“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” These words of Mark Weiser, the influential godfather of ubiquitous computing, opened his remarkably prescient work The Computer for the 21st Century in 1991. Some 29 years after its publication, and 20 years after his death, Weiser’s vision might be approaching its most audacious realization, in the United Arab Emirates.
A Global Spectacular
Expo 2020 Dubai will be the first World Expo to take place in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA), and aims to celebrate human brilliance and achievement under the theme of “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” From the glitzy “One Year to Go” launch extravaganza with Mariah Carey and Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi, to the logistical marvels being performed on the Expo site, the production values of Expo 2020 are high-end.
In between the grand opening of Expo 2020 on October 20th this year, and the closing ceremony 173 days later, over 60 events will take place every day showcasing the best of music, technology, creativity and culture. The Expo 2020 marketing material promises “something for everybody,” which is no small feat given that 25 million visits are expected over the event’s six-month lifespan. 70% of Expo visitors are predicted to come from outside the UAE; this will be the largest proportion of international visitors in the 168-year history of World Expos. Najeeb Mohammed Al-Ali, executive director Expo 2020 Dubai bureau, commented that “everybody will want to be there for an unmissable landmark in our history.”
The scale of ambition on display is breathtaking. A staggering 192 countries will take part in Expo 2020, and every country will have its own pavilion for the first time in the 168-year history of World Expos, each with a unique design, theme and visitor experience. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Pavilion will open up from the ground like a “large window into the nation’s bright future,” and will showcase the Kingdom’s rich heritage and openness to businesses and tourists. The UK Pavilionis inspired by a project from the late scientist Stephen Hawking, and will feature a continuously changing poem on the exterior, generated by AI (artificial intelligence) and visitors’ contributions. The Brazil Pavilion will aim to recreate the Amazon basin, evoking the sights, sounds and scents of the country’s riverside areas, but resembling a luminous floating cube at night.
A Lasting Legacy
Like the groundbreaking Crystal Palace structure of the first World Expo, held in London in 1851, the 2020 event is planning to leave a lasting physical legacy, albeit significantly larger than its predecessors. The 4.38 square km Expo 2020 site, which sits adjacent to Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai South, is twice the size of Monaco. 80% of the Expo-built structures will live on in the future city of District 2020, which will comprise 65,000 square meters of residential space and 135,000 square meters of commercial space in a location that will be home to “world-class innovation, educational, cultural and entertainment facilities.” Remarkably, the construction have been completed in just half a decade.
Two of the Expo’s official premier partners, Accenture and Siemens, will be establishing a permanent presence in District 2020. Siemens will establish its global headquarters for airports, cargo and ports logistics at the site, while Accenture will open a digital hub. The impressive structures the Expo 2020 will be repurposed, for example, the Sustainability Pavilion will become a “children and science centre” while many other major structures, including the Al Wasl Plaza and the Mobility Pavilion, will remain as permanent fixtures.
The Smart City Imperative
For smart city professionals and technology aficionados, the star attraction of Expo 2020 may be as ubiquitous and invisible as Mark Weiser could have wished for, the Expo 2020 “city” itself. The city will be made up of the hundreds of Expo buildings and country pavilions, and central structures such as the Al Wasl Plaza which, at 130 metres in diameter, is almost wide enough to fit two Airbus A380s across its centre, wing to wing. Mohammed Alhashmi, CTO at Expo 2020 Dubai, elaborates, “As the largest event ever held in the Arab region, Expo 2020 Dubai will be one of the most connected places in the world, with a site-wide 5G network. About 20 times faster than 4G and with ultra-low latency, 5G technology will enable users to stream live 4K resolution any time, with virtually no lag.”
This deployment of the latest in technology is driven by a desire to show how it can improve the lives of the billions of people who will be living in cities in the near future. Cedrik Neike, a member of the managing board of Siemens AG and CEO smart infrastructure, sets the scene for transformation in all industries powered by the five megatrends of demographic change, urbanization, globalization, climate change and digitization. “New York was the blueprint of a global city, but it uses 5 billion liters of water per day. The average New Yorker uses 20 times more resources than somebody in Jakarta. Our cities need to be more sustainable by design.”
According to Expo 2020, cities currently consume two-thirds of the world’s resources, and countries will spend upwards of $40 trillion over the next two decades to reduce resource consumption by arming themselves with technology. With two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050, the clock is ticking to balance this growing demand for resources with our global capacity.
Dr. Jonathan Reichental, professor, author, and CEO of Human Future, is one of the world’s leading speakers and educators on urban innovation and the Internet of Things (IoT). He echoes Neike’s sense of urgency around the need for smart cities to deliver a more sustainable future for humanity. “If we’re going to greatly expand and sustain opportunities for a better quality of life for more people in our increasingly urban future, it’s incumbent upon us to do many things differently. Specifically, it’s becoming clear from progressive cities around the world that making technology innovation core to the civic toolkit can enable improved services and help to solve long-term challenges. Using technology and data to make our cities function smarter is no longer an option; it’s an imperative.”
A Blueprint For The Future
Acting as a blueprint for the sustainable smart city of the future, Siemens is supplying Expo 2020 with MindSphere. This “smart city OS” is a bi-directional industrial operating system for automation and IoT integration that controls services linked to the physical infrastructure on the Expo 2020 site. Afzal Mohammed, the enthusiastic Head of MindSphere for Expo 2020 Dubai, explains how MindSphere gathers diverse data sources to make a data lake which can be transformative. “This centralized asset will empower domain-specific experts to make granular data-driven city design and maintenance decisions, but in the context of a strategically joined-up overview. Once deployed, machine learning (ML) within MindSphere can be utilized to continually improve the city experience.”
Mohammed frames the imperative for smart city technology against the rapidly evolving needs of a growing global population with finite resources. “MindSphere leverages building information modeling (BIM) to generate ‘digital twins’ of buildings to intelligently match resources with precise moments of utilization. In an unconnected city up to 60% of irrigation water gets lost, but connected cities can save up to 80 litres of water per person per day. In a city of 5 million people, smart connectivity could save up to 300 lives per year.”
As with the impressive physical legacy of Expo 2020, the data gathered by the event could be aggregated and used as a lasting digital legacy to lead the way in future smart city development across the world. The smart city is, truly, an idea whose time has come, and Expo 2020 Dubai could provide the most compelling blueprint yet.
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