“The Smart City Expert”
Telecom Review interview with Ghazi Atallah

By Nexgen
January 28, 2015

Smart City Expert

Formerly the MD of Cisco ME and VP of Emerging Markets Ghazi Atallah is now the MD of NXN group. Commonly known as ‘The Smart City Company’, the company consults the governments of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in building the strategy and master plans for realising their smart city ambitions. Telecom Review spoke to him about defining smart cities, why the public sector has taken the initiative and the role of telcos in the city of the future.

What core area does NXN focus its operations in?

Our core strength and niche is smart cities. We were early to the game when we began consulting eight years ago and at the time, because the industry wasn’t ready and the technology wasn’t as widespread, we termed it digital strategy instead of smart city strategy. But it’s in the same vein and we have consulted governments and telcos. We work with two types of customers: in the private sector, it’s telecom operators and real estate developers who are looking to erect mega projects. In the public sector, we work with the central government which is interested in implementing a master plan across a city.

How essential is determining the goals of the smart city to the process?

This is the first and most difficult task that faces us as consultants. Smart cities are the thing to be these days, so some of our customers come to us saying they want to be one without knowing in which way exactly they want to be ‘smart’. So it’s important for us to be clear with our customers in what a smart city is – where ICT is used to drive efficient use of resources, promote economic development or improve the quality of life and services delivered across a city at a macro level.

The general definition of smart cities doesn’t apply to everyone because each city has different priorities, capabilities and strategic economic objectives. Technology is merely a tool to support the objectives of a city, so we first have to agree on what the goals and objectives are. This drives the whole strategy and affects the master plan in terms of implementing projects, initiatives and technology. It all needs to tie in with the objectives of a particular smart city.

Is there a lot of revision of scope as smart city plans progress?

There are adjustments, but doing your job well in the beginning and if the objectives are clear then there shouldn’t be any major revisions – unless there is something dramatic that changes the city. So the adjustments are really just fine tuning the basic master plan.

How different is the Dubai smart city plan from other plans in the Middle East?

We spend a lot of time in smart cities around the world, engage in a lot of benchmarking and are part of a number of global organizations, such as the Continental American Builders Association and City Protocol Society, which define the framework and guidelines for smart cities. Keeping that in mind, I can confidently say Dubai’s plans afford it tremendous opportunity to become the leading smart city in the world. There is executive leadership commitment to the project, the objectives are clear and the stakeholders are lined up to deliver. These are mostly nontechnology aspects and have to be addressed right at the beginning, but it is surprising how often they are not. Dubai has done that.

Is the public sector as involved in leading the initiative in other cities of the world as it is in Dubai?

The government here in Dubai is a lot more aggressive and there are two reasons for it. First, the government wants to see results and move forward with its plans. Second, the private sector is not as proactive as it needs to be in identifying potential initiatives and pursuing them. So the government ends up having to drive the initiatives to a certain point before the private sector steps in even though there are opportunities for the private sector to step in much earlier in the process.

Why is the private sector not as aggressive as the government?

This is a tough question to answer. It probably has to do with the maturity of companies coupled with a reactive-proactive mentality prevalent in the region, such as: should we wait on a request for proposal to respond to versus creating the need and identifying potential avenues to move into. The private sector could be more aggressive and work in a public private partnership with the government. On the other hand, the government could also be more responsive to this approach. The government has, as usual, gone ahead by outlining what they want to do. So for the private sector there is a bit of time lag in terms of them building their expertise and capacity locally. It’s a balance which we need to achieve in the region.

How have telcos responded to the smart city plans?

The telcos are responding exactly like that. The potential of the smart city is now realizable but they still have to prepare, build expertise and capacity, decide how they want to engage with the initiatives and what to offer.

This is a bit of a different business for them with regard to customers and capability to engage with them. But this situation is common with everyone: vendors, technology providers, operators, etc. To be fair, they are quite serious about engaging and getting ready.

At the Telecom Review Summit, much of the discussion relating to telcos in the smart city was concerned with them becoming merely enablers. Can you elaborate on that?

The value chain of a smart city industry is much more complex than the typical telco offering. Whereas now they deal directly with the customer, in the smart city this whole chain is broken into pieces. The people interacting with the city are not necessarily touched by any of the players. They can use an application to understand traffic or use services to interact with the government, airlines, etc. These services can be provided by anyone who has accessed the data from government via the open data platform and built an application over it. So the value chain of a smart city is broken and the level of complexity is such that no one entity can deliver all of it. So the discussion during the forum focused on the point that any player in this industry must understand this value chain as well as their strengths and decide where best to play.

Where would telcos be a natural fit in the value chain?

Besides the infrastructure layer, the most natural possibility is in the enablement and layer. The enablement layer concerns location solutions, digital ID, securing data, etc. Those are things telcos are probably already delivering portions of and could develop capabilities to take on a bigger role in the smart city. The enablement layer is one of the most critical layers of the smart city.

Original Interview

Telecom Review Magazine