In the past, when attempting to describe future urban spaces that are organically intelligent, most writers resorted to stealing a line or two from popular sci-fi films. But no longer. The future has arrived.
Imagine living in a skyscraper where each floor rotates 360 degrees every 90 minutes. Dubbed the Dynamic Tower, the Dubai project was originally proposed in 2008, but shelved during the financial crisis. It was revived last year. Several wind turbines on the roof will generate electricity for the structure’s movement as well as for its residents. The intelligent building is meant to be self-sustaining and smart enough to manage its own temperature.
Equally high on the cool scale is shopping in an air-conditioned bubble at the world’s largest mall, situated within seven kilometres of temperature-controlled retail-lined streets, modelled after Barcelona’s La Rambla. These will have a streetcar system, a little Oxford Street, Broadway and about 100 hotels. All this is not a figment of someone’s imagination, but part of the Dh25-billion Mall of the World project the Dubai government announced in July.
Or how about working at the Dh1.1-billion Dubai Silicon Park, which was announced earlier this year and will have eco-friendly features such as solar panels, double-glazed windows, green roofs, smart lighting systems, motion sensor systems, digital signboards and sensor-equipped light poles. The buildings will feature green roofs (50 per cent) and solar energy-generating photoelectric panels (50 per cent).
And the site for Expo 2020 will have a special roof that will consist of vertebrae photovoltaic material capable of generating power both for the event and in the long term.
Then there are the Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi that have already provided a glimpse of the UAE’s smart future. The towers have a unique intelligent skin, which reduces interior heat and adapts to the sun’s position. The covering comprises 2,000 umbrella-like modules per tower that open and close to vary the amount of shade depending on the time of day. The umbrellas are automated and controlled by the building’s management system.
But even before Dubai’s big-ticket announcements, Abu Dhabi had cornered the smart and sustainable development market with its ambitious Masdar project, the world’s first carbon-neutral city.
The capital’s master plan Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 focuses on sustainable urban development by putting green building codes in place through the Estidama initiative. Estidama was started in 2010 as a policy programme that invites developers to subscribe to a code of values for environmental sustainability in buildings, ensuring that smart structures become the norm and are not merely restricted to green zones such as Masdar.
Migration to smart
We are currently in the middle of a strong wave of urban migration. According to UN figures released in July, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and this figure is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. This increase, coupled with the rising reliance on digital technologies and the need to decrease carbon footprints, is what’s pushing the need for smart cities.
The success of smart cities in the region will depend on increased support from international bodies such as the World Bank and from central governments. In its endeavour to become smart, the UAE government had already been focusing on economic development and job creation, but the emphasis today is on real association between these goals and technological innovation.
Propelled by Dubai’s smart city vision, announced earlier this year by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the Dubai Land Department (DLD) launched Emart.gov.ae. The real estate portal for the auction, sale and rental of properties aims to ensure that up-to-date market information is available to landlords, tenants, buyers and sellers. The website is part of the Real Estate Regulatory Agency’s (Rera) Ejari system so that rental agreements will be easily available to owners and companies.
The DLD also recently launched the Service Charge and Maintenance Index, which enables landlords and property investors to find out the service charges and fees that are paid for each project. The index is based on accurate data audited by Rera, with the information being verified with owners associations and real estate developers.
At Gitex, the popular global technology platform event, the DLD showcased its Digital Property initiative, which is designed to facilitate business transactions for the real estate community using the latest digital technologies and smart devices. The first system of its kind in the world, Digital Property brings together 200 smart services under one umbrella, all of which can be accessed by customers via a single application. It has been designed to be beneficial to all relevant parties in the real estate sector including landlords, developers, brokers, investors, tenants, government partners, banks and service providers. The systems contained within it include the Tabu investment map, eMart, Trakheesi Registration Trustees, the Ejari online registration system as well as many others.
Simon Moon, CEO, Atkins Middle East, a UK-based multinational engineering, design, planning, project management and consulting services provider, says, "The smart city concept is widely associated with harnessing technology within our urban environment to help make better use of the resources available to us. Smart cities need to be user-friendly, putting people first, and that’s where good design comes to the fore.
"It’s exciting because there’s incredible scope for development that will make our cities more liveable and more sustainable. But, the smart cities concept is, in fact, about much more than exploiting technology. It is the ultimate collaboration of urban design and technology to create liveable and inclusive cities that are more resilient, more enjoyable, more desirable places for people to live, work and play."
For Karen Mehra, Director of Design Forum and a UAE-based architect specialising in retail and food and beverage spaces, smart living is all about adapting space to how we live and using technology to customise it. "We will be a smart city when I’m able to programme my living space and control my environment. From being able to turn on my [water heater] from the office at the exact temperature I want, or to have air conditioning that adjusts automatically depending on the number of people in the house and outdoor ambient temperature as well as green spaces that maintain themselves," says Mehra.
Beyond the concept
At the core of smart living and the ability to create smart cities is the need for smart property. Companies worldwide have reportedly spent billions of dollars on intelligent buildings and this figure is expected to reach $18.1 billion (about Dh66.5 billion) by 2017, according to IDC Energy Insights, a US-based energy consultancy and research company.
Simon Gray, Managing Director, Chestertons Middle East and North Africa, says, "The new developments being planned in the UAE will have all the latest technologies embedded into their framework.
There are several benefits for the both the developers as well as the end user occupiers, as they can have all the necessary information about their house or property at their fingertips. By deploying smart and innovative technologies, facility management companies can today conserve energy, provide maximum security and have efficient service on a 24x7 basis."
Tenants are beginning to expect smart building features while developers are beginning to realise the importance of and return on such investments.
"This can’t be developed in isolation. These projects will then have to be connected to the government’s utility sectors and also several other bodies to develop a smart ecosystem for the UAE," explains Gray.
Real estate developer Damac Properties has already jumped on the smart bandwagon and has integrated the latest technologies to add production quality and provide efficient service to its clients.
Niall McLoughlin, Senior Vice-President, Damac Properties, says, "Many of our major projects are now running through the building information modelling system, which is a smart project management tool [used by] contractors, architects and clients to work seamlessly together.
This fully integrated approach is the best use of technology and we have brought it on many of our major projects including Damac Towers by Paramount in Downtown Dubai."
The developer has also recently implemented a new customer contact centre system from Vocalcoms, a provider of cloud-based customer service solutions. The system integrates all customer-facing departments into one manageable and efficient system.
Smart living is about the integration of three key aspects — government initiatives, legislation, and partnership between public and private sectors. And Dubai-based real estate development and marketing company Tasweek is playing a key role in facilitating the third aspect.
Masoud Al Awar, CEO, Tasweek, says, "We are currently exploring ways in which technology can bring the customer closer to the market and help in all aspects of real estate — from finding a property to easy access to services, integrated facilities management and, of course, smart design."
In September, Tasweek hosted the biannual Smart Living City event, which brought international industry experts and key global tech players together to network and discuss the role of smart technologies and innovations in real estate. Companies from Silicon Valley and Stanford University representatives attended.
"The primary role of going smart is to save on time, money and energy, which is why we are talking to companies that are developing apps to facilitate this goal in the real estate sector. For instance, helping you search for the property of your choice and also being able to physically get you there through Google maps, without waiting for an agent," adds Al Awar.
He says investing in property isn’t just about buying a house, but also finding ways to reduce ongoing costs. Tasweek is looking at partnering with smart companies that will help bring these costs down. "From installing air conditioners that work on solar power to controlling your garden’s irrigation system and drawing the drapes to keep the house cool, these are just some ways in which we can reduce household energy consumption," he adds.
Smart technology has become key to the success of numerous industries, including real estate, which is at the forefront of Dubai’s ambitious plans to develop as a smart city. However, John Stevens, Managing Director, Asteco, warns that the concept requires a certain degree of buy-in from residents, entrepreneurs and visitors so that they become actively involved in energy saving and implementation of new technologies.
"There are many ways to make residential, commercial and public spaces sustainable by [the application of] technology, but a high percentage of the total energy use is still in the hands of end users and their behaviour."