Does the geography and history of a city matter?
To an extent, yes. Any blueprint must be sensitive to local context. Dubai is a relatively young city that has grown from a small town to a global metropolis in only half a century. It is also very mixed, with people arriving every day from all over the world. The city is the axis of a region which, though amazingly dynamic, has its tensions.
These characteristics may seem like challenges, but actually they are advantages. Look at Dubai’s accelerated development. The city already has excellent infrastructure, but it is still largely a “greenfield.” This means that when we want to experiment, we often don’t have to retire legacy systems first. Our diversity and location also help, because the city is a magnet for brains and talent.
The organization I lead, for example, employs some world-class strategists and developers. And when you zoom out and see that Dubai’s neighborhood includes the most vibrant future growth markets, the potential payoff of being a high-tech city in that mix—with efficient governance, sensitive feedback loops and good living standards—is clear.
The lesson I take from this is that although history and geography are relevant, they need not constrain any city’s vision for the future. They just have to adapt in the way that is best suited to their circumstances.
Becoming the world’s “smartest and happiest city” sounds like a moral mission as much as a technology strategy. Is it?
City planners must always remember who their visions are supposed to benefit. Smart technologies aren’t self-justifying. An app, device or code that doesn’t improve the experience of residents, visitors or businesses is not worth it. In Dubai, our focus is on improving ordinary experience in practical ways. We believe that this will make people happier.
How do you answer critics who argue that smart technology’s risks to privacy, security and other values undermine any benefits?
Most people agree by now that smart technologies—including, especially, AI—must be regulated. The EU, OECD, World Economic Forum, Smart Dubai and others have all recently published guidelines to that end. These guidelines say their own things but share a common spirit.
Ethical integrity is a critical ingredient in the eventual success of smart city technology. Unless technologies like AI are transparent and fair, they will lose support and face obstruction. In the long term, a lack of integrity in the design and operation of smart technologies will be self-defeating.
Cities, as opposed to corporations or states, are arguably best placed to ensure that smart technologies are applied in ethically sound ways. Cities are closest to local values and issues. They often have just the right degree of legislative power to force necessary changes. And it is in cities that the development and adoption of smart technology typically occurs in the first place.
This is the thinking behind Smart Dubai’s own AI Ethics Guidelines, for example—and it explains why integrity has always been at the heart of our vision for the Emirate’s future.