Smart Dubai aims to boost happiness with technology

By | 4 minute read | November 13, 2018

Dubai cityscape

I live and work in Dubai—a cosmopolitan city with a proclivity for superlatives. It boasts the tallest building in the world. It is one of the world’s fastest growing cities, known for its impressive skyline studded with ultramodern architecture and luxury shopping. And it is one of the most popular destinations for global travelers.

But that’s not enough. Dubai also wants to be the happiest city on earth.

Happiness is a journey

Part of making people happy is removing friction from their daily lives and creating a city people want to live in and visit. At Smart Dubai, we believe it shouldn’t be difficult to renew a driver’s license, start a business or apply for a visa. Interactions with the government should be seamless and efficient, giving residents and businesses more opportunities and less hassle.

Dubai has made many improvements through our ongoing digital transformation—a journey that started in 2000. Since then, more than 1,800 government services have become available through online and mobile channels.

Now we’re taking the next step in the journey—becoming a smart city. For us, that means going entirely digital, using emerging technologies such as blockchain and AI, with the ultimate goal of promoting happiness and prosperity.

A city powered by blockchain

We have seen enormous growth in the blockchain space over the past few years—a lot of investment, many new startups and several leading governments experimenting with the technology. And we see enormous potential for Dubai.

That’s why we are aiming to make Dubai the first city fully powered by blockchain by 2020. Blockchain will provide an integrated digital layer for all city transactions, crossing over into the private sector.

Consider, for example, the red tape involved in buying and selling property. Today, you might need to interact with five different entities, including the broker, developer, mortgage company and city—each one dealing with stacks of paperwork and financial transactions. It can be slow and painful.

With blockchain, we can create a shared, trusted ledger of all transactions, streamlining approvals and eliminating redundancies from loan approval to title registration. That’s just one example. There are dozens of other use cases for blockchain to make people’s lives easier—like transferring medical records, applying for a visa or finding the best school for their kids.

Best of all, blockchain will enable Dubai to eliminate paper altogether. In fact, we plan to celebrate the government’s last paper transaction in December 2021—a milestone we estimate will save over 1 billion pieces of paper being printed, equivalent to over 130,000 trees.

AI: the new face of government

AI technology is also shaping up to play a key role in our transformation. In 2016, we started working with IBM to apply AI to the challenge of starting a business in Dubai.

With the IBM Watson Assistant service, we built an intelligent agent called Rashid that can guide people through the entire process of setting up a new business, whether it’s a coffee shop or an accounting firm. Capable of conversing in natural language, Rashid provides a single point of contact to help navigate the bureaucracy.

At Smart Dubai Government, we see Rashid as the starting point for a pervasive digital assistant—a kind of city concierge that can answer all kinds of questions for residents, businesses and visitors.

The smart city challenge is bigger than technology

Though emerging tech is front and center in the Smart Dubai initiative, there’s more to our strategy than IT. At Smart Dubai, it’s very clear what we need to do to build a smart city.

First, we need to get the whole community involved. Using open platforms, we are sparking innovation in real estate, fintech, banking, healthcare, transportation, urban planning, smart energy, digital commerce and tourism. The hope is that private enterprises will connect with the city’s core functions and form an ecosystem of partners.

Second, we aim to be thought leaders for cities and other government entities around the world. By making our work accessible, we hope other cities will follow our lead and even connect with us to streamline international travel.

Third, we need to update legislation to address new digital realities such as smart contracts. For this, we’ve launched a program to review existing policies and recommend changes to the laws of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.

Technology is advancing rapidly, but overall change will come gradually and incrementally. After all, we are transforming an entire city—its people, processes, culture and future.

Fortunately, Smart Dubai is not afraid to disrupt the status quo, to innovate and experiment, and yes—to even fail sometimes. That’s what will make us a truly smart city.

Wesam Lootah explains how Smart Dubai is leveraging blockchain, IBM Watson, machine learning and IoT to make Dubai the happiest city on earth: