Beyond Smart Cities: Vision for Wise Cities

While we live in an era where smartness is promoted everywhere (smart homes smart devices, smart traffic lights, smart clothes, etc.); one may wonder is that really our ultimate goal, i.e., to be smart, is that enough? Is that solving our problems of today?

In a workshop organized by the IDRC titled: “Towards Wise Cities: Opportunities of Today, Challenges of Tomorrow” Dr. Samah El-Tantway and Dr. Hossam Abdelgawad discussed the above topic, its potential, and it is challenges. During this workshop the following topics were touched upon: Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Open Data, Open Service Innovation, Citizens Engagement, Incentives, Loyalty Programs, and Wise Cities. While each of these subjects deserves a number of blogs, below is a reflection on the workshop on how to connect these pieces.


Cities: are suffering and it will only get worse

Although urbanization is seen as a vibrant sign for cities’ growth, it comes with its negative impacts across many sectors (energy, transport, water, infrastructure, health).  Today, almost half of the world’s population lives in cities and this number is expected to reach 70% by 2050. In the MENA region, an estimation of the urban population in 2015 was already 70%. This exponential demand growth over the limited supply results in numerous negative impacts on our cities. While this is creating numerous of challenges, technology is rapidly evolving creating a lot of opportunities and IoT is among them.  


IoT: is happening and more things will become connected

One might think that the optimal city operation – to alleviate the negative impact of the above noted urbanization - can be achieved if the city has a

grand brain

that is

connected to everyone and everything

around the city and optimizes the provided services accordingly. This was interestingly envisioned back in 1926 by Nikola Tesla and it is actually the IoT of today! IoT was first mentioned in 1999 by Kevin Ashton and believed to be actually first realized sometime between 2008 and 2009 when the number of connected devices exceeded the number of people on earth. That number is expected to grow to 50 billion devices by 2020; almost 7 times the world’s population. You might ask the question, OK, More Things will be Connected, Who Cares, So What? The answer is simple, big businesses care, examples include:

-        IBM has been in this business some 7 years ago under the umbrella of “Smarter Planet”;

-        Samsung acquired SmartThings for $ 200 million (SmartThings didn’t  exist a few years ago);

-        Google made the largest acquisition in the IoT space by purchasing Nest for $3.2 billion.

It does even stop at IoT, it goes to IoC (internet of clothing), with estimated 10 billion items of connected clothing in the market, making the IoT more fashionable! Wearables are evolving in all sectors including health, fitness, apparel, etc.  In short, big businesses care and the potential of IoT is nothing but our dreams.


Big Data: is around you and it is only getting bigger

With more


getting connected, these things will receive and send a huge volume of data, at different speeds / values / dimensions/ accuracies / qualities / formats, etc. This simply defines the various


of Big Data.  But how big is big data?

To illustrate, in only two years (from 2011 to 2013), the generated data worldwide was almost doubled (from 1.8 to 4 zettabytes)[1]. These massive volumes of data exist almost everywhere around us; generating a lot of opportunities and challenges. Examples include: technological industries and social networks, such as: Facebook (deals with 30+ Petabytes of user-generated data); YouTube (handles more than 48 hours uploads every minute); Twitter (estimated the number of tweets in early 2012 to be 175 million tweets daily); and Walmart (handles every hour more than 1 million customer transactions[2]).

In short, the issue is in generating or collection data anymore, the true challenge is how to intelligently unleash the potential of data and become more innovative while orchestrating this data. In fact the IDRC is actively and aggressively working and introducing “data-driven innovation” in the MENA Region (


Open Data: is becoming free and it will be more liquid

While data is getting bigger, good luck innovating or using this data if it is completely closed/locked. In other words, opening the data has also a great potential in fostering innovation. But one may wonder how would I know whether the data is open or close? And is there something in between? What are the levels of openness? To answer; here is the equation: if you have access to the data + the data in a readable format + you can obtain the data at no cost + unlimited rights to use and distribute the data = completely open data. Some also refer to this as “liquid data”. 

To understand the value of opening the data some studies attempted to estimate the economic impact of making data more open and the potential of this realm in driving more innovative services.  McKinsey Global Institute summarized the potential economic impact across 7 sectors (education, transportation, consumer products, electricity, oil and gas, health care, consumer finance) at - as high as - $3 - 5 trillion USD.    


Business Models: are changing and cheese is moving

While the above is happening from IoT, Big Data, and Open Data; businesses themselves started to provide services with new business models by focusing on the customers. One shall realize the difference between commodity, product, and service. For example, think about the slim sexy Motorola Razr phone (product) and the noise it created when it was first introduced, and ask yourself where is it today? How does that compare to iPhone? The answer is easy, Motorola Razr fell into the so-called “commodity trap”. What Apple is providing is not just a phone, it is a platform that is self-driven where developers innovative and build Apps that provide “Service” to the end customers. And this is why businesses must think about innovative ways of providing “services” not only a commodity or a product. I always like this quote by Ted Levitt “people don’t want to buy a ¼-inch drill. They want a ¼-inch hole !”. In other words, the utility you receive out of a product is what really matters.

Nowadays services are provided in a customized way to meet consumer needs and demands, and I will prove to you through just a few examples across various sectors: Amazon’s Dash Button (retail, shopping), Uber (transport), and Spinali Design (apparel). Why am I saying all of this? Simply, change (in the way services are provided) is happening around us with a fast pace and if we do not adopt and innovate, we will soon ask “who moved my cheese?”


Citizens: are the key but how to keep them engaged

Citizens are the ones who receive all the services, who suffer lack of resources, who consume energy/water, who overload the health care system, who make decisions when they travel and use the roads, etc. So if businesses are innovating, and governments are enhancing infrastructure and services; and citizens are not well-engaged, then a big piece is missing.

While the above is true, we must find innovative way to engage citizens as a key stakeholder in addressing the challenges facing our cities today. A social experiment conduct by MIT (10- Red Balloon Challenge) revealed that the key to successfully mobilize large number of people is incentives. In addition to incentives, technology can enable reaching this goal, and specifically through citizens’ connectivity (smart phones tablets, laptops, wearables, etc.). In short, if we manage to engage citizens through technology and incentive programs to eventually become more socially responsible and partner with the governments and businesses; then this is a win-win strategy and can result in astonishing benefits across all government sectors.

There are a number of cases/platforms that mobilize citizens through rewards and loyalty programs to address key challenges in the following sectors: Energy (Eco-Mileage), Transportation (Metropia), Water (Smart Meter), and Health (Carrot), to name a few.

Wise City: The Vision and Key Enablers

With the above enablers (IoT, Big and Open Data, Open Service Innovation, Socially Responsible Citizens, Incentives / Loyalty Programs), we envision a wise city to: 1) employ data, 2) incorporate knowledge, 3) collaborate with citizens, and 4) boost entrepreneurship and innovation, in order to result in: a) equitable, b) sustainable, c) resilient, and d) self-driven city. A wise city is a self-driven win-win socially responsible collaborative eco-system of government, citizens, and businesses.

[1] Podesta, J., Pritzer, P., Moniz, E. J., Holdren, J., Zients, J.: Big Data: seizing opportunities, preserving values. Executive Office of the President, Washington D.C. (2014).

[2] A Comprehensive List of Big Data Statistics,


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