Leading Middle Eastern economies with a human-centric vision

Celine Chami
Jan 13, 2022

This article is available in Arabic.

The way the world is shaping up today is calling on entire countries to rethink their operational models and forcing them to reinvent their existing ecosystem. The world I am talking about is the same world we are currently experiencing. One where the driving role of technology has made people from different parts of life be more connected to goods, services, information and to each other. It has equally paved the way for new infrastructures of information exchange, people mobility, economic turnarounds, and transformative business operations. It is causing countries to redefine smarter spaces that are resulting in more connectivity, more security, and better services.

According to a study published by Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) in 2020, “one of the biggest challenges for the cities is related to the existing traditional buildings that consume more than 40% of the world’s energy and account for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings are the major users of water, materials, and land. Reducing the environmental impact of buildings is a priority in addressing climate change and other sustainability challenges.”

Building cities from the ground up

Whilst this challenge can be witnessed in countries that are looking to transform existing cities into smart cities, the Middle East stands out as it is addressing its urban planning from the ground up, which means that development starts at the infrastructure level and then gets transferred efficiently and effectively into buildings and facilities.

New cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been ranked as the smartest cities in the Middle East due to the investment in smart sustainable and digital infrastructure. The United Arab Emirates has plans to work on developing more sustainable cities in an environmentally friendly way, while preserving an economic and social balance. This can be explained within the sustainable business model of Masdar city in Abu Dhabi.

Kuwait has equally set in place an ambitious project in 2019, by building the South Saad Al-Abdullah city, and providing sustainable accommodations for at least 25,000 families.

In line with its 2030 vision, Qatar has launched a large-scale project to build Lusail City, with the aim of delivering advanced services and amenities to its citizens and visitors, built around green energy, mobility and infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia stands out as it is currently developing four significant sustainable, climate change friendly and smart cities: NEOM, Amaala, Qiddiya and the Red Sea Project. The largest one is NEOM, which according to recently unveiled plans will incorporate a zero-carbon hyper-connected city called “the Line.”

These projects, and many more, are turning the Middle East and in particular the traditional oil rich countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a hub of a clean energy development through CO2 emissions reductions, efficient recycling and an effective use of limited resources. This in return is positively promoting a better quality of life, better access to clean energy, and above all a resilient and sustainable economy that is creating a sensational wellness and happiness for people.

“The innovative technologies that are shaping our knowledge-based economy and the reinvention of the traditional sectors from agribusiness to banking, and transportation, has a huge impact on cities and reaching a net-zero emission by mid-century, cities will have to become leaders., says Maher Ezzeddine, Chief Executive Officer of ideanco and Chairman of Harvard Aerospace and Defense Alumni Organization at Harvard University.

“The youth are shaping our culture today for a better tomorrow, and the freedom, adventure, and prosperity they’re looking for are also putting a tremendous amount of pressure on cities to cater smart services, adds Ezzeddine.

Samer Chidiac, Regional Director & Chief Innovation Officer of the Middle East & Africa Microsoft Technology & Innovation Centers, states that “one of the main things that the world collectively learned from the past two years of dealing with COVID-19, is how little corporations and governments know about the new drivers of their ecosystems; our world has changed, and we can never look at it the way we used to ten and even five years ago. With new technologies and how businesses and individuals have adapted to and adopted the new normal is astonishing, and we are scratching the surface of the beginning.”

Chidiac adds that “When we say we need to build from the ground up in our new world, we have to encapsulate the new normal such as connectivity, consumer behaviour, fintech, and much more as basics and then how to grow from there. Topics like security and sustainability, will remain with us for the long run with new flavours every time, and as with new opportunities that will rise up, new challenges will as well, and we would have to introduce a new way of thinking to innovate our way into that.”

Better decision making and leadership

Smart cities have technology at the core of their very existence, for the purpose of ongoing enhancement of services benefiting the people. They operate through harnessing the power of connectivity, so that better services are provided in all fields such as healthcare, education, transportation and many more. Ezzeddine argues that smart cities can provide safety through improved efficiency in all their operation. They can become sustainable as a result of how new cities are engineered, and how existing cities are being reinvented. All this is made possible with the new climate change friendly ecosystem.

Dr Ray O. Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), states that “our world today is ever more connected. Advanced autonomous systems, cyber-physical systems, and smart cities of the near future all require the highest levels of protection. This situation demands complete system solutions that encompass platforms, operating systems, applications, and data integrity.”

For many decades till today’s date, cities have been the engine of any economy. The United Nations states that the share of people living in cities is expected to increase by up to 68% by 2050. The way cities are being planned and designed is constantly changing and has thus become a direct factor of technological advancements, social structures, and environmental changes. It equally influences to great lengths many interrelated sectors, such as infrastructure, ICT, education, healthcare, transport, public security, and real estate.

This interconnection of systems and the subsequent availability of information are allowing leaders, both in the public and private sectors, to make better decisions with regards the wellbeing of citizens and to the business operations respectively.

“In our modern age, there is a drastic shift in the concept of cities, as the human element is put at the centre of it all. Cities of the future are pushing the limits and boundaries of the imaginable, fuelled by a wealth of technology advancement and innovation”, says Ramy Lahoud, Head of Strategy at Accord Business Group. “This pushed the UN to put a framework, defining the main pillar of city development of the future, to serve a primary goal of sustainability. This comes at no surprise as a research from the World Bank estimates that 55% of the world population is concentrated in cities today and that trend is set to continue, while those cities contribute to 80% of the GDP”, he adds.

Urbanisation is here to stay and is set to exponentially grow, facilitated by capital injection in building better infrastructure and connectivity, and attracting more people to the urban ecosystem. With that massive wave comes challenges in maintaining quality of life; keeping primary resources available (water, power, air, etc.), providing a healthy environment for people to live in, and being able to manage all the waste that societies generate. The concept of circular economy has popped out in recent years in order to fuel resources while recycling waste to close the loop.”

As Lahoud explains, ten years ago, engineers took the challenge of simulating city behaviours to better understand the impact of changes on the infrastructure first. Then this evolved to simulate crisis and disasters such as river floods and earthquakes, up to these days where even the behaviour of people could be simulated. What happens when you combine data, analytics, advanced AI, advanced physical simulation, 3D modelling and engineering? In a very similar analogy to engineering and modelling cars, planes and other human inventions, engineers were able to deconstruct cities into mathematical models, that could be put into platforms and be visualised.

According to Lahoud, “companies like Siemens and Dassault Systemes have invested billions into these areas, and signed collaboration projects with advanced cities such as Paris, Singapore, Neom (Saudi Arabia), Dubai and many others across the globe to start testing those concepts. The output is very promising and is far from reaching saturation anytime soon. If you ask me, the future of cities developments has no limits, as long as we can still extract, analyse and leverage data as a main source of fuelling platforms, to simulate and better understand the behaviour of all city components and how they correlate with each other.”

Leadership skills required to succeed

According to Zuhair Almaghrabi, Chief Human Resources Officer at the National Housing Company, the investment arm of the Saudi Ministry of Housing: “We need to carefully plan how we build new cities, with the focus being on innovative solutions that serve the clients and beneficiaries of the residential sector. We must understand that technology is a great tool, but only if used to serve a bigger purpose, which is a better quality of life to citizens. With that in mind, it is crucial to instil a people-centric mindset in our leaders, where they approach every step of the project from that particular perspective. This is why our leadership development programme focuses on putting our leaders in real life scenarios, where they need to make decisions in times of uncertainty, constant change and global issues. Only then will they be able to adapt their thinking, work with diverse teams and apply transformational leadership. And that will ultimately lead to placing people at the core of every decision, for the benefit of the team, the client and the more global community.”

Lahoud adds: “Decision makers will be able to query systems on policies and projects, and taking into consideration all the inputs fed into the platform, they will be able to visualise the output and impact of multiple scenarios on their cities. The race is on and similarly to digital economies and advanced technologies such as AI, cities of the future will build resilience the more they parse data sources, understand how to build data models, and correlate different cities component together.”

As Chidiac puts it “We are living in the future we were anticipating ten and 15years ago, and I can assure you that we are as unprepared today as we were then because certainty is a volatile currency that no one can stabilise; however, what was and will continue to be important when looking at the future would be two things: foresight and taking actions. Foresight is the ability to see and analyse the different futures based on the current studies and trends; taking actions is what a company or government would do after they see that future. We have seen a lot of great examples that combine foresight and actions to create solid visions and action plans in our regions. The last essential point is about agility, as sometimes even the most successful company or government in the world can be crippled by its policies and processes at times of change.”

Celine Chami

Marketing and communications consultant

Celine is a brand expert and university lecturer with over 20 years of experience. As well as working and training hundreds of companies in the MEA region, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Resources.