Building Happiness in Dubai | Brunswick
Brunswick Review The Integrity Issue

Building Happiness in Dubai

Her Excellency Dr. Aisha Bint Butti Bin Bishr, Director General of Dubai’s Smart City initiative, tells Brunswick’s Sam Williams about plans to create the “happiest city on Earth.”

Smart Dubai is the organization charged with transforming Dubai into the “world’s smartest and happiest city.” Already a global commercial hub, Dubai has set itself the ambition of becoming an international high-tech pioneer—defined by its quality of life, intuitive infrastructure and digitally enabled city government.

Smart Dubai’s vision centers on a “Paperless Strategy” that seeks to digitize all government operations by the end of 2021. Championed by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, the Paperless Strategy aims to cut millions of dollars of government costs, save hundreds of thousands of trees each year, and make urban life more efficient for residents, businesses and visitors. Smart Dubai also helps support start-up innovation from cities around the world—a “smart cities” race in which it sees itself as a leader.

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Her Excellency Dr. Aisha Bint Butti Bin Bishr, Director General of Smart Dubai.

Her Excellency Dr. Aisha Bint Butti Bin Bishr is Director General of Smart Dubai. We spoke to her about Smart Dubai’s ambitions and how technology can promote happiness. Though she is excited about the opportunities, she is also mindful of the risks to privacy and the potential misuse of data; a crisis could hit public support and bring progress to a halt. It is one reason she sees ethical integrity as a critical element and an essential key to success.

Why invest in becoming a “smart city”?
For us, the main reason is simple. We want to provide more seamless, efficient, safe and personalized experiences to our residents and visitors. Bureaucratic inefficiency can exact a steep emotional cost. Those cities that use smart technology to shorten lines, clean the air and respond more sensitively to people’s needs offer a better quality of life.

Another reason is global competitiveness. Many cities around the world are using digital technologies to function better—whether by building chips into traffic lights, collecting data from benches, or levying taxes by text message.

A city with intuitive infrastructure and instant services is more attractive to businesses—and that helps cities survive market changes that might otherwise cause companies and workers to leave. In a competitive world, being smart pays off.

Dubai wants to become the world’s happiest and smartest city. This is a big ambition. But it is also a serious policy goal, shaping real action. Of course, Dubai isn’t yet a fully smart city—nowhere is—but we have made rapid progress and that distinguishes us from other places whose approach is slower or more cautious.

Can you describe some of your programs?
Most urgently, Smart Dubai wants to digitize all Dubai government operations by the end of 2021. This is our “Paperless Strategy.” We asked the question “How can we minimize inefficiency in public life?” and concluded that the most direct solution would be to upgrade the way Dubai’s government works—and thereby to improve how it interacts with people and businesses.

It is a transformational campaign. The Paperless Strategy uses smart technologies to simplify ordinary experiences such as getting a car, finding insurance, starting a business or moving home. By making both the front and back ends of government operations more intelligent, and by focusing attention on the most common (and traditionally the most tiresome) “customer journeys,” our aim is to make Dubai more pleasant. We will be eliminating over 1 billion pieces of paper currently used annually in Dubai government transactions, and will save over $10 million and 130,000 trees a year.

Our goals require careful long-term, large-scale planning. Among other things, Dubai is working with artificial intelligence, blockchain and advanced data analytics—distinct technologies with different origins and purposes. But we aren’t using them piecemeal. Our approach is to deploy these technologies in pursuit of common, interdependent goals, such as the Paperless Strategy. For example, data stored on blockchain might be processed using AI and harvested by a city-wide app, which in turn requires users to identify themselves with our secure digital identity system, UAEPass. Smart technologies form a jigsaw puzzle, with each part unlocking the others. This yields a smarter overall effect.

Dubai wants to become the world's smartest city. This is a big ambition. But it is also a serious policy goal shaping real action.

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.

Sam Williams is an Associate with Brunswick in Abu Dhabi.

Photograph: courtesy of Smart Dubai

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