Smart Dubai: The woman creating the city of the future

Written by
Karam Filfilan

05 Sep 2018

05 Sep 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

The concept of a smart city is no longer simply a matter of science fiction. Whether it’s the City Tree project in Hong Kong and Paris that sucks up air pollution equivalent to 275 normal trees, Amazon drones delivering packages in London, or Singapore’s sensors that detect traffic hotspots and manage congestion, technology and data is affecting how we plan and map out our cities.

Dubai is at the forefront of the smart-city initiative, with its ambitious five-year Smart Dubai 2021 strategy, using big data and technology to unlock an estimated AED 10.4bn of value to the economy. Smart Dubai has already launched 1,130 smart services across the city, including the Dubai Now platform, which consolidates 50 government services into a single digital marketplace.

Rather than wasting time queuing at government departments or making protracted phone calls, Dubai residents can pay their utility bills, top up their travel cards and make doctor appointments all via a single source.

The driving force behind the whole Smart Dubai concept is simple: increasing happiness among Dubai’s 9.5 million residents. Happy people mean happy workers, which can only be positive for the current and long-term productivity of the Middle East, as it prepares for the the future of work.

ASHRM spoke to the woman charged with delivering the strategy – director general of Smart Dubai, Dr Aisha Bin Bishr – about the future of work, the impact of technology on happiness, the growth of female leaders and opportunities open to them 

What does the future of work look like in Dubai?

I can see a huge potential around digital and data economies, particularly in blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI). We know that AI will be how we provide the services of the future and that blockchain will provide the future of transactions. In fact, we aim for Dubai to be the first city to transfer 100% of government transactions into blockchain – and we’ve started an AI lab to develop prototypes around how they can implement these services.

So, we need to support in pushing new skills into the market that can meet this demand. We recently graduated 200 new blockchain developers and 300 data champions around utilising data law. We’ve also announced the launch of a postgraduate degree in data science – it’s vital we push more skilled people into the market to support these new industries.

The aim of the Smart Dubai project is to make Dubai the happiest city in the world. How did you know where to start?

Smart Dubai has always said that technology and science has never been our objective, but they are key to our end goal – which is the happiness of our citizens, whether residents or visitors. We believe that, for people to be happy, authorities, whether public or private, must make their everyday tasks like paying bills or making appointments as easy as possible.

Dubai Now provides a single, centralised platform of 55 smart services from 24 government and private institutions with a single sign in and unified payment gateway. Our people don’t need to spend time visiting government or private service centres – they can do it all online. This allows them to spend more of the most precious thing on earth – time – with their loved ones.

Is this a public-private collaboration?

We have strategic partners in both sectors. Smart Dubai’s offering is centred around four pillars:

1) Efficient, optimised use of resources

2) Seamless, integrated services

3) The safety of our people and their data

4) Impactful experiences for all.

To achieve this, we need collaboration from everybody, including academics, experts and the public. To achieve this, we have to have an open, sharing culture. So, we created Dubai Pulse, a platform where we publish up-to-date metrics about the day-to-day life of the city, including stats on traffic, transport, economics and healthcare, among many others.

The idea is that Dubai Pulse becomes the heart of digital Dubai. It can act as an interactive databoard for the city, making information accessible to the public, business people and investors. Open data can facilitate greater collaboration between all our partners.

How do you measure the impact of these platforms on happiness?

In 2014, we launched a happiness metre which we implemented across all government transactional touchpoints in Dubai. So when our people interacted with a government department, we asked them whether their experience was a happy one or not. It’s a simple, straightforward question – they simply choose the image that best represents their experience.

It then became part of the private sector too. Today, if you go to a hotel, restaurant or cinema, you can say what your experience was like and you can vote for how happy it made you. This allows it to collect all this big data around how happy each part of our city makes our people. We know exactly how well each service is performing. As an overall statistic, 90% of our transactions made our people happy in 2016.

We’re aiming to get this 95% by 2021. We’re also opening up this data to businesses. So, we can create algorithms that predict what reaction people will have to different services or interactions. We can then build on this data and use these algorithms to make people happier in different sectors – so for instance, an HR manager in a company could run the algorithm into their workforce database and come to conclusions about how they could make their people happier through their communications and interactions.

How do you ensure that the public feed back into the process?

We’ve tried hard to ensure that people are able to comment and feed back into the system wherever they can. We launched the Mohammed Bin Rashid Smart Majlis in 2015, which allows us to crowdsource ideas, complaints and comments around the different services in the city 

As a senior female leader, you’re an inspiration to many. What advice do you have for the next generation?

From day one, women have been at the heart of all the decisions in the UAE. Today, almost 50% of our cabinet is female. Our parliament is led by a woman. We have women in every level of government and decision making. Let me be clear – we have no issues around empowerment of women. It has been something that has happened organically in our community and society.

I’ve seen it myself since day one. In every business I’ve worked with, I’ve been embraced and empowered by decision makers, whether it’s through training opportunities, leading strategic projects or access to resources. It has been my responsibility to take advantage of these opportunities. I am satisfied with where I’ve reached and the respect that I get from my peers.  

Is there an external perception that women don’t get opportunities in the Middle East?

Whenever I travel abroad, people talk about gender balance and equality and I feel that talk isn’t for me. Maybe for other companies, or other areas of the world, but not the UAE. We’ve never had this issue. Our belief has always been that whoever is capable of doing it is given the chance to do so. I’m always surprised when people abroad ask me how women are treated here – it’s the same as anywhere else in the world.

What is your advice to other leaders? Be open minded about new ideas and new things.

We’re in a fast-moving era, where things happen very quickly. We are in danger of becoming a part of history, when what we want is to be part of the future. We need to get people who want to work in a collaborative manner. Working in silos is the way of the past. With the data economy, only people who collaborate with others will succeed.