A. Gill at Vanity Fair magazine hit even harder. Perhaps because it was Vanity Fair, or because the article was so scathing, so well written, the impact was far greater. Dubai on Empty elicited a response from Najla Al Awadhi, a prominent member of parliament, who encouraged readers to voice their anger at what many considered a one-sided, hate-filled view of their city. Gill had recycled many of the same cliches that have come to be associated with the emirate. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real,” he wrote.

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A man bicycles on the bridge over the new Dubai Water Canal, a man-made waterway comprising of luxury housing, 450 restaurants, 4 hotels and a shopping center
Tales of Dubai’s doom and gloom are punctuated with stories of extravagance. While attending a wedding in Boston some years ago, a fellow party goer asked me if it was true people paid 1 million dollars for a license plate in the Emirates. Actually, no. A young Emirati man had just spent USD 14 million at a charity auction for a license plate with the number 1. Combined with viral social media stories about the world’s most expensive cupcake, a USD 11 million christmas tree, and Dubai Police’s expanding fleet of super cars, many assume this is the exclusive enclave of multimillionaires.

Once in a while, the pendulum swings the other way. Elizabeth MacBride of Forbes Magazine penned a compelling piece last year titled Nine Reasons Dubai Could Be The Most Important City of the 21st Century. She explains how “Dubai has invented itself as bigger than any of those narrow identities. It is emerging as a global city, and possibly the emerging markets capital of the world.” She cites a January 2015 Brookings Institute report which puts Dubai as one of the five fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

Yes, there is staggering wealth. There is rapid development and unbridled ambition. There are problems unique to Dubai, and others common to big cities. There are also 8 migrant workers who have built this city. You see them, but you don’t hear much from them. What Dubai is raises a complex question to a fast moving and rapidly changing 21st century city.

But reporting on Dubai does not reflect understanding of this complexity. In fact, it is oversimplified and outdated. As McBride rightly points out, the story of Dubai is the story of immigrants. In many ways, Dubai now resembles New York at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of investigating this constantly shifting and multidimensional narrative, too many continue to reduce it to a caricature of clueless Arab rulers hell bent on tyranny and delirious with oil wealth. Much of this is deliberate, and derogatory.

The current state of international affairs emboldens the Gills of the world to wilfully ignore the diversity of stories in Dubai and offer dangerous stereotypes instead. Regardless of how you feel, Dubai is a world-class city, and it is moving forward. Writers covering it need to examine their own bias and keep up with Dubai, or risk getting left behind.