BEIRUT: Five years ago, the United Nations designated October 31 as World Cities Day, with the aim of promoting the international community’s interest in global urbanization, pushing forward cooperation among countries in meeting opportunities and addressing challenges of urbanization, and contributing to sustainable urban development around the world.
Simply put, the dawning digital age is gaining momentum.
It promises a bright future given the right mindset and Beirut can take advantage of this situation if it harnesses the power of networked devices, also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), to empower its citizens with information and services.
By developing the proper network infrastructure, Beirut can emerge as a smart city that connects individuals, neighborhoods, communities, businesses, associations, public institutions and command centers. A smart city is more than just the technology that collects, manages, and analyzes data.
It is built upon the technical infrastructure, the systems, the services and the legislation that allow such data to enhance the quality of life in ways that were not deemed possible before. Such improvements cover private and public transportation, safety, health, sanitation, trade and all other aspects of the ecosystem.
Moreover, meeting and exceeding everyday needs will develop Beirut’s resilience and preparedness for unexpected shock, whether it is climate-driven such as severe drought and storm flooding, or infrastructure failure. Digitization and resilience planning go hand-in-hand. In fact, it requires a holistic approach to define system requirements, build the system, and sustain it. All members of the community – residents, public and private organizations, and city departments – need to come together to ensure the success of the system.
A unified approach to developing a smart city begins by engaging stakeholders who will define how data is collected, used, protected, and accessed. These stakeholders include anyone who is providing and accessing data, including individuals, private or public organizations, and data-driven service providers.
Through the right legislation and stakeholder engagement, Beirut can integrate its more vulnerable population who are especially dependent on public services and have the most to gain from smart public transportation and from building safety measures such as early fire detection and efficient crisis management centers.
In addition to engaging its citizens, Beirut can pursue interdisciplinary cooperation across governmental departments and private sector service providers to support the development of a smarter city.
Traditionally, various public services such as road management, city planning, electricity, water, transportation, building management, government administration, and other services have all operated independently. By taking a view that everything is interconnected, the city can ensure that resources are optimized for its citizens across education, sanitation, safety, health services, public spaces, transportation, and others.
The result of citizen engagement and cross-sectoral collaboration will be a technology network that serves Beirut’s community. Integrating data collection and management across public sectors can increase convenient access to services for residents while reducing management burdens. Many tasks can be streamlined or automated. Many new layers of services can be added gradually.
And as IoT applications develop, the blockchain distributed ledger technology will play a role in how devices will communicate directly and securely between each other. Blockchain is designed as a basis for applications that involve transactions and interactions. These include smart applications that support specific IoT processes.
An example of a cross-sectoral solution is the adoption of smart trashcans that streamline and automate trash pickup. It improves city aesthetics and public health, reduces costs and optimizes traffic. Today, sanitation workers in many cities pick up trash on a predefined schedule. If the trashcans are smart and send a signal when they need to be emptied, the sanitation department can empty them as needed. The city can confidently eliminate scheduled pickup, reducing costs related to trash pickup and re-allocate that budget and manpower to other services.
To build on the example of the smart trashcan’s radio device, it can be used in parallel as a public Wi-Fi network. The network could be offered to the public as a “freemium” service – free for basic data service. It could be used to access data-driven services that the city offers. For example, a citywide smartphone app could enable users to request trash pickup, report suspicious behavior to authorities, as well as submit payments for parking meters, buses, and toll roads.
At face value trashcans, and even smart trashcans may seem to be simple devices. However, when networked they can support a wider ecosystem of data-driven and community-oriented services. Networking, integration, and unification are the basis for building a smart city.
Throughout the planning, building, and development process, Beirut’s digitization will be an integration of old and new technologies, public and private sectors, business and residential neighborhoods. While many of the sensor and monitoring technologies are readily available, creative engineering solutions are still necessary to make sure that they work within existing systems and communities. Beirut has a legacy of invention and rebirth.
Over several millennia the city has developed a deep seeded resilience and ingenuity. Today, that ingenuity lies within its home-grown tech companies, startups, and highly educated workforce. Beirut is an emerging technology hub and can draw upon its substantial local talent and culture of reinvention to implement its plan for a smarter city.
Hisham Itani completed a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the American University of Beirut. He started his professional career in his family’s printing business. In a short matter of time, Itani took the security printing business to another level and expanded into different technology verticals. He invested in R&D which resulted in leading-edge solutions that could compete on the international scene. His focus on technology has had a constructive and tangible impact on government automation and citizen experience in Lebanon. He is now Chairman and CEO of Resource Group which consolidates a portfolio of companies that are serving today over 50 countries in more than ten industries.
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