t was a fitting scene, on a fitting day, at a fitting place to sit down for an exclusive interview with Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr and her colleague Zeina El Kaissi, respectively the Director General and the head of emerging technology for Smart Dubai. We sat down for a conversation at the World Bank Group on International Women’s Day. Dubai, the modern archetype of an advanced city-state has dispatched a worthy emissary in Dr. Aisha to tell a gathering at the World Bank about her experiences in leading Dubai’s now 15-year-old digital transformation journey. Following this diverse audience at the World Bank, their next stop is SXSW in Austin, to share the outcomes of building the happiest place on earth and how an array of emerging technologies and citizen-centric applications play a part in building Smart Dubai.
Since the year 2000, more people have lived in cities than in rural environments. With the rise of homo urbanus in so many ways the world’s cities and city-states, like Dubai, have become the proving grounds for how our governance models, technologies and the economic updraft that has failed so many, adapts. Driving Smart Dubai’s vision is the right combination of political leadership and a whole-of-government strategy, which breaks down siloes and pet technology projects, while putting the citizen first. On the face of this citizen, Dubai wants one thing – a smile, a vision enshrined in H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s commitment to making Dubai the happiest city on earth. This vision is captured by a veritable happiness meter available as a smart phone application recording citizen sentiment in real time and in a transparent dashboard. The measure of success for Smart Dubai and the billions spent on digital transformation is a rather tenuous metric of improving citizen happiness. There is a powerful if counter-intuitive subjectivity in this goal. One which other countries, cities and, indeed, businesses could borrow from for its simplicity and for its power of shifting outcomes and measures of satisfaction back to the granular, non-institutional level.
Dr. Aisha reminds the world’s public servants and political leaders that they too are beneficiaries of citizen services. The lack of trust, inefficiency and friction that plagues most of the world’s citizen services is not only costly, averaging 26% of GDP globally, it its leaving billions of people behind and trillions in economic opportunity stranded on the sidelines in spirit-eroding bureaucracy. Not to mention the ever-present risks of corruption, bribery and fraud thrive under the cover of darkness and the one-sided information systems, which are the standard operating procedure in most governments around the world. In no small measure, this popular frustration is showing up in some deleterious ways and few countries or cities are being spared from the consequences. Against this backdrop, putting a smile on people’s faces and simplifying the provision of key services from the government to the people and removing friction at each of these touch points, is not only enlightened it is self-preserving.
Where most digital transformation efforts are trying to capture a hard return on investment or efficiency gains using quantitative measures of success, the subjectivity of happiness as the quotient of success or failure has helped democratize Smart Dubai’s journey and the choices the government makes on where to move next and how. For example, when the otherwise penurious process of paying a traffic fine also enables citizens to direct how the money from their infraction is directed via their smart phones, it not only increases the likelihood of compliance, it increases the satisfaction and their empowerment. The technology interface for this impressive omni-channel, whole-of-government platform underpinning Smart Dubai resides on citizens’ smart phones using an application called DubaiNow, which unifies 55 key services from 22 government agencies. Notably, Dubai has a mobile teledensity of 2:1 (the highest in the world). With this degree of connectivity in the hands of the public, catering to a citizenry accustomed to immediate gratification, the city government had no choice but to match service levels typical of private sector actors, rather than their slow-moving and analog public sector peers around the world. Indeed, Dr. Aisha noted with dismay that when they first embarked on this journey – for digital transformation is a journey not a destination – global benchmarks for public sector technology success were few and far between. Seeing no mold and no peers, Smart Dubai created one.
Making this type of broad population-level change devoid of cutting-edge technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and industrial automation (among many other terms of art sufficient to fill a jargon jar to the brim) would be impossible. Yet, Dr. Aisha demonstrates a refreshing technology agnosticism typical of transformative leaders who understand that to drive real-world change (and to put smiles on people’s faces) is measured in tangible outcomes and not in code. For this, she asserts that Dubai’s strategy for employing pioneering technologies is to have them fade to the deep background, which means that the likelihood of failure would increase if they opted for one standard over another following whichever tech wave is en vogue at the moment. In the end, like most successful digital transformation strategies especially those in an enterprise as complex as an entire government providing citizen services from the mundane to the lifesaving, technology is much less important than those scarcer ingredients, such as leadership, clarity of purpose and multidisciplinary talent, which Zeina El Kaissi noted are physically arrayed in “squads” at Smart Dubai’s offices. A healthy dose of capital and a long investment horizon of course are prerequisites.
These are all ingredients Dubai has in abundance, along with a sobering sense that the wealth the city-state is endowed with is a finite resource and that activating a long-range vision for change, much as Dubai did with its strategy to become a global transportation hub, requires equal doses of technology, talent and pragmatism. Indeed, each government agency in Dubai has been called upon to outline a 10x strategy, which spells out a 10 year operating horizon and ambition not typical of government agencies, let alone the political class, who all too often operate in the myopic domain of electoral cycles and in the hollow investment promises they produce. In a region embroiled by perennial geopolitical and socioeconomic turmoil, Dubai aims to not only be a shining star, it aims to be a global benchmark. For this, Smart Dubai is an apt title and Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr is an able emissary.